Sample text for Something from the oven : reinventing dinner in 1950's America / Laura Shapiro.


Bibliographic record and links to related information available from the Library of Congress catalog


Copyrighted sample text provided by the publisher and used with permission. May be incomplete or contain other coding.


Counter
Introduction:
Do Women Like to Cook?

For many years I have been thinking about the conjunction between women and cooking, an association so deeply rooted that over the centuries it has turned cooking into something tantamount to a sex-linked characteristic, less definitive than pregnancy but often just as cumbersome to deflect. Biology and anthropology tell us pretty much what we need to know about how this relationship came about: Women have the babies, women feed the babies, women feed everyone else while they’re at it; hence, women cook. Men cook, too, of course, especially now; but, traditionally, they went to the stove as a job or a profession, to show off for an admiring crowd, or simply for the pleasure of it. Women cook because they’re expected to and because the people around them have to eat; happy is she who also enjoys the work. What interests me most about women and cooking isn’t so much why they have been entwined all these years, but how that intimacy has affected both parties: the cooks and the food.

In an earlier book, Perfection Salad, I looked at what happened when science showed up in the late-nineteenth-century American kitchen with all the charisma of a new religion. Generations of women accustomed to cooking with their senses at the forefront, tasting and touching and remembering, gave way to brides who were learning to maintain a practical distance between themselves and the food. Nutrients and calories bid for attention; standardized equipment and measurements took the place of impressionistic cupfuls; and sanitation became the most demanding deity in the nation’s culinary pantheon. Changes like these, which contributed a certain amount of objectivity to the task of cooking, didn’t get in the way of talented home cooks. They could absorb the new imperatives or ignore them. And the other home cooks, women who weren’t born with the instincts to make food taste good and who struggled to acquire the skills, now had help in getting an acceptable meal on the table. If they followed the written rules, they had a fighting chance. But, inevitably, such changes helped hammer into place a singularly American approach to raw food that was more akin to conquering it than welcoming it home. Nuances of flavor and texture were irrelevant in the scientific kitchen, and pleasure was sent off to wait in the parlor. To cook without exercising the senses, indeed barely exercising the mind, was going to have a considerable effect on how and what we eat.

What gave scientific cookery its staying power, long after the term itself disappeared, was its partnership with the food industry, which was becoming an ambitious new player in the American kitchen. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, factory-made foods began forging their way into homes across the country as rapidly as transportation and income levels permitted. Canned meats, soups, fruits, and vegetables, along with ketchup, pancake mix, granulated gelatin, and baking powder, were among the earliest products to become familiar and then indispensable. As pantry shelves filled up, the food industry began leaving unmistakable fingerprints on the meals and the recipes that characterized home cooking. The ginger ale salad, the canned soup gravy, the pale, puffy bread, and the omnipresent bottle of ketchup became culinary icons that would forever be identified with the American table.

But not until the end of World War II did the food industry take aim at home cooking per se, rapturously envisioning a day when virtually all contact between the cook and the raw makings of dinner would be obsolete. By the 1950s, magazines and newspapers were conjuring scenes in which traditional, kitchen-centered home life was being carried out in perfectly delightful fashion without a trace of traditional, kitchen-centered home cooking. The table was set, the smiling family was gathered, the mother wore a pretty apron, and the food was frozen. Or dehydrated. Or canned. Or prepared from what women were calling a “ready-mix.” Do women like to cook? That is, are there any good reasons to cook from scratch, apart from habit, sentiment, and the family budget? The question had never emerged before, but, suddenly, thanks to all the new products, there was a glimmer of space between women and cooking, just enough to invite reflection. Do we like to cook? Is it important to cook? Before the question could even be asked, it was answered with a powerful “Not anymore.” The ones speaking up so convincingly were the advertisers.

