August
2nd 2009
American cuisine before Julia Child, part I

Posted under: American history, childhood, class, Gender, women's history

mtaofcThe only movie I’m interested in watching this summer is Julie and Julia, Nora Ephron’s new movie about Juila Child and the young blogger Julie Powell who was so inspired by Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (co-authored with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, 1961) as to cook every recipe in the book in a single year and blog the results.  But, I’m rather unsettled by the simplistic narrative of American culinary history we’re getting in all of the publicity for the movie.  In the popular narrative lionizing “The French Chef” of PBS fame and her landmark cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, people in the United States allegedly ate nothing but overcooked pot roast or dry pork chops, canned green beans and canned corn, and “salads” and desserts that were both composed of Jell-O brand gelatin or pudding in part or in whole.  But, Child didn’t so much invent a hunger for real food, properly cooked, and an interest in international cuisine; rather, she capitalized on it.  I don’t mean to argue that MtAoFC was a cynical publication–but, the originality of her book and its outsize success should not obscure the passionate interest that many other Americans in the 1950s shared in cooking and eating high-quality fresh foods.

In other words, that decade has a bad rap among foodies, one that I suspect is largely shaped by historical evidence of the marketing of prepared or convenience foods instead of the reality of most people’s experience with food in their home kitchens.  My mother’s childhood in the 1950s was like a wonder out of the previous century compared to my 1970s childhood:  she had milk delivered to the house several mornings a week, milk with cream that rose to the top of the bottle, that her mother would try to skim off for her coffee, but which my mother and aunt would like to shake into the milk they’d drink for breakfast.  My mother also talks about visits from the “huckster,” who sold fresh vegetables door-to-door, whatever was in season–and in Toledo, Ohio with its substantial number of Lebanese immigrants, that meant not just corn, beans, potatoes, and carrots, but eggplant, zucchini, perhaps heirloom tomatoes, and a world of other interesting garden veggies.  My grandmother would buy and try anything, apparently.  My mother said to me just this morning, “my mother never, ever used prepared food.”  Everything was fresh, most of it was intensely local, and not incidentally, in my mother’s words, “it was cheaper” than going to the grocery store.  One of my earliest detailed memories of  my grandmother was of staying over at her house on a Friday night at age 3 or 4 and rising before dawn to go to the local farmer’s market with her.  I remember sitting in her tiny, brightly-lit kitchen eating a sectioned grapefruit before heading off to the market as the light rose in the sky.

Thus, the “Before Julia/After Julia” narrative serves to ignore or marginalize mid-century home cooks and gardeners who kept their families going through the Great Depression, through the rations and privations of World War II, and through the 1950s in households that weren’t affluent.  (My grandmother’s was one of them:  she was widowed at the age of 38 in 1953 and left with two little girls to raise on her own on pink-collar wages.)  Maybe the households who bought MtAoFC were the ones who were living on gravy made from a packet, vegetables from cans, and cakes from a box, but not everyone could afford those conveniences, nor did everyone want them (regardless of the price.) 

makeyourownIgnoring (or even insulting) the work of these home cooks, gardeners, and small farmers–most of whom were women–who never heard of the word teroir but who lived it, seems like just another version of the misogynist stereotpes of women in the 1950s in the popular imagination.  Instead of being rewarded for attending their domestic duties and stepping out of the paid work force to free up a job for a returning vet, these women were further denigrated as ”smothering mothers” or as materialistic superconsumers.  (Even many feminists use “1950s housewife” as an insult, or to suggest a fate clearly to be avoided at all costs.)  The Before Julia/After Julia narrative seems to me to draw on and replicate these stereotypes by casting housewives and mothers who cooked two or three meals a day for their families as somehow evil agents of agribusiness and packaged food companies, as malign forces who endangered or polluted their families and the culture at large, instead of as people who were performing honest labor for no pay.  (And, really:  can you  blame them if they wanted to see if gravy from an envelope might be a reasonable substitute for the real thing once in a while?  How many of you cook two or three meals a day at your house?  I’d sure like to have a home cook, and I’d choke down just about anything in return.)

youlleatitA graduate student of mine recently wrote an excellent paper about the ways in which farm wives shaped their home and work environments to their own liking, and not necessarily along the lines the Extension Service had in mind, based on Extension Service records in the Baa Ram U. archives.  I wonder if Extension Service records in the 1940s and 1950s will similarly document the rich relationships between these home cooks, gardeners, and small farmers, and furnish evidence of the local, fresh food tradition in the United States.  (Hello, those of you interested in women’s history, environmental history, and/or rural history–that’s opportunity knocking, friends!)

