Sunday, April 09, 2006

Perfection Salad: Book Review

Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century, by Laura Shapiro

This was a very entertaining book, although you would never guess it, given such a domestic subject and a really ho-hum subtitle. I read a recommendation on chowhound.com, though, so I requested it from our library. Since it was published twenty years ago, there wasn't a request list.*

Perfection Salad is well-written, funny, and very well-researched. Although the "current trends" summarized in the last chapter are now sadly out of date (but maybe they've been updated in the new edition, which I haven't seen), the rest of the book is still very relevant and occasionally very funny. It's a history of women's roles, feminity, the science of cooking, attitudes about food, the evolution of the food industry and American cuisine, and home economics.

A few images that stuck in my head: early in the 20th century, it was thought that women and children needed lighter (less masculine) food than men. One popular magazine recommended that children be given a delicious frosting sandwich for lunch.

On the other hand, it was a cause for great concern if boys only wanted more feminine desserts: from "How to Eat, Drink, and Sleep as a Christian Should":

Both parents know that Tom should be helped up to a sturdy boyhood; not having all his girlish fancies indulged. How can they make him love the rare, juicy tender roast beef, and the hot baked potato that he now turns from, holding in his hunger until the pudding gets on the table?�

It was commonly assumed that most of the men in prisons, workhouses, and mental hospitals in the early 1900's were there because they didn't have good women providing them with wholesome food at home. If they had the right foods, they wouldn't turn to drink! Pies, old-fashioned pies, they were a gateway drug. I had no idea. And apparently this whole "women cooking good food keeps a family wholesome" idea is coming back into serious vogue, according to Caitlin Flanagan, anyway. No, I'm not going to link to Flanagan's book, but here's that now famous interview in Elle.

And those immigrants with their foreign foods! What was wrong them, eating pasta and garlic and whatnot, when they could be eating molded jello salads, baked beans garnished with toasted marshmallows stuffed with raisins, and meats cleanly covered in a smooth white sauce?



*Amazon.com has a new edition, with an introduction by Michael Stern, published in 2001. And my apologies to any Sybermoms who have already read this review a while back. I thought the book deserved a wider audience, and I didn't feel particularly creative tonight.

1 comment:

Heels said...

That Elle article made my teeth hurt and finally inspired me to write about this topic myself.

**full body shiver of revulsion**