That moment when the burgeoning food industry confronted millions of American women and tried to refashion them in its own image is the one I explore in this book. It was an encounter that took place chiefly in middle-class homes; for this reason, the book focuses almost exclusively on middle-class women. But if they were the first to engage with the new concept of convenience foods, this was an event that would have overwhelming consequences for the entire nation. The 1950s were a turning point in a process set in motion half a century earlier, back when women discovered canned soup and Jell-O and found out how wonderfully easy they were to prepare. Cooking was genuinely laborious in the 1890s, and such shortcuts had an impact we can hardly imagine today. Once innovations like these settled into place, home cooking would never be the same, not just because the food began to change but because as it changed, Americans began to think differently about eating. Factory conditions imposed strict limits on the sensory qualities possible in packaged foods, making them predominantly very sweet, very salty, or very bland. The more such qualities were reflected in a family’s home cooking, the more acceptable they became—so much so that in the worst of the nation’s cooking, even dishes made from scratch paid homage to factory flavors. During the first decades of the twentieth century, millions of American palates adjusted to artificial flavors and then welcomed them; and consumers started to let the food industry make a great many decisions on matters of taste that people in the past had always made for themselves. The marketing innovations that would make junk food and fast food a way of life were still far in the future. But by midcentury, when the food industry launched its massive campaign against traditional cooking, manufacturers and processors had every reason to believe that they could lure a critical mass of the population away from conventional meals and into gustatory realms hitherto unexplored.

V
When I started my research, I assumed I would meet the 1950s—a term I apply fairly loosely to the period stretching from the end of World War II through the mid-’60s—in the version that has long been inscribed in popular history. After all, everyone knows the story of women in postwar America: Conscientiously happy housewives gave over their days to fussing with cake mixes and marshmallow salads, never imagining any other life. Those who dared to feel restless were kept in line by a culture that ferociously enforced the laws of traditional femininity. It took only a little reading to discover the shortcomings of that image. In the course of the 1950s, a rapidly increasing proportion of mothers went out looking for jobs, for instance, and the same women’s magazines that ran stories on the matchless excitement of planning birthday parties for five-year-olds were also running stories on the satisfactions of paid work. As for the marshmallow salads, they showed up frequently wherever recipes were published, but so did a wide array of dishes made from scratch, including green salads with vinaigrette dressings and entrées that ranged from meat loaf to shashlik.

The labor statistics spoke for themselves, at least to a certain extent, but the food didn’t. Food rarely speaks up at all when the subject is home cooking, for we have very few sources and they’re hardly objective. In culinary history, the ordinary food of ordinary people is the great unknown. To track more distinguished cuisine—the sort produced in the best restaurants and in the kitchens of the rich—we can sometimes dig up menus and recipe collections, market lists, bills and receipts, or cookbooks produced by famous chefs. But if we want to know what millions of Americans ate in a certain era night after night and if we’re curious about who cooked the dinner and how and why, then the primary source material tends to be elusive. Popular cookbooks tell us a great deal about the culinary climate of a given period, about the expectations and aspirations that hovered over the stove and the dinner table, and about the range of material and technical influences that affected home cooking. What they can’t convey is a sense of day-to-day cookery as it was genuinely experienced in the kitchens of real life.

To find out as best I could what was on the table in ordinary, middle-class households, I went frequently to magazines and newspapers. These seemed to me to be closer to the ground than most cookbooks, with the exception of such hardworking classics as Joy of Cooking or the Betty Crocker cookbooks. Hundreds more cookbooks besides these flowed through the ’50s; many of them sold very well, and they clearly affected the meals of the time. James Beard, Poppy Cannon, Peg Bracken, and others built sizable reputations with the help of their books; I discuss some of these influential cooks in the chapters ahead. But it’s always difficult to know for sure how often women turned to a particular cookbook, no matter how popular it was. Many home cooks consider a cookbook one of their favorites if they use just two or three recipes from it. What we do know is that home cooks regularly tore out recipes that sounded good to them from Woman’s Day, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and other widely circulated magazines. We know because the clippings were saved for years, sometimes for generations, bundled in envelopes or stuffed into recipe boxes. We can’t ascertain how often those recipes were used, but plainly they appealed to people. If magazine recipes are imperfect guides to how women cooked, at least such recipes tell us how women planned to cook or how they envisioned themselves cooking, or maybe just how they wished they could cook.

My favorite sources were the food pages of daily newspapers, which by virtue of their place in the community seemed likely to reflect fairly closely the needs and habits of their readers. And my favorite bits in the papers that I studied were the recipes sent in by readers themselves. True, these were recipes from self-selected home cooks, the most confident and enthusiastic cooks in the neighborhood and perhaps not the most typical. But they were sending recipes that brought them success, that friends and family members loved and applauded. Surely these were recipes in which I would be able to discern the real appetites of real people. For the same reason I made use of community cookbooks—those ubiquitous, self-published volumes produced by church groups and other charitable organizations for fund-raising purposes. The recipes, gathered by members of the cookbook committee from everybody in the organization who could be badgered to contribute, were always published over the name of the woman who offered the dish, not necessarily because she claimed to have invented it, but because it represented her. “This is my kitchen,” each contributor said with pride. “This is how I cook.”

