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Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century

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One hundred years ago, Americans were engaged in a widespread social and commercial obsession with food that in many ways parallels the food mania of today. The leading professional cooks of the day were women bent on thoroughly modernizing and taming the American diet. With their scientific cookery, they hoped to convince American women to forget about Mom's apple pie and learn to think of the kitchen as a home laboratory for food production.
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Overview

One hundred years ago, Americans were engaged in a widespread social and commercial obsession with food that in many ways parallels the food mania of today. The leading professional cooks of the day were women bent on thoroughly modernizing and taming the American diet. With their scientific cookery, they hoped to convince American women to forget about Mom's apple pie and learn to think of the kitchen as a home laboratory for food production.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
"Q. Are vegetables ever served at a buffet luncheon? A. Yes, indeed...provided they appear in a form which will not look messy on the plate.... Even the plebian baked bean, in dainty individual ramekins with a garnish of fried apple balls and cress, or toasted marshmallows, stuffed with raisins...."

This advice, published in a popular cooking magazine in 1923, illustrates what happened to American cooking when well-meaning cooking teachers took up the domestic science banner, introducing "businesslike principles" to home management.

Laura Shapiro's insightful and amusing social history is full of such anecdotes. She documents the birth of domestic science, the movement that launched a million home economics courses and encouraged the overuse of white sauce, the invention of TV dinners, and the packaging of salads in Jell-O.

She vividly portrays such teachers as Fannie Farmer, "the mother of level measurements," and Ellen Richards and her Woman's Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which taught Hygiene, Bacteriology, Foods, and Laundry Work. Another eminent teacher, Mrs. Lincoln, even devised a special scent-free menu of baked bean soup, dry toast, and stewed raisins for Tuesdays (the day after washday), so that clean clothes would not pick up cooking odors immediately.

As Shapiro sees it, "They chose domesticity as a way of getting out of the house, and food as a means of transcending the body. But they carved out an identity for women so powerful that we're still trying to clamber out of it, and their influence on American cooking was devastating."

Perfection Saladhas been republished as part of the new Modern Library Food series with an introduction by Jane and Michael Stern. (Ginger Curwen)

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A journalist who has written extensively on aspects of feminism, Shapiro presents a well-researched history of women as nutritional revolutionaries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This serious study is lively entertainment, spiced by the author's wit and wry perceptions. Through her, we discover clues to the motives of women who turned American kitchens into laboratories, run according to the dicta of the Boston Cooking School and similar establishments that proliferated across the country. The most memorable of the culinary movers was Fannie Farmer, whose cookbook was published in a modest 3000-copy edition in 1896. Stories about Farmer and other domestic scientists of the period add strong appeal to Shapiro's report. So do the parallels between early feminists and today's advocates of equal rights. It is somber to realize, as the author emphasizes, that fear of significant power for women ``even over themselves'' kept their aims restricted. By 1900, they had settled for the status of experts in home economics instead of independence. (March 3)
Library Journal
In documenting the history of the American domestic science movement at the turn of this century, Shapiro's very readable book helps explain why middle-class Americans developed a preference for a cuisine that sacrifices taste to the pure and the plastic. It was an era when science was in ascendency, and the leaders of the domestic science movement hoped to change the eating habits of the nation and to do away with the irrational methods of traditional housekeeping. How these women succeeded and where they failed is a fascinating story. A good bibliography nicely supplements this admirable book, which should appeal to a wide audience. Highly recommended. Joyce S. Toomre, Russian Research Ctr., Harvard Univ.
Nach Waxman
Dazzling may be an odd word to use about a work of social history, but dazzling it is. Laura Shapiro's gimlet-eyed exploration of the roots of modern home cooking in America offers utterly fascinating research, analytic acuity, wit, pace, and writing so exhilaratingly good that it's sometimes hard to remember what an important book this is. Three cheers for this classic. Entertaining, and it's good for you. What more could we ask?
—Owner, Kitchen Arts and Letters
Richard Saz
How good to see this worthy book in print again. And how rare a writer is Laura Shapiro-she has synthesized an immense amount of research through the lens of her own crystal-clear thinking (and not incidentally her sly humor). Along the way: white sauce as purifier and ennobler, color-coordinated menus, Crisco as sandwich spread (!), "Dainty Desserts for Dainty People," home economics as agent for keeping "the male world male." This book is a pleasure to read. Welcome back, Perfection Salad.
— author of Classic Home Desserts
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805002287
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/29/2000
  • Pages: 288

Meet the Author

Laura Shapiro was on staff at Newsweek and is a contributor to the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Granta, and Gourmet. She is the author of Julia Child and Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Toasted Marshmallows Stuffed with Raisins 3
1 Drudgery Divine 11
2 And the Kitchen Becomes the Workshop of the Skies 34
3 Better Ways, Lighter Burdens, More Wholesome Results 47
4 Perfection Salad 71
5 The Mother of Level Measurements 106
6 Whoever Knew a Dyspeptic to Be a Christian? 127
7 Foes in Our Own Household 169
8 An Absolutely New Product 191
Conclusion: A Leaf or Two of Lettuce 217
Acknowledgments 238
Notes 239
Bibliography 263
Index 275
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2004

    Fascinating Piece of Social History

    'One of the major civilizing influences in the American kitchen was widely recognized to be white sauce.' Although you may be inclined to think that a book containing this line would be dull as dish water, this book is actually wonderful, giving great insights into the role of women in late 19th and early 20th century America. Perfection Salad details how, in those years, cooking for a household was beginning the transformation from a labor-intensive, full-time task to one made more efficient by the beginning of modern time-saving conveniences and uniform instruction. Another fascinating aspect examined in this book is the role of food preparation in defining social class. With the establishment of cooking schools in many urban areas, the social elite endeavored to elevate the lower classes through training the women of this class to better feed their families and run their households. The book very nicely illustrates the 'paternalistic' attitude of the upper class toward the lower class, particularly in relation to the immigrants who were packing the slums of the large cities during this time period. The writing is at times a little tedious; so a skimmed some portions of it. But most of it is fascinating, sharing information I have not gotten in my other readings in social history. Even if you are not interested in cooking, you will enjoy Perfection Salad.

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