Another issue that is unexplained by the “Before Julia/After Julia” narrative is the fact that the consumption of prepared foods and surplus grain and corn syrup-laden snacks, and the correleated fact of increasing American obesity, are squarely ”After Julia” phenomena of the 1980s to the present.  Once again, I think the division in American eating habits is probably largely due to class:  the foodways of the poor are ignored in the “Before Julia/After Julia” theory of American culinary history.

Tomorrow in part II, I’ll show you a terrific cookbook I have, published in 1958, that furnishes more evidence of the interest in fresh, local foods in the 1950s.  (It’s also a wonderful artifact of 1950s tastes and styles in clothing, cocktails, entertaining, home design, and dining out.)  Meanwhile, I’ll share tonight’s dinner menu with you, a very special high summer meal:

  • grilled beef steaks from our local meat farmers
  • green beans and sweet corn from the farmer’s market
  • our own homegrown tomatoes and basil
  • brownies with mint chocolate-chip ice cream made at a local dairy

40 Comments »

40 Responses to “American cuisine before Julia Child, part I”

  1. Indyanna on 02 Aug 2009 at 11:24 am #

    Interesting. In this regard, cf also in the NY Times Magazine today a piece by Michael Pollan titled “No One Cooks Here Anymore: What Takeout and ‘Top Chef’ Are Doing to our Lifestyles, Our Health, and Maybe Our Essence.” The very word “foodie” has always made me feel sort of dyspeptic, somehow. I remember the home milk delivery part, but after that it was pretty much a mixed bag of the natural stuff and the processed stuff. The exact mix depended on a lot of quirky factors.

  2. Roxie on 02 Aug 2009 at 12:34 pm #

    Point taken, but a post on Julie and Julia raises one question and one question only: Who will play the part of Historiann in the major motion picture to be made from THIS blog?

    Oh, one more question actually: What time’s dinner?

  3. Historiann on 02 Aug 2009 at 12:52 pm #

    Roxie–I wish you could join us!

    I think Nicole Kidman or Michelle Williams would be perfect to play me. But who the heck would want to watch this blog as a movie? (As GayProf commented about the movie “Tenure” last year: “I thought a movie entitled ‘Tenure’ would simply involve two hours of watching somebody type.”) I guess I could throw in a couple of stampedes or something.

    Who would play you, Roxie? Are there any other famous terriers besides Asta from the Thin Man movies? (He seems kinda shrimpy, plus I think he’s probably long gone.)

  4. HistoryMaven on 02 Aug 2009 at 1:05 pm #

    Pollan et al. haven’t visited my house. I cannot figure out why folks who adhere to the pre/post Julia timeline forget about such cookbooks as The Joy of Cooking–I was given a copy in college and found in all my mother’s cooking sense. (She grew up in Europe. And she never used a cookbook.)

    I think there are several problems with the assumptions of food writers at the moment.

    First, the oral tradition of cooking has been ignored, although there are documentarians and oral historians who are working to capture what has been passed down.

    Second, those scholars who work through handwritten or collected recipes and scrapbooks tend to look at them as inscriptions of women’s lives through this form of writing. Rarely are these recipes analyzed in terms of the foodstuffs they utilize–or, for that matter, the technologies applicable in a given time and place.

    Third, Pollan, Shapiro, and others haven’t considered the world beyond the commercial. In a review of Shapiro’s book, Something From the Oven (referred to by Pollan in his NYT piece), I criticized her assumptions because her evidence is primarily from urban experience and mass market women’s magazines and television shows American foodways. County fairs, anyone? Recipes that failed? Cooking, canning, and baking contests occurred before the Pillsbury Bake-off (where Shapiro begins her analysis). Historiann, your point about farm extension records is right on.