How such women began to renegotiate the terms of domestic life in the new context of work—a spectre that was everywhere in the ’50s, even hovering over women who never so much as filled out a job application—is the question that drove my research. Work changed everything. Yes, women with jobs had to continue fixing dinner, vacuuming, and taking children to the dentist; in that sense, work simply made life more harrowing. But women who worked for pay or contemplated it also started to see themselves, their families, and the world in a different way. The proportions changed and the boundaries shifted; now they were actors on another stage altogether. Whether or not they chose to earn money, they were living for the first time in a world where seemingly immutable sex roles were subject to challenge. Poor and working-class women, who had been in the workforce since the industrial revolution and earlier, were accustomed to inhabiting man’s sphere while earning their livings, and woman’s sphere when they got home. If anybody understood how porous the border actually was, these women did. But for everyone else it was scripture: The cash economy was for men; the emotional economy was for women. And since scripture has a way of cutting across class and gender lines, many Americans subscribed to this increasingly hazy tradition even if they didn’t believe in it, even if their own experience contradicted it.

It was in this discomfiting social atmosphere that cooking—the bride’s first chore and the grandmother’s last, the very heart of homemaking—came under assault from the food industry. Magazines, newspapers, and radio announcers explained over and over to housewives that a welcome new era of effortless food preparation was at hand. “You don’t cook it,” promised an ad for Sunkist lemons, brandishing a recipe for making lemon pie in an ice-cube tray. “Just mix and beat as directed, place in refrigerator—and that’s all.” Cookbook author Sylvia Schur assured women that owning a blender “takes the place of years of experience and skill,” and Betty Crocker reminded her followers that cake mixes would save them “time, work and the task of following recipes.” Yet such ads tell a profoundly lopsided story about the food of the ’50s. Most middle-class dinners at home changed far more slowly than the food industry ever acknowledged, despite the mounting importance of paid work in women’s lives. Throughout the ’50s, good home cooking was far more widespread than frozen fish sticks, as the evidence from women’s own hands makes plain. By 1963—when Julia Child launched her first television series— an audience was waiting.

Cooking, it turned out, had roots so deep and stubborn that even the mighty fist of the food industry couldn’t yank all of them up. One of the sources I read at some length for its revelations about what ordinary women thought about cooking in the ’50s was the “Confidential Chat,” a column that has been running in The Boston Globe for more than a century. Readers write in with questions about every conceivable aspect of home and family life, and other readers respond with their advice and opinions. All the Chatters, as they call themselves, write under pseudonyms. I studied a swath of Chat letters that appeared from 1948 to 1963, hundreds of them about food, and found women who were constantly testing assumptions as well as recipes. Some were accomplished cooks and satisfied housewives; others longed for work outside the home; and others were like the woman who sent in a cry of distress in January 1948: “Won’t someone please come to my rescue? . . . My problem is watery custard and bread pudding. . . . I will sign the way I feel about my cooking. Never Satisfied.”

What happened over the next several decades was that Never Satisfied, her sisters, and then their daughters found they had a number of choices. At home, at work, everywhere in their lives they were confronted by more possibilities than women had ever known, and this was equally the case when it came to making dessert. There was homemade custard; there was instant chocolate pudding; there was crème caramel—but they had to know what kind of cook they wanted to be. Many surrendered: They came to believe that cooking really was difficult and time-consuming unless ready-made ingredients defined the goal and led the way. Others learned to treat their kitchens the way Julia Child did: as a place where they were in charge, where even failures tasted better to them than packaged perfection. But whether dinner on a given night was boeuf bourguignonne or a canned soup casserole, by the early ’60s a great many women were figuring out how to come to their own rescue. Was one of them La Mesa? She wrote the last of the 1963 letters in my survey of Chat sections, heading her contribution simply “Chatters—”. She didn’t have a question, and she didn’t need help with any problems; she just wanted to share her favorite recipe for a batch of peanut butter cookies. I have to admit I’ve taken the liberty of reading confidence and pride between the lines of her utterly honest ingredients.

