July 27, 2018
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Food is often thought of in terms of comfort, enjoyment, family gatherings, and parties. We have barbecues in summer and stews in winter. Messy finger foods accompany sporting events and polite finger foods accompany baby showers. These things are linked by their participation in custom. Custom (or convention), as discussed in the Syntopicon, stems from public opinion. Adler claims, “Opinion normally suggests relativity to the individual, custom or convention relativity to the social group” (210B). Therefore, a focus on Betty Crocker’s popularity may enlighten commonalities or trends among American lifestyles.
Custom is often founded upon opinion. However, people often assume that custom stems from natural rules. Since customs become so deeply ingrained, it may be difficult to tell whether the belief is driven by nature or by opinion. Either way, once established, beliefs are incredibly difficult to change. They often lead to areas of taste, preference and judgement. A widely accepted social custom allows the majority to pass judgement on those who do not follow the accepted ritual. Montaigne goes so far as to assert that all moral judgements are matters of opinion. He says that “the taste of good and evil depends in large part on the opinion we have of them” (211B). Adler adds, “As may be seen in the chapter on Beauty, Montaigne assembles an abundance of evidence to show that standards of beauty vary with different peoples. The tastes or preferences of one group are as unaccountable as they are frequently revolting to another” (211B). This statement is never so true than when applied to food. Certainly individuals have individual likes and dislikes, but so too does society. And as noted before, once societal norms are established, they become very difficult to break. They may bend, each region may interpret the norm slightly differently, but custom, once in place, tends to hold.
Laura Shapiro’s 2004 book Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America directly addresses changes in food culture from 1930s to 1970s in America. Packaged foods began to arrive in America during the 1940s and 1950s. Every imaginable food product quickly flooded this market. But it turns out that changing people’s association with cooking was not nearly so easy as companies thought. At the time, most popular recipes touted themselves as “quick and easy” or labor-saving, so companies assumed the American woman would rejoice at the introduction of pre-packaged meals and meats and mixes. That turned out not to be the case. In her book, Shapiro investigates what packaged foods succeeded and why. She wanders through the many twists and turns of the packaged food industry which directly intersects with popular culture.
For example, one large stumbling block against packaged food was a cultural sense of duty. Women, by and large, felt that they must show effort in the kitchen. To question this effort was to question a woman’s duty, love, respect and morals. In fact, cake mixes were market-tested many times with marginal success. Pillsbury and General Mills (owner of the Betty Crocker brand) led the research and sales for cake mixes. When the companies made the recipes a bit more involved and asked women to add eggs, cake mix sales improved. The small effort of mixing, combined with a lot of advertising, helped the cook feel both involved and successful.
Shapiro writes: “Dichter rightly perceived the overwhelming weight of the moral and emotional imperative to bake cakes from scratch. His research spurred countless ads and magazine articles aimed at persuading women to differentiate between the plain cake layers - ‘merely step number one,’ according to Living – the finished masterpiece. ‘Now, success in cakemaking is packaged right along with the precision ingredients,’ Myrna Johnston assured readers of Better Homes & Gardens in 1953. ‘You can put your effort into glorifying your cake with frosting, dreaming up an exciting trim that puts your own label on it.’ For modern women, these authorities proclaimed, the real art of baking began after the cake emerged from the oven” (77). Shapiro also acknowledges, though, that in addition to demanding more effort, real eggs improved the cake’s flavor and texture. As these packaged foods became more accessible and widely tested, the marketing also ramped up. Company-sponsored baking contests, radio programs, and advertisements kept packaged food in the public eye.
This passage interests me not simply because of the eggs. I am also fascinated by the extreme changes in cake-making itself. About 50 years earlier, cakes would have taken a day to make, unfrosted. Now, the introduction of a cake-mix affords the baker enough time to decorate with flair. Instead of making a delicious cake, the company emphasizes a beautiful cake, one in which the baker adds their own signature on top – in the artistry of the frosting. The cake is notable more for how it looks than how it tastes. This change arrives in tandem with beautifully designed and illustrated cookbooks, such as Betty Crocker’s.
Betty Crocker’s ageless appeal is partially due to the fact that she is not real. Instead, Washburn-Crosby (maker of Gold Medal Flour, now a part of General Mills) invented her in 1921. Betty Crocker was voiced by a number of people on radio programs throughout the 20s and 30s. She had her first official portrait painted in 1936. The brand’s success capitalized upon common American trends. They polled the everyday chef, listened to the advice of housewives and complimented their work. They advertised and wrote trend-setting cookbooks. In short, Betty Crocker cookbooks address popular frustrations and desires. In the section on “Kitchen Know-How”, the Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook from 1961 advises: “Every morning before breakfast, comb hair, apply makeup and a dash of cologne. Does wonders for your morale and the family’s, too! Think pleasant thoughts while working and a chore will become a ‘labor of love.’” This cookbook touts itself as a book that is “charming, practical and fun to use.” Though Betty Crocker was not a real person, people reacted strongly to her sense of style, clarity, ease, ambition, ability to incorporate flavor, and lively spirit.
In the Epilogue of Something from the Oven, Shapiro claims, “In the end, it took both a cook and a feminist to liberate the American kitchen. By liberation I don’t mean freedom from cooking, though the women’s movement is often construed in those terms. I mean that the cooking itself has been freed, or at least notably loosened, from the grip of the food industry and the constraints of gender” (249). While I am not sure about her claim that women have been freed from kitchen labor, I do see how cooking has been liberated. In accepting cake mixes, shortcuts and time-saving equipment, it is possible to spend much less time in the kitchen.
In the Syntopicon, Adler writes, “Art involves voluntary making. Custom involves voluntary doing” (208A). This interests me as I think about changes in our association with food, not simply family meals, but elegant events and children’s parties. American food has definitely evolved since the introduction of processed foods. Yet, since cooking interacts so closely with culture, I am still left with many questions that a text like Shapiro’s begins to address. For example: How does food interact with progress? How does it restrict progress? What is considered “progress” in the kitchen? Can we consider a type of food liberating? For example, are microwaveable meals or Lunchables liberating? On the other hand, are foods made from homegrown gardens liberating? In short, what does our food say about culture today?
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