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Gender and Identity in 1950s Cookbooks

By Mari Nomura

As a kid I spent hours paging through old cookbooks. My favorites were from the 1950s. I was fascinated by the kitschy illustrations, curious casseroles and decadent desserts. The years of love and use were evident in our copies: the well-worn binding easily opened to favorite recipes and margins were speckled with notes about who-liked-what. These books were a part of our family.

 So it came as a surprise when I opened The General Foods Kitchens Cookbook recently. I expected to feel nostalgic and was instead confronted by this section on cooking for men: “when the men return from a day’s fishing … you’ll want to be prepared with a hearty late supper … They will fare well; and so will you, as you go skipping off to your own evening … with the girls.” What?! That must be a mistake. I kept reading and found an excerpt about men “inventing” grilling while women watched and criticized. It concluded “… and it’s been that way ever since: Men continue to be inspired and resourceful cooks — and women continue to do most of the cooking.” Oh no, it was true. Men were repeatedly depicted as serious providers who require hearty meals while women existed to serve men; their actions and needs were flippant and trivial. These cookbooks that occupied a warm, fuzzy place in my heart were replete with oppressive language.

 Filled with questions, I went to the library. Although women were consistently portrayed in traditional domestic roles in cookbooks, millions of women actually worked outside the home. The “housewife identity” was more a work of fiction on the part of the cookbook authors than a depiction of reality. Why would this be — who would benefit from propagating a “housewife identity”?  My answer came as I realized that many of the popular cookbooks in the 1950s were produced by large food conglomerates such as General Mills and General Foods. These companies relied on women as the primary purchasers and consumers of their products, and they wanted to keep it that way.

 Promotional cookbooks consistently tied a woman’s  identity to the food she purchased, served and ate. They explained food should be interesting and attractive, just like the hostess. Some even warned that a boring dinner implied a boring cook. Luckily, you avoid such traps with the help of their cookbook. But, these solutions were consistently biased. Betty Crocker’s cookbooks were heavily weighted with recipes that contained General Mills products, such as Gold Medal Flour and Bisquick. In many ways, promotional cookbooks were no more than lengthy advertisements and domestic propaganda by the food companies.

Today, most of us think of cookbooks as practical, benign guides, devoid of bias. However, there are still companies behind cookbooks and those companies are still motivated by profits. In the 1950s, cookbooks sought to scare women into buying their products (lest they be negatively judged by their peers). Even though this method is unpopular today, companies are still trying to convince consumers to buy their goods. I challenge you to learn from these 1950s cookbooks: take a hard look at your everyday items and the rhetoric they espouse. Even the seemingly innocuous items may be fodder for prejudice.