white sauce as civilizing agent; the indomitable Fannie Farmer’s final dinner menu replete with “level measured” splendor; strictly color schemed dinner presentations at culinary school commencement ceremonies—Laura Shapiro’s rich book on “women and cooking at the turn of the century” offered too many dainty morsels to begin this post other than in a scramble.
Perfection Salad itself may be obvious but best:
Shortly after the turn of the century there emerged a gelatin salad that crowned all these achievements, for it captured, confined, and molded raw vegetables themselves. This was Perfection Salad, a mixture of cabbage, celery, and red peppers, all chopped fine and bound by a plain aspic. During the next decades there was only one notable change in the recipe—the plain aspic became tomato—while the other straightforward ingredients hardly altered. … the Perfection Salad firmly maintained its identity, the very image of a salad at last in control of itself.
my own culinary style as fluid as identity as radical muffins understand identity to be, I find excessive measuring or other rigid ruling in the kitchen hilarious. Yet I admire the moxie of the domestic scientists who founded our countries’ first cooking schools. Their conviction in scientific process to create healthy and homey dwellings that up-lift the body and soul mixed with the emergence of the food industry to serve up gelatin salad as a mark of progress, high-class aspirations, and women’s intellectual equality to men.
these vibrant, science-minded ladies doggedly pursued studies through tracks available to women at the time, like leapfrogging to professors who would deign to teach them chemistry or bacteriology and annexing their programs to schools like MIT and Harvard. They were typically charitable or reformist in character. My hometown girl Jane Addams of Hull House sent a service worker to Ellen Richards’ New England Kitchen to learn from and adopt its’ school to soup kitchen model. Though their themes stayed in the domestic sphere, they founded national publications and organizations, staged World’s Fair exhibitions, and founded academic departments at universities as well as the elementary home economics curricula so many of us grew up with.
Melvil Dewey, originator of the Dewey Decimal system, and his wife Annie hosted a climactic conference in Lake Placid, putting placement in the library system of the newly christened “home economics” in their hot little hands. Side characters include the inventor of a contraption called the Aladdin Stove, who funded these zealous ladies, and Count Rumford— spy, questionable but sizable charitable works organizer, drip-coffee maker inventor, and Mrs. Richards’ idol— whose eulogy included:
It was without loving or esteeming his fellow creatures that he had done them all these services.
in short, what a hoot! if the screenplay isn’t in the works it should be. Starring Meryl Streep as Fannie Farmer bringing taste in the form of precise pimentos to scientific cooking (sorry to type-cast), and Alan Cumming as Edward Atkinson, Bostonian “freelance expert on most of the important political issues of his time,” philanthropist and stove-inventor weirdo.
an imaginative interpretation—or the uncovering of some steamy letters—could offer up some smashing scenes between the domestic scientists and the heads of the turn of the century’s women’s colleges.
as younger women, they may have been pioneering higher-ed schoolmates. Their warm professional collaborations later chilled as the one group’s determination to academically institutionalize home economics met the other’s resistance to include anything “feminine” in curricula determined to compete with Ivy League men’s schools.
Shapiro paints compelling characters, and it’s her wry eye on religion, class and race as well as gender that redeemed my faith in feminist books on homemaking. Plus sends me off to trowel the used bookstores (that remain) for Miss Farmer’s A New Book of Cookery and put a hold at BPL for her own Something from the oven: reinventing dinner in 1950s America.