    Pollan et al. argue for a “return” to the local; some of us in the fly-over states have lived there for quite some time. They assume the local no longer exists. And they make a lot of money preaching it.

    I have to admit that I won’t see the film; I really didn’t like the book.

  5. Historiann on 02 Aug 2009 at 1:26 pm #

    HistoryMaven–I’m glad to hear from you. I thought you might have a lot to add here, and you do! Thanks for bringing up The Joy of Cooking. As I recall, the Rombauers are from Cincinnati, which is a less glamourous pedigree than Paris, apparently…

    I picked up Julie Powell’s book in an airport a couple years ago when it first came out. I enjoyed it, but thought that she needed a heavier-handed editor. It read too much like reading a blog–a little too informal, not quite as much time or thought given to the writing as I would have liked to see. (My mother-in-law, who is no prude, thought that the ritualistic incantation of the F-word was annoying. Again, one of those things that seems more obvious in a book chapter when there are 50 F-words than in a daily blog that might include 2 or 3 per post.)

    I think Powell could be a good writer, but it seemed like it was a better project to read about on a blog than in a book. I want to see the movie because I’m interested in the subject and in seeing Meryl Streep bring Julia Child to life, but also because I like to support movies that are made by women for people who don’t enjoy seeing things blown up in every summer movie, and/or who aren’t 14 year-old boys.

  6. Buster on 02 Aug 2009 at 1:32 pm #

    Great post. I’m looking forward to more tomorrow.

    Any chance that you could get that graduate student to put up a slimmed-down blog post variant of that paper?

    And lastly, dinner sounds delicious and makes me feel ridiculously lazy for my current plan of eating bread, cheese and a peach tonight.

  7. Historiann on 02 Aug 2009 at 1:44 pm #

    Buster–she reads the blog, so maybe she’ll write a guest post some day on the topic. I’ll ask her.

    Bread, cheese, and a peach is a more typical dinner for us, even on a Sunday. But we have company this weekend!

  8. Erica on 02 Aug 2009 at 2:02 pm #

    I love this topic :D

    Recipes from the mid-century onwards are the ones likely to be based on pre-packaged, convenience, or similar “processed” foods. (The number of macaroni and cheese recipes I have seen which call for Velveeta is amazing. It’s quite hard to find one that calls for real cheese, let alone a proper roux, despite Julia’s revelations.) It’s practically unheard of for people to get most of their food from sources other than the supermarket; modern America is baffled by the masses of Victory Gardens from the 40′s, for example.

    Nowadays, it’s easy to find 50′s recipe booklets that were mass-produced by companies like Jell-O, Carnation, Armour Meats, and so on — and they obviously had a vested interest in getting consumers to use Jell-O, Carnation, Armour Meats, and so on. And it’s easy to laugh at the freakish concoctions that were recommended as “gourmet” (heck, the most popular part of my blog relies on lunatic recipes of the past).

    Regardless of the concentration on particular brand-name ingredients, those recipes still concentrated on COOKING food. It’s a big contrast with modern meal-making, which relies much more on pre-packaged food that often requires little more than a microwave. (And the microwave came when, 1970?) I find the occasional collection of recipes for making food from scratch, such as this 1965 booklet by the Clemson University Extension Service.

    I mostly find it hilarious that the bad economy is leading to the “revolutionary” discovery that making your own bread is less expensive than buying a loaf, or you can save money by growing tomatoes in your backyard — WOW! Grandma NEVER would have expected THAT! (sigh)

  9. Digger on 02 Aug 2009 at 2:06 pm #

    I’m also looking forward to seeing the movie, but it’s all about seeing Meryl Streep play Julia Child. I fully expect the rest to be fluff (I also went to see Princess Diaries 2 because Julie Andrews mattress surfs down a flight of stairs).

    Somewhere in all of this fits in Sandra Lee’s Food Network hit “Semi-Homemade” where she doctor’s up pre-packaged stuff with something additional or fresh. I personally can’t stand to watch it (I’ll take food competition shows over food-making shows any day), but I’ve seen some scary, scary stuff. But you made it yourself! Because, see? You added something! It’s like food plagiarism.

