American cuisine before Julia Child, part II

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.


Drinks and hors d'oeurve, anyone? pp. 116-17

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.

pcbsfcookoutThe 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.

pcbherbsContrary 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.”

pcbburgersThe 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!)

pcbkitchenThere’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.)


Let's set the world on fire!

0 thoughts on “American cuisine before Julia Child, part II

  1. What a find that is! I like the outfits too, and that gingham dress is to die for. J Peterman has knockoffs of it, and I’ve been sorely tempted! Just the other day, I was thinking how much fun it was to set food on fire — and how good the flavor flambeing imparts. Thought that last spread is a little scary.


  2. Susan, you’d look great in that dress! Buy it.

    Flaming food, or even food served with flames underneath, just hasn’t been where it’s at for a long time. This book is full of flaming recipes, from flaming shish to ignited steaks and crepes flambe. But, no one serves fondue any more, unless they’re being self-consciously ironic. Fondue is still big in Colorado ski towns, though–in restaurants that look like Swiss Chalets and try to capitalize on the Alpine-Rocky Mountains connections.


  3. Between Harry Truman’s jibe about staying out of the kitchen (a metaphor for the Oval Office in his usage) to the Nixon-Kruschev “Kitchen Debate,” whose fiftieth anniversary last month got a lot of play, a lot of politicks was clearly stirring on that front in the culturally dead 1950s. William Safire, a young gofer then, wrote about the debate in the Times this week, but my copy just left with the recycling truck. Safire says he played a role in steering what was programmed to be just a photo-op swing-through of the exhibit to the cutting room floor, where Nixon claimed to have done the slicing and dicing. The Debate was more about appliances, though, than about layouts or food prep surfaces, much less the software of the food itself. Also a lot was going on in that era about what you stocked in your backyard bomb/fallout shelter. Twenty years later the Cold War had moved on, floor plan-wise, and American women were being chided by bureaucrats for not knowing what “throw weights” were.

    On a local note, the picture Safire ran with his columnm showed a junior Soviet aide crowding into the scene.
    Years later that guy became Leonid Brezhnev. Did he know that an American university in Transaltoonia would someday be (if only metaphorically) named after him?


  4. I’m always amazed just how much “entertaining” was apparently part of 50’s life — or at least, part of the idealized life you saw on TV or in cookbooks! 🙂 That was when you were really trying to show off your cooking skills, I suppose, when the neighbors were visiting… family probably got the less fancy food.


  5. A cabbage skewered with meatballs and set aflame??!! I might have nightmares about that.

    My personal fave amongst the clothing is the crisp white shirt with lantern sleeves, worn by the San Francisco hostess. She also likes Chinese food and has an amazing house — more my style than the chili cheese burgers. Guess I’ve always been more of an SF kinda gal.


  6. Erica — haven’t there been sociological studies that say that’s true, that Americans used to have friends over for dinner more rather than eating out?

    This “picture cook book” reminds me of a very similar one my mom had (has?) with something about “Hostessing” in the title. She also has one with a photo of an early 60s housewife with eight Ganesha-style arms holding up a halo of delicious dishes from pot roast to cake.

    I don’t know if this came up in the previous thread — I have my grandmother’s 1931 Rombauer and it is just so comprehensive. It tells you everything from how to boil rice to how to make the perfect mint julep.


  7. Oh, I’m with Squadrato on the house. But the other thing I want to do is test all those cocktails!
    When we moved, we left the fondue pot (itself abandoned by a friend leaving town) with Goodwill. I have a soft spot for fondue, though, because on the night that Nixon resigned a friend and I made chocolate fondue for dessert… So it’s forever connected to that great moment.


  8. Okay, I just read the other thread — conversation seems to have moved over here though — but one thing I have noticed using Joy of Cooking recipes is all food seems to be *bigger* nowadays than what her recipe indications would suggest. If you make the vichyssoise (you know what I mean, even if you are laughing at my spelling of it), the number of potatoes and leeks called for fills a normal soup pot to the *rim*. Does anyone know anything about this? Aside from portion size or whatever, is the average size of food items themselves getting Brobdingnagian?


