Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century

By Laura Schapiro. Berkeley: University of California Press, rpt. October 2008 (originally published 1986). Paper: ISBN 978-0-520-25738-2, $16.95. 296 pages.

Review by Michelle Moravec, Rosemont College, Pennsylvania

Add one part food history to another part women’s history. Stir in a dash of feminism. The result is an intriguing concoction that uses middle-class women’s attitudes towards food as an entree (pun intended) into their changing status at the turn of the century. Journalist Laura Schapiro, the author of two previous works about women and cooking, brings a deft hand to what could easily have become a trivial subject in Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century.

While Schapiro’s focus on “scientific cookery” may seem insufficiently broad, she uses culinary oddities such as “marshmallows stuffed with raisins” as a jumping-off point to explore how middle-class women’s shifting status at the turn of the century led to both class and gender anxieties. This angst made a certain population of women particularly receptive to this new approach to housekeeping, although it ultimately proved to their detriment. As women’s historians have illustrated, domestic science may have been the thin edge of the wedge that got scientific studies into female curricula, but not without exacting a huge toll. Ultimately, cloaking science in the respectable mantle of domesticity served only to reinforce, rather than repudiate, a gendered division of labor and study.

As with cooking a fine meal, timing is everything, and women’s transformation of housewifery into domestic science unfortunately coincided with the risk of consumer food production in the United States. While these pre-packaged foods initially seemed to promise libration for women, Schapiro argues that they contributed to the degradation of women’s productive creative labor as cooks and reduced them to mere assemblers of prepared products. Furthermore, through the near dictatorial influence of the Boston Cooking School, the efforts to increase the scientific nature of cookery reflected a darker backlash by native-born women to the changing demographics of the United States. Literally, you were, or could be, what you ate. The bland blanket of “white sauce,” the virtues of which domestic scientists extolled, and for which Schapiro provides a brilliant genealogy, could coat even the most recalcitrant of foods. By implication, it blanched immigrants, labor radicals, and any other unruly force that threatened middle-class stability during those tumultuous days.

In eight chapters, Schapiro charts the rise and eventual demise of the promise of domestic cookery. Domestic science was a well-documented subject even two decades ago when Schapiro first penned Perfection Salad, and she draws on this literature extensively. The first chapter explores the “domestic drudgery” that dominated women’s lives in the United States until the Civil War. The second chapter focuses on the wealth of prescriptive women’s literature that emerged due to cheap printing processes in the post-bellum period. Chapter three analyzes the various institutions of the scientific cookery movement, most notably the famed Boston Cooking School. Chapter four traces the proliferation the ideals of scientific cookery through various cookbooks, magazines, and newspaper columns. The brief fifth chapter provides a biography of the highly influential Fannie Farmer, who brought a sophisticated zest to the highly scientific standards of the Boston Cooking School, and to women across America who attempted her elaborate recipes at home. Chapter six traces the efforts of domestic scientists to bring their ideas about cooking and nutrition into social reform movements. By chapter seven, some of the pioneers of the scientific cookery movement begin to express doubts about the wisdom of their strategies. These doubts are confirmed in the final chapter, which documents the conservative impact that the scientific cooking movement ultimately had for women once it was co-opted by food manufacturers. A brief conclusion discusses modern food mania, which is largely dominated by male chefs, with the exception of Julia Child, about whom the author has previously written. First published in 1986, then reprinted for famed Gourmet food editor Ruth Reichel’s Food series (1991), this current edition comes complete with a new afterword by the author. In a brief seven pages, Schapiro considers gender roles in the new millennium, the local food craze, as well as the fate of the ideals of domestic science in the 21st century.

Although Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century is now over twenty years old, it was extraordinarily well received at its initial publication and it has held up remarkably well. Despite further investigations into the fields of gender and food history, Schapiro’s work remains an intriguing and highly readable analysis and is still an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the field. As with all books that focus on the prescriptive, the reader is left wondering what actual women thought of these transformations. While their responses may be imputed or inferred, Schapiro makes little use of diaries or letters that might have revealed more nuanced aspects of women’s responses, but this quibble is minor compared to the wealth of detail Schapiro does offer.

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