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Betty Crocker Culture

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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Ringing in the New Year

December 29, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

"Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring, happy bells, across the snow; The year is going, let him go; Ring out the false, ring in the true."  - Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Music for today's post provided by Trio Mediaeval

I have heard of ringing in the new year. I have also heard of bringing in the new year. I was not sure if they are synonymous, or two separate phrases, but it turns out that both are used and useful.

Bells can signify joy and success, as demonstrated by John Adams in a letter to his wife. He writes, “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.” In other words, the bells give voice to celebration, joy and excitement, the voice of a hard-won fight.

This sentiment is also carried by Walt Whitman in “O Captain, My Captain” which reads, “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won, The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting.” Whitman too seems to combine two sentiments into one. While alluding to the danger of the past, fearful trip, Whitman also embraces the hope of the new. In other words, in this stanza, the bells celebrate a loss while also rejoicing over the future.

The phrase “ringing in the new year” hints at the idea of loss. Long ago, people thought that the sound of bells scared away evil spirits and so they often rang for funerals as well as religious traditions. Long, dark nights of winter encouraged bell ringing, which then ran into holiday celebrations. Finally, the bell ringing merged cultural anxiety with holiday celebration and bells became synonymous with joy and hope. Churches began to ring bells and then the bell became both warning and celebration, a noise that made one take note of life's events.

It turns out that “ringing in the new year” is often confused with “bringing in the new year”. While they both celebrate the new year, they actually refer to different traditions. The phrase “to bring”, according to Merriam-Webster, most likely corresponds to “to disclose or reveal”. In this sense, the new year literally delivers something new, whereas ringing in the new year simply notes the passing of a year. To me, ringing carries more of a physical presence with it – as if the year expired in terms of space and time – whereas bringing introduces something new into the old, like a gift under the tree. Honestly, I can see why both of these analogies fit so well. The passage of time is complicated. It involves space, time, culture and tradition. No matter the phrase you choose, it seems important to take a moment to note that the first minute of 2018 is very different from the last minute of 2017. Therefore, let this be a toast to the new year! Whether you are ringing, bringing or both, may you be blessed with great literature and wonderful conversation.

“The horizon leans forward, offering you space to place new steps of change.” - Maya Angelou

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Charting Kant

October 20, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon for today's post.

Kant's Science of Right takes time to read. In the Science of Right, Kant explains the interaction of theory with practice when defining ownership, rights, and equity. I find it difficult to pull short sections from his writing because all of his arguments build upon one another. I also find it nearly impossible to study a single quote with the hopes of gaining a better understanding to his arguments because, again, the arguments are so inextricably linked. It's almost incestuous. However, I will do that very thing today while grappling with the idea of equity. I find it helpful to chart my understanding of Kant's arguments, so I have shared a few of my visual aids in hopes that they may enhance our understanding and conversation of his principles.

Merriam-Webster's first entry for equity is “justice according to natural law or right, specifically freedom from bias or favoritism”. Likewise, Kant's entire argument rests upon the idea of categorical imperatives, or a Kantian type of natural law (see figure 1), which makes this section fantastically interesting (and dense).

 Figure 1

Figure 1

The following selection from the subheading of “6. Deduction of the Conception of a Purely Juridical Possession of an External Object (Possessio Noumenon)”, offers a glimpse of a very Kantian argument. He bases theory on the practical, which actually proves how practice is more theoretical than empirical. In other words, what we think of as concretely “mine” is actually an abstraction from one of Kant's categorical imperatives. He claims that categorical imperatives form the base of our societal structure, and in so doing, he explains how we function via free will. From that, I hope to gain an understanding of how abstraction functions and also what we might be able to gain from the idea of a temporary unification of two divergent wills.

Section 6 reads:

“It has been shown in the Critique of Pure Reason that in theoretical principles a priori, an institutional perception of a priori must be supplied in connection with any given conception; and, consequently, were it a question of a purely theoretical principle, something would have to be added to the conception of the possession of an object to make it real. But in respect of the practical principle under consideration, the procedure is just the converse of the theoretical process; so that all the conditions of perception which form the foundation of empirical possession must be abstracted or taken away in order to extend the range of the juridical conception beyond the empirical sphere, and in order to be able to apply the postulate, that every external object of the free activity of my will, so far as I have it in my power, although not in the possession of it, may be reckoned as juridically mine.

“The possibility of such a possession, which consequent deduction of the conception of a non-empirical possession, is founded upon the juridical postulate of the practical reason, that 'It is a juridical duty so to act towards others that what is external and useable may come into the possession or become the property of some one.' And this postulate is conjoined with the exposition of the conception that what is externally one's own is founded upon a possession, that is not physical. The possibility of such a possession, thus conceived, cannot however be proved or comprehended in itself, because it is a rational conception for which no empirical perception can be furnished; but it follows as an immediate consequence from the postulate that has been enunciated. For, if it is necessary to act according to that juridical principle, the rational or intelligible condition of a purely juridical possession must also be possible. It need astonish no one, then, that the theoretical aspect of the principles of the external mine and thine is lost from view in the rational sphere of pure intelligence and presents no extension of knowledge; for the conception of freedom upon which they rest does not admit of any theoretical deduction of its possibility, and it can only be inferred from the practical law of reason called the categorical imperative, viewed as a fact.”