Chatters—
1?2 cup peanut butter 11?4 cups flour
1 stick butter or margarine 3?4 teaspoon soda
1?2 cup white sugar 1?2 teaspoon baking powder
1?2 cup brown sugar 1?4 teaspoon salt
1 egg
Chill, form into tiny balls. Flatten with a fork. Bake in 375-degree oven 10 to 12 minutes.
—La Mesa

Chapter 1
The Housewife’s Dream

Theadora Smafield clasps her hands with joy: She has just won the Grand Prize in the very first Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest, better known as the Pillsbury Bake-Off. The contest was staged in a ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York on December 13, 1949. Among the one hundred finalists were such attention- getting entries as Patio Picnic Casserole, Company’s Coming Cashew Pie, and Ruth’s Dotted Swiss Cake; but Mrs. Smafield’s No-Knead Water-Rising Nut Twists triumphed over all. She took home $50,000 and later opened Life magazine to find a glossy picture of herself in glory. (Photo: Martha Holmes/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.)

Toward the end of February 1954, James Beard was at work in his Greenwich Village kitchen doing what he most loved to do: cooking delicious meals. One night he made lobster à l’américaine for a dinner party; a few days later he entertained guests with a quiche of sautéed bay scallops, then served them fillet of beef with a Marchand de Vin sauce. The next day he set about braising octopus in olive oil and garlic, and while it simmered slowly in red wine, basil, and parsley, he wrote a quick note about the recipe to his friend and gastronomic soul mate, the California cookbook author Helen Evans Brown. “Smells divine,” he told her contentedly. With five cookbooks out, most recently Paris Cuisine, and several more being readied for publication in 1954, Beard was well settled at the forefront of his profession. Later that year The New York Times would bestow upon him the title that would accompany his name for decades to come: “Dean of American Cookery.” And yet, as he often complained to Brown, American cookery seemed to be barreling off in quite a different direction from their own culinary styles. For every dinner like the one Cecily Brownstone, food editor at the Associated Press, offered him that summer—they dined in her garden on shrimp with dill and tarragon, steak in a garlic and ginger butter sauce, and baked pears with praline—time and again he encountered recipes for its evil twin, a cuisine he bemoaned as “the Home Ec side” of cookery. “I have been going over a brunch cookbook for House and Garden because someone forgot to put in the wines,” Beard wrote to Brown in 1960. “Such a mess of stuff. There is actually a recipe for rolling white bread with butter and a sprinkling of Lawry’s salt and toasting it in the oven. I nearly popped. What wine you might choose for that is problematic. I would say an old pre-phylloxera Mogen David Concord, with added sugar, myself.”

Beard, Brown, and their like-minded colleagues would spend years gloomily monitoring the disappearance of old-fashioned good cooking. Successful though they were in their own careers, they felt powerless as processed foods rolled across the nation like an invasion welcomed by the multitudes. “Where, oh where, do you find a real apple pie, oozing with juices and covered with a flaky brown crust?” he wondered. “Or a fine, well- grained chocolate cake? Or a buttery piece of genuine pound cake?” Not in Portland, Oregon, his hometown. When he arrived for a visit in 1953, the food page of the local paper was rejoicing over Pineapple Betty (marshmallows, pineapple, graham cracker crumbs, and nuts). The nation seemed to have lost its ability to cook with skill or to taste with pleasure. As far as Beard was concerned, what he and Brown undertook in the kitchen and at their typewriters was “missionary work”—bringing the gospel of fine homemade meals to Americans pathetically satisfied with shortcuts and fake pizzazz. Small wonder that when he heard about the daily cooking segments on NBC’s lavish new Home show, he was aghast. “Try to get to a television set,” he urged Brown. “Poppy Cannon is the food person, and she did a vichyssoise with frozen mashed potatoes, one leek sautéed in butter, and a cream of chicken soup from Campbell’s.”

Beard himself had been making vichyssoise—real vichyssoise, with cream and a little nutmeg and a rich, homemade broth—at least since 1939 when he and his partners in a chic Manhattan catering company used to put up vats at a time and sell it for an impressive two dollars a pint. Now here was Poppy Cannon, author of the immensely popular Can-Opener Cookbook, blithely deranging a great soup on national television. Her creed—for she, too, was a missionary—was exactly the opposite of Beard’s. “It’s easy to cook like a gourmet, though you are a beginner,” she announced in The Can- Opener Cookbook. “We want you to believe just as we do that in this miraculous age it is quite possible—and it’s fun—to be a ‘chef’ even before you can really cook.” Like Beard, she made lobster à l’américaine, but hers started with a can of tomato soup. Her “French” and “so romantic” variation on floating island called for lemon Jell-O in the shape of little hearts, dropped on a “small golden sea of soft Royal Custard sauce.” The food industry was no enemy to her; it was Aladdin’s lamp.

