In the 1960s my busy mother used to bake bread two or three times a week. After we moved to the city in the 1970s she rarely, if ever, made it. By 1970 only 15 percent of all flour sold in the United States was for home baking, while in 1900 it had been 95 percent. I assume a similar pattern existed in Canada, where the cult of convenience was so firmly taking hold. Why would a mother make her own bread when she could find it sliced, wrapped and waiting in the supermarket? This was the beginning of the period when time spent in the kitchen was considered time wasted.
Women wanting to liberate themselves from their domestic obligations, particularly in the kitchen, certainly played a role in this shift. My mother never called herself a feminist, but feminist ideas would have resonated with her. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, describes the malaise of women who had to give up entirely on the idea of a family if they wanted a career, or who had to give up on a career or any sort of expression of their own individuality to serve their families.
My mother actually liked to cook and she was a good cook, but like so many women of her generation with children, women who were working outside the home, or women like my mother who were trying to get an education while raising a family, she welcomed anything that could make her life easier. I remember that she made very simple meals for us, and that she involved her children in the cooking as we got older, but she also felt the pressure to take shortcuts. It was the era of the working mother and when packaged food really found its niche. What busy mother has time to coax her children to eat a dinner that she has carefully prepared from scratch? All she has to do is open a package and, considering the amount of salt and flavour enhancers that went into that package, children were sure to eat up. Packaged foods fit into the discourse of the day. They were convenient and they seemed nutritious, and that was almost all that mattered.
Cookbooks from the 1960s and 1970s reflect both the excitement and the anxiety about packaged foods. My mother’s very popular Better Homes and Gardens Casserole Cook Book (published in 1968) is all about opening tins and packages to make dinner for the family. Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book was produced by General Mills in 1950 and became a standard in American kitchens throughout that period. Recipes in magazines urged women to serve wedges of canned meat glazed with marmalade, and to broil sausages and serve them with canned peaches.
In Canada Madame Benoit, famous across the country in her day with her own TV show, published Madame Benoit Cooks at Home in 1978. At first glance she seems to be all about authentic home cooking&emdash;she praises the superiority of beans baked in a clay pot overnight in a brick oven&emdash;but she also seems quite excited about the time–saving possibilities inherent in instant mashed potatoes, and includes canned beans and ketchup in a recipe for Bean Pot Pork Chops. For a while, Madame Benoit seemed poised somewhere between a Canadian version of Julia Child (she even trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris) and Betty Crocker, but she eventually gave in entirely to the faster–is–better trend and wrote a book on microwave cooking. My mother had some of her books in our kitchen.
Of course not everyone was giving in to convenience foods. In 1966 the popular historian Pierre Berton and his wife, Janet, published The Centennial Food Guide. They were clearly in the anxiety camp: “In a country that produces the world’s finest fresh meat, we submit to a dozen equivalents of Spam, all of them appalling,” they wrote with obvious disapproval. “We squirt fake whipped cream on our frozen strawberries and douse our instant pancakes with ersatz maple syrup.” The Bertons, who were clearly in the minority, feared that the way things were going, the art of cooking would soon become the art of stirring, and that babies would eventually be born without taste buds because they would no longer need them.
Watch this archival video from 1967 of Pierre Berton on CBC-TV’s Telescope in which he condemns artificial food.
The Bertons had seven children to feed, and the soup pot was always bubbling on the stove. What to eat was a constant question in their family, a constant source of pleasure. At least that’s how they presented it in print. In fact the stories throughout the book are about cooking with their children, coming up with big feasts for the family and sitting down to a good, cooked breakfast on the weekends. There are also stories about serving more elegant meals, though still composed of local ingredients, when the occasion called for it. There’s nothing about feeding children differently from adults, about hiding their vegetables in chocolate cake or cutting their sandwiches into the shape of a Venetian gondola. It’s probably safe to assume that the Berton household was free of specially prepared foods for children.
What these cookbooks of the 1950s and 1960s make clear, though, is that before the 1970s people cooked real food. They might have been trying to recreate ethnic dishes from faraway places—and by that I mean Italian recipes in New York, French recipes in Quebec and German recipes in Pennsylvania and southwestern Ontario—but they used the local, fresh ingredients they had at hand, and in the process they were creating something unique.
JEANNIE MARSHALL grew up in Toronto, and lived in New York, Berlin and Madrid before moving to Italy in 2002. She has reported on a wide range of issues in Europe for such media as the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the National Post, National Post Business, enRoute, The Walrus, Quill & Quire, Canadian Living and Canadian House and Home and has worked as a freelance editor for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. As the features writer in the Life section of the National Post during the paper’s first 5 years, Marshall became known for a distinctive and engaging style of storytelling. A National Magazine Award finalist, she and her husband and young son live in Rome.
Her new book, Outside the Box, is a lively, cross-cultural look at the way packaged and fast foods are marketed to our kids–and a meditation on how our eating habits and our family lives are being changed in the process.