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.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like the perfect blend of history and cooking with just a dash of women's lib. to spice things up. I like it and plan to trade in my school books for this as soon as I get the chance. :)

Lee Anne said...

Sounds great! I just read M.F.K. Fisher's The Gastronomical Me, and I just started Heat by Bill Buford. The Pilot just finished it -- he loved it.