To Beard, everything that was wrong with American cooking in the postwar era was symbolized by the remorseless Poppy Cannon. Yet the two of them had more in common than a look at (or a taste of) their respective vichyssoises might have indicated. Beard’s antagonism to the food industry would relax considerably when he started working as a consultant to food companies. And while Cannon had deep and sometimes inexplicable loyalties to the industry, she was hardly its slave—as we shall see in another chapter. What really separated culinary purists like Beard from industry enthusiasts like Cannon wasn’t their assessments of American cooking, it was their views of the American cook. Beard believed the housewife was losing her way, forfeiting her skills, mindlessly surrendering to packaged foods whenever they beckoned. Cannon saw that same housewife heading smartly into the future, reinventing great culinary traditions with the help of epicurean new products.

Neither of them had it quite right. During that winter of 1954, just a few weeks before Cannon made her appearance on the Home show, the women’s page editor of The Boston Globe was hit by an unexpected torrent of angry mail. The paper had published an enthusiastic story on New Year’s Day about a speech by a food industry consultant trumpeting all the advances made possible by modern science: frozen food, milk in cartons, fresh vegetables available year-round, electric mixers and toasters. “How long is it since you spent a day without the benefit of science?” the industry expert demanded. “Our kitchen culture may be founded on tradition, but each year science has made its gifts to the homemaker.” These sentiments inspired a rush of responses from readers who were not only ungrateful for the latest “gift” they encountered on supermarket shelves, they were downright suspicious. “We’ve had repercussions—but plenty!” the editor wrote in a follow-up story, and quoted from a few of the letters that had poured in. “Just how much more do packaged foods cost?” “How much time do we homemakers save when using packaged food?” “How does packaged food assure a healthier family? Both my Grandparents lived to be over 90 and they bought their flour in a barrel.”

Undoubtedly, these readers were glad to bring home their carrots washed and their flour free of bugs, but they weren’t abandoning culinary tradition with the zeal the food industry had been counting on. By the time they sat down and wrote to the Globe, in fact, some of these women had been wooed by the food industry for nearly a decade, and they still weren’t ready to make a commitment. There was a future for frozen spinach— nobody in the food industry doubted that, and most housewives knew it, too. But it wasn’t going to be the future everyone expected, the future that Beard so dreaded and Cannon so joyfully anticipated. It wasn’t going to be the glittering future that food companies had been charting since the end of World War II when they turned their attention from military to civilian appetites and began to glimpse the tantalizing profits that lay ahead. Winning the loyalty of American home cooks would turn out to be a lot more difficult than the inventors of instant mashed potatoes and frozen chopped liver ever imagined.

V It was a sweltering August day, the air-conditioning in his office was broken, and Joe Graham was worried sick about the price wars that posed an increasing threat to his frozen-food distribution business. Suddenly an old-fashioned electric fan, mounted overhead, fell off the wall and bonked him senseless. When he woke up, it was half a century later—August, 2000. Helicars flew back and forth overhead and parked on the roofs of buildings; and instead of unbearable heat the weather was lovely, for as his friend Marty told him, “Now the entire city is air-conditioned. Huge atomic blowers keep a mass of cooled air in circulation.” Joe was so dazed by everything he saw that Marty invited him home for the evening, and that’s where Joe encountered sights even more amazing, at least to a frozen-food devotee. Marty’s wife, Janet, was delighted to see Joe, for this was one wife who had no problem entertaining unexpected guests for dinner. The meal would be ready in five minutes, she told the men, and strolled away into the next room. At her approach, a segment of one wall slid away to reveal shelves of frozen foods. She selected several packages, placed them in a small compartment in the sliding wall, pressed a button for a few seconds, and announced, “All defrosted and ready to cook.” In another room, she inserted the food into a metal square and waited exactly one minute. Then she called the men to the table. “This is some kitchen,” Joe remarked, and Janet laughed. “That’s a word I haven’t heard in a long time,” she told him. “There’s no such thing as a ‘kitchen’ nowadays. . . . Just freezer space, electronic cooking, automatic dishwashing. Life’s really simple nowadays—science has emancipated women right out of the kitchen.”

