May 12, 2004

Of TV Dinners and World War II

Posted by Ed

The new issue of The Atlantic Monthly features a review, by the cookbook writer Ann Hodgman, of Laura Shapiro's Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. In this book, Shapiro attempts to explain the rise of processed food like cake mixes, jello, and TV dinners, looking at factors like "the food industry's pushiness, advertisers' wiliness, [and] consumers' eagerness to wolf down trainloads of salt, sugar, and preservatives":

Shapiro began this saga in an earlier book, Perfection Salad (1986)—a charmingly idiosyncratic look at the way home cooking changed in this country during the early part of the twentieth century. Perfection Salad covered the horrors wreaked on middle-class food when nutritionists, home economists, and other "domestic scientists" got hold of it and turned everything into Jell-O salad and white sauce. Something From the Oven picks up the story after World War II, when standardized food was already entrenched in America. (Shapiro considers the 1950s to be the period from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s.)

As Shapiro tells it, the post-World War II food industry, bursting with tricks it had learned for feeding soldiers overseas, was eager to train Americans "to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like food rations"—dried, reconstituted, indestructible. The offerings included dried wines, a potato snack called Tatonuts that was touted as having "strong resistance to weather conditions," canned hamburgers, and—I swear—frozen concentrated mineral water. Meanwhile, magazine and newspaper publishers did all they could to persuade the American housewife that she had no time to cook.

There's a lot of fascinating stuff in the review. I was intrigued by the question of how World War II affected the food industry--canned hamburgers and Tatonuts never exatly took off, but did any more familiar foods have their origins in the food industry's efforts to provide rations to troops?

Posted by Ed at May 12, 2004 01:33 PM


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