    Re: Rural women. I’ve been studying changes in rural life locally for a project. It’s curious how many people try to slam the “separate spheres” model onto rural life in the nineteenth century (including the government extension-types of the time). It doesn’t work so well. Practicality seems to have been the measuring stick in use; if form followed function, then fine, innovations would stick. If it was all about form without function, forget it. (This is referring to working agricultural farmsteads, not “gentleman” farms). It’s really fascinating stuff.

  10. Erica on 02 Aug 2009 at 2:09 pm #

    @Digger — “Semi-Homemade” has some valuable tips, although mostly I’ve used it for food projects that kindergarteners can accomplish without much assistance. The main advantage I would see is that it encourages cooks with next to no experience that they can indeed make edible meals, hopefully boosting their confidence to start making things from scratch. (That said, I must say I love the term “food plagiarism” :D )

  11. Roxie on 02 Aug 2009 at 2:10 pm #

    Historiann — Never having met you in RL, I nonetheless feel equipped to say I think Nicole Kidman would be an inspired choice to play you in the movie. She was a fine horsewoman in Australia, and you’ll definitely want to put in a couple of stampede scenes to up the action quotient, even if Historiann: The Movie will be a Chick (with Attitude) Flick.

    As for me, well, Asta is long dead, and I’m pretty sure he was a boy, but I’m confident there is some young terrier bitch out there who could credibly play the part of America’s favorite dog blogger devoted to politics, pop culture, and basketball. Moose is hoping to reunite Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis to play the parts of her and Goose. Jodie Foster will direct, of course. She owes the world a great big dyke love story to make up for all those years in the closet.

  12. Digger on 02 Aug 2009 at 2:37 pm #

    Erica, I agree… getting anyone to start cooking is great. (It’s like getting kids to read; don’t care how they start, as long as they start…). When I was a kid, my mom made me watch her prepare meals, and taught me the basics (pot roast, roast chicken, white sauce). I also had a book specifically for kids called “Sticky Fingers” … it was a TON of fun. Without the frightening table deco and heavy-on-the-drinksies of Semi-Homemade LOL. I was astounded when I got to college to discover that some of my friends truly couldn’t boil water.

  13. quixote on 02 Aug 2009 at 3:07 pm #

    …the correlated fact of increasing American obesity, are squarely ”After Julia” phenomena of the 1980s to the present.

    To be fair, the obesity is an “after fast food as staple, after soda pop as water, after sit all day” phenomenon. It’s not really Julia’s fault.

    I know you don’t mean that it is, but since she’s one of my favorite people, I had to pick the nit. Sorry!

  14. undine on 02 Aug 2009 at 3:23 pm #

    I’m seconding Buster’s request for the grad student’s paper.

    Also, this is an excellent point: “Another issue that is unexplained by the ‘Before Julia/After Julia’ narrative is the fact that the consumption of prepared foods and surplus grain and corn syrup-laden snacks, and the correlated fact of increasing American obesity, are squarely ”After Julia” phenomena of the 1980s to the present.” If the 1950s and 1960s (assuming Julia’s influence didn’t really spread until the later 1960s) were all about prepared foods, wouldn’t you expect the obesity epidemic to begin at that time? That’s another proof of your theory about the hidden history of local and fresh foods during that era.

    And History Maven has a point about The Joy of Cooking. I learned to cook by reading _The Joy of Cooking_ and can still tell you from memory what Irma and Marion had to say about certain dishes. Red Velvet Cake? They didn’t like it much but included it as a recipe for those who did. There’s even humor in that book, as when they poke fun at the “new bride” (their words) who asked where she could buy the “potato jackets” they were always talking about.

  15. Susan on 02 Aug 2009 at 3:29 pm #

    Great post. It seems to me (remembering the intro to the Joy of Cooking) that the Irma Rombauer was a widow in St. Louis; her daughter Marion was the one in Cincinnati. But point taken about location, as well as financial necessity. I love your stories about your mother’s childhood; even in NYC in the 1950s, we still had milk delivered. And really, it’s the revision of the farm subsidies in the 1970s that create the real prepared food revolution. Yes, there are prepared foods before, but that’s when it took off. I think in many ways I still think like a graduate student about food, and for ordinary meals, I’m offended when I go out and I know that I could make that so much more cheaply.
    I had a nice dinner tonight at a Persian restaurant, and I know it’s late; but your dinner sounds delicious, so I’ll show up for dessert. Oh, and Nicole Kidman is totally right.