“Frozen Foods 2000 a.d.: A Fantasy of the Future” was published in Quick Frozen Foods, the industry’s leading trade journal. To cook by choosing food packages, to watch the home kitchen fade away into unsentimental memory—Joe’s professional Utopia went straight to the heart of the food industry’s grandest vision for postwar America. “My predictions are based on current trends and their possible final form,” explained E. W. Williams, publisher of the journal and writer of the story. “May we dare to hope that some as yet unborn reader of Quick Frozen Foods on some long-distant day will take up this article from a dusty shelf and exclaim, ‘Well, whatdyeknow, they had it figured out 50 years ago!’ ”

They did have it figured out, or at least they devoutly hoped so. Back in the mid-’40s, as World War II was ending, the food industry found itself confronted with the most daunting challenge in its history: to create a peacetime market for wartime foods. Manufacturers and packagers had put considerable expertise into the war effort, not only keeping grocery stores adequately stocked but turning out an array of specially designed foods that could accompany the armed forces anywhere—from camp to jungle to high in the air. Now a great deal of new technology was in place or under development, and factories were ready to keep right on canning, freezing, and dehydrating food as if the nation’s life still depended on it. But peacetime shoppers, unlike soldiers in foxholes, had a choice. If a product didn’t seem appetizing, it was going to be wonderfully easy for people to ignore it. What the industry had to do was persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.

Some of the new foods eagerly sent to market right after the war were, in fact, field rations. “Foods formerly manufactured solely for army use will now be put on the civilian market,” announced American Cookery magazine in 1946, hailing a bonanza of canned meats. “Only 12 different varieties were available before the war, but postwar shelves will boast 40 varieties.” Along with the indestructible luncheon meats known as Spam, Treat, Mor, Prem, and Snack, there were canned-ham-and-sweet-potato dinner, canned pork with applesauce, and canned bacon. Dehydrated potatoes and powdered orange juice were ready for market as well. The magazine also welcomed Tatonuts, “a new potato tidbit” notable for its “strong resistance to weather conditions.” According to the manufacturer this product would remain “crisp and crunchy” for months. Other foods crossing over from military to civilian life included canned deep-fried hamburgers and canned fruit gelatin, although the latter had to be reformulated for consumers not likely to be serving it under battle conditions. The original version had been created to army specifications, resulting in a jellied dessert so stiff with pectin that it could be gripped by a soldier without losing its shape. For peacetime, the manufacturer was trying to work up a somewhat lighter consistency.

It was a heady time for visionaries in the food business: If you could dehydrate orange juice, why not wine? An ingenious New York engineer set about drying sherry, port, muscatel, sauterne, and chianti, hoping sophisticated diners would come around to the idea of selecting an appropriate powder at dinnertime and adding water and alcohol. Another company spent the war years perfecting frozen coffee (“Froz-n Coff-e”), which came in a package of six paper cups, each holding an ounce of coffee extract.

Housewives would simply squeeze the frozen extract out of its paper cup into a coffeepot and add boiling water. And just a year after the war was over, Maxson—a frozen-food company that had been supplying complete meals to wartime fliers, to be heated up on the plane—began offering similar dinners to be served aboard civilian airlines. Steak, meat loaf, beef stew, and corned beef hash patties were the first specialties, accompanied by vegetables, each item in the meal arranged in its own compartment on a plastic plate. “From its reception by travelers it seems a success,” remarked Better Food magazine, adding that Maxson contemplated entering the retail market as well. Would families give up “the vital element of choice . . . as to which vegetable goes with what?” Better Food thought they would, “in return for ease of preparation and excellence of product.”

Perhaps wisely, marketing efforts for some of the new foods skipped “excellence of product” and went straight to “ease of preparation.” At General Mills the first shortcut product to be unveiled after the war was Pyequick, “an entire pie in a package.” A box of Pyequick contained a bag of dehydrated apples and a bag of crust mix. “With a few simple movements, Mrs. Homemaker can have America’s favorite dessert ready for the oven,” the company asserted in a bulletin, and went on to illustrate the point with motion- study photographs taken in General Mills’s test kitchen. A researcher rigged out with tiny electric lights on her fingers made a pie the old-fashioned way and then made one with Pyequick, while a cameraman tracked her motions both times. The old-fashioned method resulted in a picture showing a messy tangle of white lines, suggesting how frantically her two hands had worked to assemble the pie. Making a Pyequick pie, by contrast, produced fewer and simpler white lines, suggesting a process so relaxed that Mrs. Homemaker might have been plucking daisies in a hammock. (Both photographs displayed the same agitated welter of lines over the pastry board, inadvertently revealing that rolling out the crust, at least, was much the same task whether Mrs. Homemaker used Pyequick or made her pastry from scratch.)

