Are we what we eat?

19 Apr 2004|LiAnne Yu

I’m reading a fascinating book called “Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950’s America” by Laura Shapiro. It’s a witty look at the history of women and food in the postwar era. The food industry set out to promise women that they would be liberated from the drudgery of cooking from scratch. The vision: smiling women in pretty aprons preparing frozen dinners, discovering canned soup and Jell-O, ready-mix cakes, and Spam. The author chronicles the hilarious yet tragic tale of Poppy Cannon, author of “the Can Opener Cookbook”, who championed such dishes as this one: Spam placed in the bottom of a casserole, then a layer of canned macaroni and cheese, then a layer of canned asparagus, and finally a layer of grated cheese and bread crumbs. Or how about a Red Crest Salad, made from chopped tomatoes and pickles stirred into strawberry Jell-O.

The experimentation of the 50’s with both traditional recipies and the new science of canned and frozen foods reminded me of my own history with food. My parents were both immigrants to the US-they both knew a lot about Chinese cooking but were totally unprepared for the strange abundance the American supermarkets held. So they experimented as well. I remember won tons made with Vienna sausages, chili and hot dogs over jasmine rice, spaghetti sauce made with Heinz ketchup, and Hungry Man tv dinners served as a dish alongside other Chinese dishes, to be shared over bowls of rice and eaten with chopsticks. And I remember asking for pork chops and apple sauce after watching an episode of the Brady Bunch. Being good new Americans, my parents bought the Motts but made the pork chops Chinese style.

My parents don’t eat like that much anymore. Once Clement Street started to develop as the “New Chinatown” in San Francisco in the 1980’s, and my parents could walk to a number of Chinese produce stores and butchers, the experiments gradually stopped. Though of course, by that time I was striking out on my own, and had my own food journeys to begin as a student at UC Berkeley.

Reading “Something from the oven” also made me think about the mixed relationship I and many of my female friends in our 30’s have with cooking. Most of us don’t cook much, and we don’t apologize for our diet of ready-made foods from Trader Joes or Whole Foods. But many of us are also acquiring mother-in-laws for the first time, and dealing with holiday meals in a whole new way. One of my friends, who is newly engaged, left work at 3pm to make beef stew, the one dish she felt confident about, for her future in laws, only to find that her soon-to-be mother in law had already started cooking her dish. While my friend knows, intellectually, that she’s a working woman and shouldn’t have to feel responsible for producing a home cooked meal from “scratch” every night, it is, emotionally, an entirely different issue.

Anyway, I would highly recommend Shaprio’s book to those of you interested in the history of American cooking as well as American women–and you might rediscover some interesting recipes along the way. As for me, I’d like to get myself a copy of the now classic “Can Opener Cookbook” and find a recipe that includes Cheez Whiz.

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