  16. Paul on 02 Aug 2009 at 4:06 pm #

    Everything that I know about cooking is second-hand, since I’m one of those rather sad folks who eats mainly microwaved meals and snacks from a bag, but I grew up with stories from my parents about how daily milk deliveries were common at least through the 1960s, and how it was fairly common to get other things like fresh fruits and vegetables delivered as well. I get the distinct impression that in my parents’ households, a fair amount of cooking was still done with fresh ingredients.

    Maybe the 50s get a bad reputation for cooking because it was the decade in the US that saw the birth of “fast food” and prepackaged foods like “TV dinners” (sort of the ancestor of the microwave meals that I still rely on so much). Still, I tend to think of my father’s comment about how nobody he knew eat TV dinners in the 50s and 60s because they were, frankly, horrible. Apparently microwaved meals today are gourmet masterpieces compared to the first generation of frozen meals.

  17. Janice on 02 Aug 2009 at 4:08 pm #

    Are you familiar with the Women’s Institutes? I’ve two colleagues, here, who’ve worked on their history from different perspectives and, as you say, the reality bears out that these women were cooking something very different from the stereotypical reports would have it.

    While I remember Jell-O salads from my childhood in the 60s and 70s, I also remember an awful lot of cooking from scratch. Box mixes weren’t popularized until after World War II and, even then, I don’t think they dominated everything in the American foodscape.

  18. The Rebel Lettriste on 02 Aug 2009 at 5:21 pm #

    This is such a great post! And it jibes completely with my own (Midwestern) experience, too–one where people grew food, and knew how to use it, and made pretty much everything from scratch. I have long thought that the obsession with Julia Child and the corollary assumption that ‘before’ Child everyone ate out of a package was a deeply classed and regional one. Blue collar folks in flyover country know how to eat. And in my experience, will go hungry before eating crappy food.

    I have my maternal grandmother’s Joy of Cooking, which contains all kinds of minutiae on canning, pickling, and squirrel-skinning. And which taught me a whole lot about popovers, cakes, and lump-free gravy, lemme tell you. She’d wax rhapsodic about sweet corn.

    And my paternal grandmother was a little old lady with a 3rd grade education who made ravioli from scratch. Her garden, though urban and tiny, was legendary. (Stuffed zucchini flower fritters, anyone?) I lament the fact that she wrote nothing down, and so her recipes are forever lost. Her sisters-in-law, my great aunties, made the best home-foraged blueberry pies I have ever had. And their pan-fried smelts, from the lake, jeez! I have their canning tools, but have yet to figure out how to really use them…

  19. quixote on 02 Aug 2009 at 8:40 pm #

    As a history ignoramus, Susan’s comment struck me: the revision of the farm subsidies in the 1970s that create the real prepared food revolution.

    I haven’t seen that connection made before. It’s all about the rise of McDs and the choices people make. It’s interesting to get an inkling that the choices were shaped by government policy! If you have more information, please share.

  20. Digger on 02 Aug 2009 at 9:12 pm #

    Quixote, from what I understand, there was a sugar shortage, so the feds subsidized the production of corn for corn syrup, as one example. Interesting now that corn is being subsidized for ethanol, brands like Snapple are going back to sugar (that’s the “better” stuff they’re flogging… sugar instead of corn syrup).

  21. Geoff on 02 Aug 2009 at 10:17 pm #

    James Beard deserves much of the credit for what Julia Child is reported to have done in this revisionist narrative of introducing gourmet tastes to America’s more discerning palates. The Wikipedia entry on Beard features several quotes from Child pointing to Beard’s influence.

    It is interesting that the take on Child seems to have been inverted from what it was several years ago. I remember hearing from separate sources how Child’s recipes were overly complex and not likely to endear one to cooking, in fact more likely to dissuade someone from cooking. These commenters seemed to think that it may have been better if she had not written at all.