Of all the new products the food industry was inventing and dispensing right after the war, the ones that appeared most clearly destined for greatness were frozen foods. Freezing seemed to offer everything: It eliminated nearly every trace of work for the cook, and it captured an illusion of freshness that no other manufactured product could equal. With proper marketing there was no logical reason why the new frozen foods should not simply replace their competitors—the canned and powdered foods that had been around for years and all those messy, bothersome fresh foods that had been around even longer. Gazing into the future, frozen-food manufacturers loved what they were sure they glimpsed. “Fresh produce for retail consumption is a thing of the past,” Marty says proudly to the time-traveler, and Joe’s envy is heartfelt. In 1959 the authors of a textbook called Food: America’s Biggest Business announced that a frozen-food Utopia was already at hand. They offered the example of a typical if hypothetical homemaker who decided one morning to serve an entire day’s meals out of her freezer. Breakfast was juice, coffee cake, and fish cakes, with a cup of coffee made from a cube of frozen coffee concentrate; lunch was chicken croquettes, french fries, brownies, and lemonade; and at night the TV dinners came out. Cheese and salad greens were the only fresh foods she had to handle. “No pots or pans, no serving dishes, a plate which you throw away when you are finished,” the authors sighed happily. “This is a housewife’s dream.”

A few frozen products had been on the market since the 1930s, but most Americans were not introduced to the startling concept of making dinner from hard-frozen blocks until the war years. Manufacturers of canned and dehydrated foods directed their resources to feeding the military, especially overseas, for the duration, while the frozen-food industry helped supply the home front. The industry was still so young that relatively few grocers even owned a frozen-food display cabinet. Nevertheless, once rationing was under way, every grocer in the country had to display an official poster showing the value in ration points of different foods, including frozen products, whether or not the store actually carried them. These posters, along with newspaper ads that ran regularly and featured the same information, gave many shoppers their first inkling that such foods existed. And for shoppers trying to use their ration points efficiently, the posters made frozen foods look like a very good buy. Supplies of canned foods were limited, because tin was being shunted to war industries, but frozen products were abundant; so frozen fruits and vegetables cost less in ration points than their canned equivalents. Moreover, some frozen products weren’t rationed at all, including experimental lines of codfish cakes, chicken à la king, baked beans, and welsh rarebit. At the same time, of course, many traditional foods were hard to obtain. Homemakers who couldn’t shop as usual decided to give the new items a try. Sales of these novelties took a jump, but only until the end of rationing, when families went right back to the foods they preferred. As early as 1944, admitted the publisher of Quick Frozen Foods, frozen baked beans had become “a drug on the market.” Apparently 25 million pounds were available, and pretty much remained so.

Nonetheless, the brief wartime boom in frozen foods made the new industry seem so promising that fledgling companies rushed into the business in the late ’40s, processing and distributing an enormous array of hastily conceived items. In 1948, plain frozen fruits and vegetables were joined by bouillabaisse, pâté de foie gras, oyster gumbo, deviled crab, and chocolate chip cookies, as well as what were called “dinner plates” with an entrée, potato, and vegetables. Most of these products and companies quickly disappeared, but if skeptics had any doubts about the sky-high potential for frozen food, orange juice made them believers. During the war, the National Research Corporation of Boston found it could produce powdered orange juice using a vacuum process originally developed to make penicillin and blood plasma. Unfortunately, the only customer for powdered orange juice was the army, and once the war was over, demand was nonexistent. With the help of scientists at the Florida Citrus Commission, however, the company that had been producing the powder—Vacuum Foods, which later became Minute Maid—took another look at the process and found that with certain variations it could be used to make a frozen orange juice concentrate. All the customer had to do was add water, and the juice was remarkably close to the real thing.

Easier than fresh and tastier than canned, frozen orange juice had genuine appeal. By 1950 a quarter of Florida’s orange crop was going into concentrates, and oranges that had once been so cheap that growers were letting them rot on the ground now sold for $3.50 a box. A jubilant Minute Maid flooded the floor of its Plymouth, Florida, plant with orange juice and sent out three showgirls on ice skates to do a cancan. But it was 1952 that brought the statistic that frozen-food enthusiasts were waiting for; at last, frozen appeared to be pulling ahead of fresh. According to a study, about 28 percent of the juice served at home that year was frozen, and about 25 percent was squeezed fresh. Canned juice still dominated overall, but the more affluent the family, the less canned juice it was drinking. A year later, frozen juice slightly outstripped canned among the highest income families, and it remained more popular than fresh at all income levels except the lowest. These were triumphant statistics in what Quick Frozen Foods called the “battle of fresh vs. frozen.” In yet another skirmish, experiments proved that housewives saved eight and a quarter minutes when they used frozen concentrated orange juice instead of squeezing oranges. Here, surely, was the first product destined to leave its fresh equivalent behind in the dust, and there didn’t seem to be any reason why dozens more shouldn’t follow.