  9. What a way to celebrate, Susan! Toast the departure of one dip with the enjoyment of another. It sounds very much like a scene out of 1974! (Hey, it’s almost the 35th anniversary, next Sunday, apparently.)

    Squadrato–yes, the lantern sleeves blouse is pretty dramatic. I think she made the right choice in serving less saucy foods than the chili sauce depicted with the burgers. (And can you imagine what her townhouse would sell for today?)

    Erica and Kathleen: I don’t think people have friends over for dinner for anything other than potlucks or backyard cookouts (fine sorts of entertainment though they are.) Everything is just so much more informal now–the Age of Aquarius lives on in that respect, I guess. I had an old-fashioned sit-down dinner party last winter for 12 or 14 people, and I think they were really touched that I pulled out all of the stops, with china and wine, etc. Another friend of mine observed that when he and his wife invited friends over for dinner, they stayed practically all night long–as though they were so happy to have an invitation out for one night that they didn’t want it to end! Kind of exhausting for the hosts, though.

    Indyanna: a friend of mine has a bomb shelter in her yard in Fort Collins. No kidding! And pretty creepy, too, because fortunately it has remained unused…


  10. Susan: I wish the cocktails photo had turned out better. They’re really fetching in the display like that when you can see the colors more clearly. But, I think I could skip of a lot of the drinks: they’re rather heavy on the creme de menthe and brandy–you can see that some of the drinks are green!

    Creme de menthe: why?


  11. @Kathleen — I haven’t seen any, but it sounds very true. Even gatherings with friends tend to go to restaurants rather than dining in, and a “special” or “celebration” meal at our house also ends up being a lets-go-out night. (Like Historiann mentioned, the few times I’ve been to dinner parties, they tend to go on and on. It’s so enjoyable to have good food with good friends!)

    I see no reason to have creme de menthe on hand except for making grasshopper pie. Mmmmm!


  12. Erica & Historiann — what you both had to say about real dinner parties going on and on, it’s so funny, my husband and I have observed the same thing! I have to admit “our” dinner parties are always 100% predicated on his cooking (I cook too, but specialize in starch+meat+veg combined in one dish — be it soup, casserole, or salad — which will keep you alive but is unlikely to impress visitors), but anyway, the time that we estimate guests will stay is consistently off by at least 2 hours. It’s actually great but makes for very late night washing-up (I can’t bear facing a kitchen full of dishes when I wake up in the morning).


  13. As it happens, I have a dinner invitation out in the exurbs tonight, so think I’ll set forth and do a little fieldwork on some of these hypotheses and theoreticks. Especially maybe the stay-out-late part and the cookbook part, but probably not the creme-de-menthe part.

    Fondue. What a flashback!


  14. Indyanna: good choice on the creme de menthe. I mean, really: why? Even grasshopper pie isn’t THAT good!

    Kathleen: I’m with you on mixing up all of the foods together. It’s just too exhausting to cook more than 2 separate dishes in one meal, IMHO, especially if you’re cooking for a crowd but then, I’m the weekday cook around my kitchen. (Someone else swans in occasionally to do a “star turn” of a signature dish, but I’m the everyday scullery maid.)


  15. Pingback: American cuisine before Julia Child, part I : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  16. How funny. I will do dinner parties for 6-8, and it’s very nice, but I’m always exhausted afterwards… And driving does sort of cut down on the amount of drinking you can do. But last Christmas I had a “drinks” party, and everyone stayed until 9 PM, even though there were no main dishes at all!

    The only creme de menthe I can imagine drinking again is white creme de menthe (if it exists any more): on the rocks, it tastes like drinking an alcoholic mint chip ice cream. Seriously.


  17. Historiann — it’s good to know I am not alone in my one-dish philosophy! At my house, we alternate week by week, and my weeks serve to set off the splendor of my husband’s cooking, is how I like to think about it 🙂 But self-deprecating jokes aside, I think there is a bit of feminist lesson about housework in there: often the excuse is, oh, but my wife is just better at [cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.] so it makes sense for her to do all of it, all the time. But, while in our case the gender dynamics are reversed, the logic remains the same: no matter how good you are at something which requires daily work it’s (a) nice to have a break from it and (b) nice to have your talents appreciated as talents, and not taken for granted as the status quo.


