Sunday, April 08, 2007

Perfection Salad (Laura Shapiro)

First, let me explain exactly what perfection salad is: In the words of Michael Stern (who wrote the Introduction) it's "an aspic filled with finely chopped cabbage, celery, and red pepper that won its creator, Mrs. John Cooke, third prize (a new sewing machine) in the 1905 Knox gelatin cooking contest." And it's a great symbol of what "domestic scientists" (the precursors to home economists) stood for: something inventive, nutritious, and dainty. (Taste was rarely considered if at all in many of these creations.)

Laura Shapiro's book Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (part of the Modern Library Food Series, edited by Ruth Reichl) explores the domestic scientist's role in American cooking in the early 20th century. Domestic scientists were professional women who wanted to ensure that all families ate nutritious meals, although the standards for nutrition at the time were quite rudimentary to what we know--or think we know--now), with the cornerstone being digestion: Their calculations on how long it would take to digest a meal were based on digestion tables created by an Army surgeon in the early 1820s who (I'll spare the full details here) was able to study the digestion on an injured soldier quite well due to the extent and nature of the injury. Therefore, eating pounds of rice or oatmeal was nutritious, and eating a steak was not.

Interesting facts in the book include how hard it was to cook back then: There weren't standardized measurements (recipes would refer to a teacup's worth or the size of a hazelnut), and many recipes just assumed the readers knew how to cook, so they'd skip many (if not all) of the steps. Not only that, but wood-burning stoves made it nearly impossible to maintain a constant temperature.

These domestic scientists started cooking schools (popular with women who wanted to ensure that they ran a proper household) and gave lectures to aid the American woman; they believed their style of cooking to be far superior to all others (theirs was scientifically based--how could the others compete?). Immigrants were told to shun their traditional food and adopt this new style of cooking. One thing in particular that they were very against was sweets, especially cakes and pies. "Helen Campbell told the story, all to familiar to domestic scientists on the lecture circuit, of the scientific-cooking expert who was asked what her audiences throughout the country most frequently wanted to hear more about, after the lecture was over. 'Chocolate cake and lemon pie,' was the grim response."

As the processed food revolution exploded, cookbooks became endorsements for certain companies. "Dainty Dishes for All the Year Round was a collection of frozen desserts and ground-meat entrees, published by a company that made an ice-cream freezer and a meat grinder."

The domestic scientists eventually gave way to the field of home economics, which became the catch-all field for women who wanted to attend college. Interested in chemistry? Biology? Publishing? But you're a woman? Then you'd study home economics instead, which the universities insisted covered all these subjects.

I had a slow start with this book, but then I got really into it. I'm now looking forward to reading Shapiro's other books, including Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America, and her recent biography of Julia Child.

Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization (Kevin Kelly)

Somewhere inside the middling 521-page Out of Control is a really, really great 350-page book trying to get out. Which is unfortunate, because Kelly—at the time the executive editor of Wired, and currently billed as its “chief maverick”—tackles a lot of very interesting subjects, and clearly has an affinity for them as well as the natural curiosity that makes for great science and technology writing. But mostly reading this book just made me really wish someone like Oliver Sacks or Malcolm Gladwell had written it instead—or that, at the very least, he could have had much better editing than he did.

The book focuses on complex, distributed, adaptable systems such as biological organisms and superorganisms, computer networks, and swarms of various types, which takes Kelly across such diverse subjects as the Biosphere 2 project and other “closed systems,” artificial evolution, industrial ecology, military simulations, robotics and artificial intelligence (and the nature of human intelligence itself), and predicting the future—all very compelling stuff. The problem was that I found that I was having to enjoy the information in spite of Kelly’s writing, rather than because of it (or, better, without having to notice it at all). I’ll often flag things when I read, and one way to tell how much I’m liking a book is to compare the ratio of things I’m flagging as “Wow!” to those I’m flagging as “This seems awfully silly.” And although there were a lot of things I liked about Out of Control, I also found myself flagging an awful lot of things for silliness. He often seemed to spend four or five pages making a point he could have said in one or two, and was prone to wild, pseudo-profound generalizations like the following:

  • “While every human is born pretty much the same, every death is different. If a coroner’s cause-of-death certificates were exact, each one would be unique.” (This is barely more true of death than of birth—if a doctor’s birth report were exact, each one would be unique too, and by the same token, plenty of people have died very similar deaths.)
  • “Snake is linear, but when it feeds back into itself it becomes the archetype of nonlinear being. In the classical Jungian framework, the tail-biting Uroborus is the symbolic depiction of the self. The completeness of the circle is the self-containment of self, a containment that is at the same time made of one thing and made of competing parts. The flush toilet, then, as the plainest manifestation of a feedback loop, is a mythical beast—the beast of self.” (The abstract academic language is bad enough, and the flush toilet simply can’t support this level of grandiosity. I had to stop and search for signs that he was trying to be funny, and found none.)
  • “Stripped of all secondary motives, all addictions are one: to make a world of our own.” (This is the kind of thing that sounds good until you try to figure out what it means—how, exactly, are alcoholics or heroin addicts trying to make a world of their own? I have no idea. I thought they were trying to satisfy a chemical dependency.)
  • “So few long-term predictions prove correct that statistically they are all wrong. Yet, by the same statistical measure, so many short term [sic] predictions are right, that all short-term predictions are right.” (What he’s trying to say is that people in the prediction business know that they cannot rely on long-term predictions, because so few of them are right—which is a far cry from saying that in fact they are all wrong. Applying the word “statistically” doesn’t change “few are right” to “none are right.” If anything, it makes the statement even less true.)
He also expends a lot of words on dubious imaginative journeys through history (the invention of “autonomous control” in ninth-century China) and more esoteric terrain (searching Borges’s Infinite Library for a copy of his own as-yet-unfinished Out of Control), and on hopelessly clunky constructions like “This hardware quarantine has been a prime factor in the nonhappening of this future” and odd similes like “The CPU, no larger than a soggy cornflake. . . . ”

Which isn’t to say that it’s a terrible book—in fact, the reason I found the writing and editing (or lack thereof) so frustrating was that the material itself was so fascinating, and I wanted to like it. He’s at his best when discussing cutting-edge technology and possible futures—computer simulations, robotics, artificial life—and although he loses his way a bit when he involves himself in philosophy and more general science, he does always takes them on with an obvious and genuine enthusiasm.

But still, on finishing it, I was mostly relieved that I could finally get back to Dance Dance Dance.