    My mom as a child in the 50s endured so many helpings of canned green beans and endless repetitions of the same three or four entrees that she latched onto the Joy of Cooking. The stereotypes of the 1950s were based on reality for at least some suburban families.

  22. femme inista on 02 Aug 2009 at 11:16 pm #

    My grandmothers would have perished before integrating mixes into their cooking. Paternal one raised two sons in post-WWII Ohio, fed largely on the produce she raised in the backyard. Maternal one raised four children on the bounty from her home gardens. When they died I was lucky enough to get their recipe boxes (no one wanted them!). Fascinating to see as a historian, and as their grandchild.

  23. Haggistorian on 03 Aug 2009 at 12:31 am #

    I was born at the beginning of the 1950s, but we didn’t “eat out of a package.” Nor did any of my friend’s families. Yes, we ate some canned vegetables in the winter and the occasional baked beans and SPAM (I still love SPAM), but my mother made everything except bread from scratch. We bought bread from the bread man in Kansas. Went to truck farms and orchards in Topeka, as well as the supermarket. Garden in the back yard. Jello was rare. Gravy was always home-made. Still is, in my kitchen.

    Geoff mentioned James Beard. I’d agree and add Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet, as a pre-Childs influence.

    Pollan gets awfully pedantic but, as one who sits-at-the-feet-of-Cronon, I like his emphasis on connecting people to the environment via food. Changes in the land, indeed.

  24. Susan on 03 Aug 2009 at 4:44 am #

    When I got my copy of JOY, I loved reading about how to skin a squirrel! And I agree about James Beard: his cookbooks were very user friendly (and do try his sour cream chocolate frosting — simple simple and delish) unlike Julia C; in fact a few years ago I got rid of Julia because I never ever used MtAoFC.
    Also, when I was in grad school in the late 1970s, there were still a couple of guys who delivered veg to the door.

  25. Susan on 03 Aug 2009 at 4:44 am #

    Oh, and sorry about this, but remember, TV dinners were expensive.

  26. Nikki on 03 Aug 2009 at 6:25 am #

    Another interesting point about the rise in American weight sis the rise in “modern conveniences” since the 1970s. I read an article, I think in Readers’ Digest, (about 10 years ago) that calculated the calories that would have been burned in a typical 1950s day. So, for example–every time the phone rang you would have had to get up and answer it. You would have had to get up to change the TV channel (if you had a TV,) no dishwashers, if you had a car and garage you would have had to get out of your car to open the garage etc etc. And that doesn’t include the fact that you may have been more likely to walk places, or take the bus if you didn’t have a car. It would up being several hundred calories a day.

    I think if you couple this with the above-mentioned food subsidies of the 1970s you begin to see why we have these shifts in body size.

  27. Historiann on 03 Aug 2009 at 6:43 am #

    Thanks to all of you for your appreciative comments and remembrances of meals and kitchens past! I’m fascinated to see the beginnings of a Julia “backlash” here, or at least that the concept of “Before Julia/After Julia” makes sense to so many of you.

    I really appreciate all of the references to The Joy of Cooking. That, and not MtAoFC, was the first serious cookbook I ever sat down to read, and like many of you, I appreciated the sensible tone in which they discussed everything from making a butter cake to skinning a squirrel. I always liked its sensibility of being a compendium of American culinary history–so there are recipes that use canned cream soups as well as recipes for cakes that take a dozen eggs and the famous squirrel-skinning instructions. The edition I first read would have been in the mid-1980s, but I picked up a copy of the 1964 edition in an old bookstore in Indiana about 10 years ago, and it’s my go-to book for making a blender hollandaise, or a pecan pie. (It’s a serious GREAT and very simple pecan pie. It never fails, even at high altitude, and always draws raves.)

    I like the critique many of you have formulated of the “Before Julia/After Julia” narrative, which emphasizes not just the class issues I raised in my post, but also the regional and urban biases that also underlay it. I too am a native-born midwesterner, and spent my youth in Western Ohio and Southeastern Michigan. Ohio has a reputation now for being a very urban state, but even now, especially in Western Ohio, you can be out in farms and fields in a matter of minutes after leaving the city limits, of whatever city: Cincinnati, Dayton, Lima, Findlay, Toledo, etc.