  18. I am a child of the ’50s-’60s, and those pictures remind me of the entertaining my parents did. While dinner parties most usually involved family (my father had 7 sibs), cocktail parties with friends were quite the rage. My father had the Time-Life cooking series. He and my mother devoted quite a bit of time to preparing h’or d’oeuvres, both the cooking and the presentation. And everyone dressed up. I can’t remember the last time I really dressed up to go out.

    Something one doesn’t see as much of today is the full and complete liquor cabinet. People I know might have wine in the house and beer, and maybe gin or vodka in the freezer. In my childhood, everyone had multiple bottles of spirits and mixers. My parents kept their favorites on hand, but also the particular brand of scotch my uncle drank and the exact bourbon favored by a number of my aunts. By the way, creme de menthe was used to make a popular after dinner drink called a stinger. It combined creme de menthe with brandy.


  19. caseyOR, and anyone else interested in 1950s mixology and cocktail tastes: the Stinger is the first drink listed in the Picture Cook Book list of drinks! Here’s their recipe:
    STINGER (p. 137)

    5 parts brandy
    1 part white creme de menthe

    Shake vigorously with ice cubes. Strain into chilled glass.

    That just sounds nasty to me, even if it is the white creme de menthe. Like a recipe to cure dyspepsia in drunks or something. (I was offered Spirits of Peppermint as a child to settle an upset stomach.)

    Even weirder are the recipes for the “Brandy Float” (“Pour about 3/4 of a glass of creme de menthe. Add a little brandy, which will float on top.”) Good lord! Or, check out the “Green Dragon,” which is “1 part chartreuse, 1 part cognac, Mix the ingredients and pour over ice.” Bleh. Maybe that was what they served for drinks at that rooftop Chinese brunch in San Francisco?


  20. Back from my dinner party, not too early, not too late, to report. It was a casual but fairly elegant patio thing. We made and drank Pina Coladas, which–notwithstanding the goofy song of the same title–were pretty refreshing. We had fancy chicken cutlets grilled outside, pesto salad, another salad, corn on the cob, some fruit somethings, coffee, and desert–some fancy cookies I b(r)ought. Not a cookbook in sight, so it was a pretty intuitive enterprise. I got the kiddie-table level jobs: open some cans, husk corn, set the table, stay out of the way. I reported on the thread-chat. Julie and Julia was pretty much on everyone’s lips.

    The cat got mad when ze heard me opening the cans, and it turned out not to be gourmet cat casserole! Sue me.


  21. Shame on you young folks for making fun of fondue! I still have two pots which I used about 2 years ago. Fondue is such an easy, relaxing way to entertain. I usually do a meat and cheese or meat and dessert fondue. In fact, i think I will get a party together very soon.
    On the matter of creme de menthe, I have a recipe for Creme de Menthe Fudge. I used to make it at Christmas time. the Creme filling was layered between the fudge layers and was really yummy.


  22. Fondue isn’t dead; there’s a whole chain of restaurants across the country called Melting Pot. I cannot report on the experience, however, as the one closest to us has had some issues with food safety. We did fondue when I was a kid; it’s actually lots of fun. Though I don’t think I’d want to go near one of those new-fangled chocolate fountain things.


  23. I own a fondue pot, but use it slightly less than once a year. Oddly, it feels like too much work, which is logically silly when comparing to the prep, cooking, and clean up for a regular meal. It is fun and yummy, though!

    @ Historiann — the cocktail recipe reminds me very much of college days, particularly one summer internship when I worked at a company with four other students, all of whom were frat boys, and all of whom spent their evenings getting creatively plastered. (If they had put as much effort into working every day as they did into finding fun new combinations of booze every night, we probably could have solved global warming.) Most cocktails are not invented for their delicious, subtle flavor… they’re pretty much just exercises in visual splendour and maximum alcohol content!


  24. Indyanna — sounds like a fun party, and thanks for the evocative cat story! It reminded me of my late lamented cat who clearly considered any use of the can opener except on tuna cans an outrage.


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