Fresh From the Can
A shimmering canned ham, spiked with dried cloves and disks of canned pineapple. A side of molded Jell-O salad, pregnant with pimentos and shredded cabbage. And maybe a nice cake for dessert, made from a mix and spackled over with hot-pink frosting. This was modern cooking, 1950s-style.
After World War II came a time of unprecedented change in America. The economy boomed, women entered the workforce as never before, and food, well, food got a little strange. Workingwomen had less time to spend in the kitchen, so food companies stepped in with a buffet of processed foods: mixes, powders, cans, and that icon of 1950s cookery, the frozen TV dinner. But the real story of America's love affair with all things prepared, preserved, and artificially flavored is not quite that simple.
Ready to eat. World War II was indeed a turning point in home cooking. But the convenience-food explosion had as much to do with supply as with demand. During the war, says Case Western Reserve University historian Alan Rocke, "the Army needed ready-to-eat meals, and that meant processing, both mechanical and chemical." The food industry developed new technologies and ramped up canning and freeze-drying operations to feed the troops. As a result, says Laura Shapiro, author of Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America, "the industry came out of the war capable of feeding the entire world with frozen, canned, and dehydrated food." The only problem? After the war ended, nobody wanted the stuff.
Food scientists turned to making products palatable as well as quick, easy, and predictable. But the real action was in marketing boardrooms. "Americans were used to eating lousy food," Shapiro says, so it wasn't the bland, textureless character of ready-made products that women resisted. "The packaged foods didn't involve [women]," she explains, "and apart from child rearing, cooking was the main thing that made a woman a wife, a mother, that made her herself."
The food industry, convinced its products were superior to traditional cooking, fought to make prepared food respectable. Companies hired home economists to develop fancy recipes with their products and blanketed magazines, newspapers, and TV with ads driving home their point: Cooking is old-fashioned, women are too busy to do it, and the new food products are more nutritious anyway. Only stalwart cooks could resist.
Marketers learned a few tricks along the way. The first instant cake mix was introduced in 1931, but 20 years later, many women were still baking from scratch. The "egg theory"--leave the dehydrated eggs out, and women would regain their sense of ownership as they cracked fresh eggs into the batter--is credited with winning more converts. "But what really saved the cake mix was the frosting," Shapiro says. Food companies encouraged women to indulge in flights of creative fancy with their (also packaged) frostings, coating humdrum cakes in baroque layers of sickly sweet goo. With added eggs and creative frosting, says Shapiro, cake mixes "still taste like a chemical plant, but it feels like you're doing something in the kitchen."