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'Something from the Oven'

Detail from the cover of <I>Something from the Oven</i> by Laura Shapiro.
Detail from the cover of Something from the Oven by Laura Shapiro.

Think 1950s food and you might conjure up Jell-O salads with a riot of add-ons or soda pop put to unnatural uses. In her new book, Something from the Oven, author Laura Shapiro deconstructs food from the '50s -- and the industry that foisted it on American households.

She describes how some foods developed for soldiers during World War II were successfully transplanted into the home, while others died unappetizing deaths: Canned peaches survived, but the canned deep-fried hamburger, thankfully, did not.

Shapiro says the '50s food industry tried to convince American women that they didn't enjoy cooking or have time to do it -- and that they'd be better off turning to a box or can. She discusses her history of packaged food with NPR's Melissa Block, host of All Things Considered. Read an excerpt from Shapiro's book below:

Book Excerpt: Something from the Oven

…At the heart of the industry's new definition of cooking was a ticking clock. Homemakers had always valued recipes for dishes that could be prepared with dispatch, and the concept of saving time by using this product or that recipe had been a familiar theme in food writing and advertising for decades. In its classic formulation, speed was associated with emergencies, and emergencies generally amounted to unexpected guests. Novice cooks were always advised to keep a well-stocked pantry in case visitors dropped by.

But during the postwar era, time became an obsession of the food industry and eventually of American homemakers as a manufactured sense of panic began to pervade even day-to-day cooking. Advertisements and stories plowed across the media reminding readers again and again how busy they were, how frantic their days, how desperately they needed products and recipes for quick meals.

"If you're a typical modern housewife, you want to do your cooking as fast as possible," wrote a columnist at Household magazine who was promoting instant coffee and canned onion soup. Not even cold cereal got to the table fast enough. According to Kellogg, what mothers really liked about the new Corn Pops was that the cereal was presweetened, a boon they found to be a great time-saver.

"In this fast-moving era, everyone is concerned with saving time," emphasized a teacher who was submitting her favorite recipe to Forecast, the home economics magazine. "I, in company with innumerable other women, feel the pressing need of entertaining my friends well but with a minimum of time and energy spent in preparation." Her solution was to use a can of baby food as a lasagna ingredient.

In the pages of Forecast and other magazines, it wasn't the arrival of sudden company that threw a household into emergency status --ordinary life was sufficient. "Baby fussing? Dinner to get?" inquired an ad in 1953. "When baby wants attention and daddy wants dinner, your best friend is quick-quick Minute Rice!" Soon no excuse at all was needed, and stories simply promised "Hot breads--in a jiffy!" "Quick fix desserts!" "Suppers that beat the clock!" Here was one claim that manufacturers could stand behind; and when it came to some foods, this was probably the sole claim that could be made with any credibility.

"It's just 1-2-3, and dinner's on the table," exclaimed a story in Better Homes & Gardens. "That's how speedy the fixing can be when the hub of your meal is delicious canned meat." The five menus included several recipes of a type that would become legendary in the annals of packaged-food cuisine, including "Twenty Minute Roast" -- wedges of Spam glazed with orange marmalade –- and a pan of Vienna sausages broiled with canned peaches, which this story identified as a "Harvest Luncheon."

But the insistent rhetoric of high-speed cookery had to be handled with care. The faster the cooking, the less it was going to feel like real cooking, and the greater the potential for guilt on the part of the homemaker. A woman who felt she herself had contributed almost nothing to the dinner she served her family wouldn't buy those particular items again, advised Ernest Dichter, whose theories about the psychology of advertising guided promotional campaigns for a range of consumer products.

He and his staff at the Institute for Motivational Research interviewed thousands of women over the years, and his analysis of "today's lady" reverberated widely throughout the food industry. In the old days, he explained, women felt they were obliged to live up to the most exacting standards of housekeeping. Modern women were shaking off these demands, but not entirely. They were glad to be rid of the hard work but unwilling to give up the rest of what they saw as the important role of housewife.

Their solution -- and this became Dichter's major contribution to package-food cuisine -- was an approach to cooking he called "creativeness." He spelled it out in the form of a dialectic:

Thesis: "I'm a housewife."

Antithesis: "I hate drudgery."

Synthesis: "I'm creative."

Excerpted from Something from the Oven by Laura Shapiro. Note: For ease of reading, paragraph breaks have been inserted into the excerpted text above.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.

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