Yesterday’s post on the overly simplistic “Before Julia/After Julia” narrative of American culinary history really resonated with a lot of you readers. In addition to the class bias of this narrative that I wrote about, many of you pointed out and provided anecdotes about the regional and urban bias of Julia Child’s acolytes, noting that for those of you who grew up in farm country or in the midwest, fresh local food was what food was, and many of you mentioned The Joy of Cooking (1931, and various later editions) by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker as more formative than Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). As promised, today I’ll share with you the jewel of my cookbook collection, which was given to me by my mother-in-law after she noticed that upon each visit to her house in the 1990s, I’d pull this book off of her cookbook shelf and pour over it. (It was probably given to her when she was a young bride, not too many years after it was published.) I don’t really cook out of this book so much as enjoy it as a document of the idealized middle-class life in the 1950s, one that revolved around entertaining with food and drinks chosen thoughtfully and prepared with care.
Picture Cook Book (New York: Time Incorporated, 1958) looks dramatically different from the other cookbooks in my collection: it is a crown folio-sized volume that makes good on its simple title–all of the recipes inside were photographed in various displays, and in addition to photographs of the food, there are lavishly photographed sections devoted to entertaining, Europe’s great restaurants, American inns, “Big City” restaurants, kitchen design ideas, and children’s food (food that children can make, as well as food for lunch boxes.) You can buy a copy here–at an amazingly low price. In the course of doing a little research for this post, I discovered that Jessamyn Neuhaus, in “The Way to a Man’s Heart: Gender Roles, Domestic Ideology, and Cookbooks in the 1950s,” Journal of Social History 32:3 (1999), 529-548, noted a very early section in Picture Cook Book called “Man’s Job: Steak,” which discusses the supposedly primal connection between masculinity and grilling meats. However, the rest of the book isn’t directed specifically at women so much as at the reasonably adventurous home cook and entertainer.
The book begins with the announcement that “[t]his is a new kind of cookbook. It pays attention to the look of food, as well as to the preparation of it. The color, texture and shape of food have always attracted great artists–in the past, simple things like potatoes, watermelons, carrots and apples inspired great canvases by Van Gogh, Tamayo, Chardin, and Cézanne. Now, in this book, the subject of food is treated by some of the greatest photographers of this day,” 1. Although published in 1958, the photographs and recipes were collected over the course of the previous seven years, beginning in 1951, so the book truly is a time capsule of the 1950s. It continues, in words that could have been written by Julia Child, James Beard, or Martha Stewart: “No cook should underestimate the appearance of food. The sight of an imaginatively arranged tray of hors d’oeuvre, a juicy steak, charcoal broiled, or a steaming casserole of chicken does a lot to nudge the appetite.” (It is a book published by Time, after all!) The gathering at left is described as an “[o]utdoor Chinese brunch party. . . on a San Francisco terrace,” jackets and ties required, apparently, pp. 104-05.
Contrary to the “Before Julia/After Julia” stereotype, this book emphasizes the preparation of fresh foods. Prepared foods and ingredients appear occasionally–a seasoning called Accent, for example, which some of you may remember, and some of the desserts rely on something called “frozen dessert mix” and gelatin mixes. But, there is a whole section devoted to cooking with herbs (at right, pp. 172-73) , as well as a chapter on cooking with wine and pairing foods with wine. The section on American foods is rooted in a regional approach, emphasizing local and seasonal foods. In the section on American Inns, one of the highlights is a description of The Milk Pail in Dundee, Illinois, which is described as a “forest-to-table operation that provides patrons in the proper season with pheasant, mallard duck, trout.”
The clothing worn by the people at the photographed parties is really fun to see–as at the “outdoor Chinese brunch party” shown above, people are dressed to the nines in this backyard cookout shown at left. (I actually love that gingham dress with the pearls–doesn’t it look like something Grace Kelly probably wore?) They’re eating a “cheese and chili burger combination. . . which is simply the traditional hamburger patty made with red wine and dressed with chili and/or cheese sauce (kept hot in the casseroles over candle flame),” p. 86. The fetish for things served in chafing dishes and even food itself set alight is one of those 1950s artifacts–check out the spread on flaming foods, below, from pp. 80-81. You can’t quite see it because of the crease, but one of the flaming things is a giant cabbage that’s covered with skewered meatballs. (The cabbage isn’t to be eaten, but rather just serves as a vessel that one can be used to serve the meatballs and set alight!)
There’s a whole section in Picture Cook Book on modern kitchen designs, most of which are either midcentury modern or retro-“colonial.” Here’s my favorite contemporary design, with the caption (pp. 210-11):
Almost all U.S. kitchens are designed by men. That housewives are not entirely happy with man’s conception of woman’s domain was made clear at a U.S. housing administration forum at which women explained what they think ails modern houses. Having considered their complaints, one of the country’s few successful women architects, Margaret King Hunter of Hanover, N.H., planned an interior to suit her own needs. Her design so impressed General Electric Comany executives that they built it. Mrs. Hunter’s kitchen does away with walls and is stationed in the middle of the living space. Motor-driven shades lower to enclose the kitchen or screen any side. A ventilating fan is in plastic skylight over kitchen. Here Mrs. Hunter stands in the hub of her house while son Christopher and friends have supper. Dining area is in foreground, living room at right.
This looks like a pioneer ancestor of the “open concept” that most new homes are built around, with the kitchen/hearth at the center of the shared living space. Oh, and Mrs. Hunter’s living room curtains, just barely visible, are patterned with the atomic sign! Super cool. (Where can I get some of those curtains–they look like they’re made of asbestos. That was probably a good thing, when you take a look at the spread of appetizers below.)