  28. Barb on 03 Aug 2009 at 7:31 am #

    Really interesting post! But Julia Child herself would agree that American cooks at the time she published TAofFC were real cooks who wanted to learn how to expand their skills. She discussed the publication of the book, and how she had to fight with male publishers to get it done, because the men thought American women wanted easy recipes that relied on packaged foods. Her book, “My Life in France,” talks about this, and is fascinating and hilarious. I too am looking forward to the movie!

  29. Sisyphus on 03 Aug 2009 at 11:05 am #

    I just have to chime in with the one other person disagreeing against everyone else’s comments. My parents grew up in rural Indiana in the 40s and went to college in the 50s and from what I can tell from their stories and going back to family reunions, _everything_ they ate was packaged then! Everything came from cans — even the meat — and they had these weird “casserole” things which involve lots of canned vegetables with cream of mushroom soup or something even more disgusting poured on top. My mom is also famous for boiling every single vegetable until it was the consistency of mush, still, and everyone in her extended family only really eats the meat and bread and leaves the vegetables on their plates.

    I also don’t know a single family “back at the neighborhood” that would grow food instead of flowers in their gardens because people might think they were working-class. I mean they are working-class, by my estimation, but they own their own homes and are white so they are not, by their estimation.

    And as to the “local food movement” being elitist and not connected to the midwest, it’s my recollection that the farm subsidy bills that went in with agribusiness in the 60s and 70s made it almost impossible for small farms or farmers’ markets to function in the midwest — that they had to pay a huge fee for moving land out of cash crop production, so that it is much easier and cheaper to buy canned goods that have been canned and shipped from CA or even canned in the midwest, shipped to the coasts, and then shipped back to the midwest.

  30. Historiann on 03 Aug 2009 at 1:32 pm #

    Sisyphus–good point on the farm subsidies. I don’t know enough about them one way or the other, but the story you tell is all too plausible.

    And, I don’t mean to argue that absolutely no one ate canned or packaged food in the 1950s–just that it’s a stereotype that’s about a mile wide and an inch deep if you look at the real history of foodways in the 1950s. I’m sorry for your parents’ sake that they weren’t eating fresh foods then! As you suggest, the surest way to turn people off from vegetables for good is to serve them only overcooked and/or in cans. A young member of the next generation in my extended family is blithely innocent of how counter-cultural she truly is when she tells people that “veggies” are her favorite foods–brussels sprouts, zucchini, eggplant, beets–the whole adventurous package.

  31. Paige on 03 Aug 2009 at 1:33 pm #

    I think you make an excellent point in this essay. I, too, spent a great deal of time with my grandmother during my childhood years. My grandparents live in very rural AL, and always grew their own vegetables. I worked in the garden each morning with my grandmother, then would help to prepare the noontime meal. We spent the afternoon in her kitchen putting by the food we had harvested from the garden: canning green beans, tomatoes, squash pickle relish; freezing peas, butter beans, squash, eggplant, zucchini, corn, creamed corn; and making stock from the leftovers. Oh how I wish I had been prescient at age 10 to take notes. Still, as I have grown older, the lessons have stayed with me. I do my very best to cook all of my family’s meals, without resorting to processed, packaged ingredients. Perhaps Julia Child articulated the importance of using fresh, local, seasonal ingredients; and perhaps she served as an important bridge between people like my grandmother and their daughters/sons and grandchildren. Perhaps Julia provided some credence – on an unconsious level – for the next generation to understand the importance of cooking well from seasonal ingredients available locally.

  32. Academic2 on 04 Aug 2009 at 8:17 am #

    It is worth reading *My life in France*; Julia Child readily acknowledges the role of other chefs in the changing of the American food landscape and she talks about finding and getting local foods as well.

    Plus, it’s a very good read.

  33. Historiann on 04 Aug 2009 at 4:25 pm #

    I’ll try to pick that up–thanks for the tip.

  34. Vance Maverick on 06 Aug 2009 at 1:44 pm #

    I’m coming to this late, but I would strongly urge people to read MFK Fisher. Her work makes clear that “post-Julia”-type food consciousness was quite possible in pre-Julia America (and that it wasn’t the only alternative to processed foods); and she wrote really well. The Gastronomical Me is probably the single best book; I think Gourmet has various of her articles in its online archives.