 Figure 2

Figure 2

The following ideas fascinate me the most. First, the inverse relationship between the theoretical and practical seems to counteract one another, but actually they reinforce each other. Kant uses the same process to found both arguments, but they create a labyrinthine inverse of the other (see figure 2). In other words, theory enables possession, but likewise, possession enables theory. Second, Kant states that these events happen independent of space and time, but also that they depend upon successive events. Therefore, there is a chronological structure to ownership, which instantaneously merges and then separates again. I wonder if, in some sense, the idea of time is what is "added" to the object in question?

 Figure 3

Figure 3

Finally, figure 3 depicts the idea of ownership as a transfer in which two separate wills momentarily converge. This idea fascinates me - that two separate beings actually unite in a single point connected by an abstracted object mid-transfer, as if runners handing off a baton during a relay - seems so straightforward and logical. Only free will doesn't always act logically. This juridical assessment of transfer only makes me want to know what we can learn from a societal construct able to unify the wills of more than one human being. Kant demonstrates that each transaction involves a meeting of wills. In other words, two wills converge instantaneously in an agreement at which time an object changes ownership, according to the categorical imperative underlying transfer. And then they separate. Their relationship exists as a point on our chart for only one, small, already-disappearing instant.

What can we learn about individual or universal will from Kant's parabolic structures?

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On Tinkers

October 6, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Myth is what happens to a strong belief once the belief has changed. In other words, what was once firm belief, turns into cultural story and entertainment. They become important narratives, but not necessarily belief systems. For example, we know who Zeus is, but I doubt that anyone believes the story of Leda and the Swan. (I say that with some hesitation because one could argue that the story is really about transformation, and that that particular myth represents the idea of change. I do concede that change is indisputable.) My point is, rather, that at one time, a society upheld Zeus as a supreme being and now we anthologize those representations into myth as opposed to religious texts. These stories often address the uncertainty of change or new beginnings. They analogize situations for which we have no data and no real coherent answer. They often come from ancient societies, but in today's blog I want to take a peek at a recent novel which, I argue, demonstrates the way that history sometimes feels mythic.

Recently I read the contemporary novel, Tinkers by Paul Harding. I felt that the novel ably demonstrated this idea of transformation from the almost-impossible (or unspeakable) into the mundane. By weaving fictional texts in and out of his story, Harding creates the mythic beginnings of a family. Through a poetic, winding style, the reader must piece together the family history. The men in this family all carry one trait, that of epilepsy. In the beginning, societal fears surrounding epilepsy in conjunction with the other-worldly experience of a seizure, defines the men. The omniscient narration style allows for historical notions to fluidly enter the stream of consciousness of one who experiences an episode. Therefore, through three subsequent generations, we better understand the historical time period as well as the individual characters.

In the first generation, the father is sent to an insane asylum (which was the only 'treatment' for epilepsy at this time). In the next generation, the insane asylum option exists, but the father abandons his family before being committed. Instead, he turns to a mundane city life in which he bags groceries and remarries. In this new life, he is valued and treated as normal. It is as though he has gone through a transformation from mythic beginnings to mundane humanity. Once the men remove long-held beliefs (placed upon them by society or reputation), they achieve the power to direct their own lives. They have stepped outside of the long-held belief which previously devalued their lives. Instead, the reader hopes that future generations will go on to live a life which achieves some level of happiness, despite disability.

The passage below exemplifies these mythic beginnings. In this section, a son watches a father fish for an apple. Whether he is actually watching this scene is less important than trying to see how the son understands his father. He literally imagines (or sees) his father's disintegration. The narrator does an excellent job of describing this ethereal being return to what must be the stuff of all beginnings.

“Another time I found him fumbling for an apple in the barrel we kept in the basement. I could just make him out in the gloom. Each time he tried to grab a piece of fruit, it eluded him, or I might say he eluded it, as his grasp was no stronger than a draft of air threading through a crack in the window. He succeeded once, after appearing to concentrate for a moment, in upsetting an apple from its place at the top of the pile, but it merely tumbled down along the backs of other apples and came to rest against the mouth of the barrel. It seemed to me that even if I could pick an apple up with my failing hands, how could I bite it with my dissipating teeth, digest it with my ethereal gut? I realized that this thought was not my own but, rather, my father's, that even his ideas were leaking out of his former self. Hands, teeth, gut, thoughts even, were all simply more or less convenient to human circumstance, and as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too, were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to be stars or belt buckles, or lunar dust or railroad spikes. Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father's fading was because he realized this: My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling at my skull – no, my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels. I looked away and ran back upstairs, skipping the ones that creaked, so that I would not embarrass my father, who had not quite yet turned back from clay into light.”

Many thanks to the conversation group which opened up this incredibly poetic text to me!

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