Milk, for instance. The dairy industry, as well as the frozen-food industry, watched what was happening with orange juice, and they were starry-eyed with hopes for milk. Production always exceeded what could be sold fresh; dried milk had no appeal apart from its price, and the advantages of a frozen concentrate over fresh liquid supplies were obvious, at least to accountants. Frozen concentrated milk could be stored for up to six months, then reconstituted; and according to its partisans, no change in flavor could be detected. After a couple of years of hard effort, however, discouragement reigned. In terms of sales, frozen concentrated milk was “as dead as the dodo,” admitted the president of Borden. “We have marketed the product experimentally in many Illinois communities and elsewhere,” he told Quick Frozen Foods in 1951. “Consumers have not been enthusiastic about it here or in any other area where it has been introduced.” Apparently, homemakers could see no reason to store, thaw, and reconstitute milk when fresh was always available and the price was the same.

If not milk, what about . . . water? E. W. Williams of Quick Frozen Foods thought frozen concentrated mineral water might appeal to consumers; they could buy a six-ounce block of distilled mineral water and just add water. But his colleagues had their attention fixed on juice. Processors started concentrating and freezing every fruit they could squeeze or crush: apples, grapefruits, lemons, pineapples, grapes, tomatoes, limes, tangerines, and cranberries. The apple industry in particular had big dreams, because it needed a way to process a constant oversupply of Delicious apples, which were too bland to be used by themselves in canned applesauce. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture helpfully designed a new method of concentrating apple juice that permitted Delicious apples to be used exclusively, but consumers didn’t like it. Nor did they like most of the other frozen juice concentrates, with the prominent exception of lemonade. This was so much easier to prepare in quantity for children than fresh lemonade that the product became the next huge seller among concentrates. Frozen concentrated tomato juice, on the other hand, flopped hard, despite bearing a much closer resemblance to its fresh counterpart than canned tomato juice, which was a thicker product with a slightly cooked flavor. The problem was that people liked canned tomato juice and, more important, recognized it as tomato juice. Nothing else was going to earn that title, not even the juice of tomatoes.

The next orange juice turned out to be fish sticks, which Birdseye introduced cautiously in a few test markets in 1952. Two years later fish sticks had become a frozen-food legend. More than 7 million pounds were produced in 1953, and 30 million in 1954. Most people ate little fish in the course of a year, but fish sticks were breaded and fried—a treatment that effectively eliminated the taste of fish, especially after the liberal application of ketchup. “This is the way folks love fish!” exclaimed an ad for Hunt’s tomato sauce, showing a picture of fish sticks doused with sauce. “Besides, it’s a perfect recipe for busy homemakers and career women—ready in a jiffy.” Numerous companies raced to get into the fish stick business, while still others headed to the laboratory and emerged with chicken sticks, ham sticks, veal sticks, onion-flavored poultry sticks, eggplant sticks, and dried lima bean sticks. These alternatives failed to extend the category as planned. By the same token, frozen tuna potpie was never able to inherit the mantle of the popular chicken potpie, and while frozen dinners in partitioned trays eventually won favor, the frozen breakfast in a partitioned tray (“Honeymoon Breakfast for Two”) attracted no following whatsoever.

Time after time, in fact, frozen-food manufacturers rushed into the marketplace with products nobody wanted, fell back defeated, and jumped up to charge forward once more. The pages of Quick Frozen Foods practically bristled with irritation. Why wouldn’t people buy frozen Camembert cheese? What prejudice kept women from trying frozen whale steaks, especially since they were “Papal approved” for Fridays and Lent? When would the market be ready at last for frozen eggplant, advertised as “Eggplant—the new wonder vegetable”? Even such practical items as bread and rolls didn’t stir much interest. “If the truth were known, the average housewife does not do a good job of home baking,” fumed a vice president at Frigid-Dough in 1949. His company made frozen bakery items for women who largely ignored them.




Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Women cooks -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Cookery, American -- History -- 20th century.
Convenience foods -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Nineteen fifties.