  35. Historiann on 06 Aug 2009 at 2:12 pm #

    Vance, you’re absolutely right. I’ve been toying with doing a series of posts on How to Cook a Wolf (1941, I think), which is a book with a timely theme these days (i.e., how to run a household on war rations/in hard times.) M.F.K. Fischer is one of my favorite writers of the 20th C.

  36. Vance Maverick on 06 Aug 2009 at 2:26 pm #

    Have you tried any of the recipes? I tried a few from other collections, without great success. But still, a culture hero. Like Child, she was Europhilic, but she was less Eurocentric — or at least, being a general writer rather than a trained transmitter of a specific cuisine, she was better able to express how the tastes she refined in France were rooted in homely America.

  37. SparrowApril on 10 Aug 2009 at 11:35 am #

    I’m currently reading Julia Child’s book My Life in France. In it Julia mentions cooking out of The Joy of Cooking. After reading that the Julie and Julia movie was a combination of both books Julie and Julia (haven’t read) and My Life in France – I am more interrested in seeing it.

    I just blogged about My Life in France, today.
    http://thefragranthand.blogspot.com/2009/08/like-sitting-across-sunny-kitchen-table.html

    A Past post about why Julia is special to me.
    http://thefragranthand.blogspot.com/2009/04/quoting-julia.html

  38. Jean on 17 Aug 2009 at 12:46 pm #

    Well, of course, Julia Child wasn’t the *only* person in the America of the late 50s/early 60s who was cooking and eating well. Up until I was 9 in 1962, I had only had the fabulous homecooking of my mother and grandmothers. Everything “from scratch” with fresh ingredients. But in 1962, when I began dining in the homes of friends, I had my first encounters with margarine, cake mix, frosting mix, pancake mix, gravy mix, salad dressing mix, casseroles relying heavily (no pun intended) on canned and packaged convenience foods, packaged puddings and gelatines, imitation ice milk. I don’t know what year the frozen whipped topping came along, but it got to be pretty hard to avoid. And when my mother and I were watching Julia Child on PBS in the mid-60s, none of the other mothers and daughters in the neighborhood were. So I think there were an awful lot of home cooks who really were fitting the stereotype.

  39. Becky on 17 Aug 2009 at 11:32 pm #

    Stumbled on your blog quite late (literally, and in terms of this thread) but I did want to comment: My Ph.D. work was in American Studies/Foodways in the 1980′s, when culinary history was still considered “fluff” by many in the social sciences. At one point it was even suggested by a (sexist pig ;-) advisor that I might be better off taking my cobbled-together topic and dissertation hopes “off to the Home Ec department.” Piffle. ;-)

    Anyway, I want to point out that there were persistent *regional* differences in foodways still apparent throughout the post WWII-pre-Julia era, which tend to skew any broad-based cultural analysis of “cooking styles” or the supposed national reliance on heavily advertised “convenience” foods.

    You can’t compare the cooking of the southern states –a region fiercely devoted to its culinary history as a strong source of cultural identity–with those of, say, the John Cheever classes in the suburbs of the NE corridor, for instance. Southern women were much more likely to adhere FIERCELY to the time-honored, and time-consuming culinary behaviors of their mothers and grandmothers–as a point of honor,in fact–than were cooks in other regions of the United States. The same could be said of certain ethnic enclaves in the Steel Belt, as well…and then one has to factor in the socio-economic distinctions (mentioned here by other respondents) that had farm wives still practicing labor-intensive “from scratch” cooking–not necessarily from choice, but possibly from economy– long after Jello and “Hungry Man” T.V. dinners had infiltrated the kitchens of the urban family of the same time period.

  40. Blogs to books: an opportunity or a big mistake? You decide. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 06 Sep 2012 at 11:15 am #

    [...] in the Martha Stewart style, books about weird diets, or baby blogs turned into baby books.  Even  Julie and Julia was a pretty bad book–entertaining, but poorly written in large sections and only lightly edited, if at all, and it [...]

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