Either through personal experience, or through the endless mocking and fascination food blogs, listicles, and social media posts indulge in, most Americans know something about towering molded Jell-O salad, mayonnaise-frosted sandwich loaf, or thick casserole sopping with condensed canned soup. These family gathering staples and showy cocktail hour assemblages are deeply bound up with ideas of American values, patriotism, family, and the strictly gendered ideologies of midcentury. They are also tied to the growth of large-scale manufacturing, and are linked to the influx of technology and its products in the home. In the kitchen, women balanced the demands of their families, the household budget, and an influx of manufactured foods with shifting expectations about presentation, taste, and the expenditure of their own labor. Thus, an artifact like a Jell-O salad is far more than a kitschy curiosity. Such foods sit (or wiggle) at the nexus of domesticity, technology, and modernity.
It is perhaps the notion of convenience, more than anything else, that is responsible for some of the most appalling American culinary creations of the post-war period. New packaged foods were advertised, in part, on their time and labor-saving merits. A large part of the labor of cooking, which had always fallen primarily on women, was now taken up by machines that shelled and packed peas, condensed and canned soups, and powdered and flavored gelatin. Food companies published cookbooks to help women incorporate these new foods into their kitchen routines, while appliance manufacturers did the same for new kitchen gadgets and labor-saving machines.
The convenience of processed and packaged foods, like the now-familiar story of kitchen appliances, came at a cost for women. There was a stigma about these foods that was revealed in the elaborate, and, at times, absurd presentation that was prescribed by midcentury cookbooks. As Jessamyn Neuhaus describes: “women were expected to ‘be creative’ with processed foods,” an injunction that often negated the labor-saving qualities of these foods in time spent molding, arranging, frosting and layering. Neuhaus notes that even in cookbooks produced by food companies, women were instructed to concoct clever disguises for packaged foods, lest they shame their family by taking the easy way out. These prescriptions, as well as numerous recipes for packaged foods that could be sculpted into elaborate imitations of more traditional foods (like a hot-dog crown roast), revealed underlying anxieties about the aesthetics and class value of such foods. Glenn Sheldon notes that what he calls “kitschy food” was a site for the performance of class and social standing. Convenience is a virtue of modern food that has to be paid back in deference to tradition, a cost that often negates the benefits of packaged and processed foods.
New packaged foods created new kinds of labor for women, instead of simply eliminating certain tasks. This exchange or transfer of labor applies to other types of technology that were being integrated into home life. Neuhaus points out that even technologies outside the kitchen affected the food labor of the housewife. Women were instructed by cookbooks on ways to navigate the intrusions of television, the most celebrated hallmark of post-war culture, either by preparing food to be eaten while watching, or expending even more labor on elaborate family dinners to outpace the seductions of TV.
Food and technology are so closely connected that it is even possible to make the favorite argument of historians of technology: certain foods themselves are technologies for augmenting women’s labor. An advertisement for Hellmann’s mayonnaise touts the preservative powers of their sandwich spread, noting that the mayo glaze for the potato salad loaf “keeps it fresh and moist to the last slice.” The ad also boasts that the mayo will help you “make the prettiest potato salad ever.” A recipe for a jellied summer salad is similarly suggestive, noting that this “hearty” salad can be made ahead of time and will remain fresh for later. These new manufactured foods promised to change women’s routine in the kitchen, and to make the most of their labor by preserving fresh foods longer. So not only are molded salads tied to the performance of gender, class, and aesthetic virtue, they are themselves technologies for shaping the labor of the kitchen.
These kinds of arguments may sound strange, but they have an important purpose. It bears repeating that if we only look for women in science and technology within accepted institutions, we may be disappointed. Framing something like a Jell-O salad as a technology demonstrates that the artifacts and processes that women were obligated to interact with at midcentury, function in many ways just the same as those things we typically think of as technology. In this case, the augmentation of labor that is usually discussed in terms of of machines and industrial processes is transcribed into canned peas and Jell-O salads when it enters the home in the post-war period. Redrawing the lines around what is “allowed” to be labeled technology demonstrates that technology is a social category, not an undisputed feature of the physical world. Because technology is so central to the project of modernity in the West, these kinds of arguments help to situate women at the heart of the construction of the modern world.
Neuhaus is careful to point out that studying cookbooks and recipe cards can only tell us what women were expected to do in the kitchen, and not necessarily what they did do. This is an important corrective to the ways that theatrical and ornamental midcentury food is discussed. I agree with Neuhaus, however, in asserting that there is much to learn from such prescriptive literature. These strange foods, newfangled kitchen gadgets, and the increasing influx of other consumer technologies into American homes in the post-war period point to the home, the family, and the ministrations of the housewife as essential sites for the construction of modernity. Women were expected, as much as male engineers, scientists, and business leaders, to manage a delicate balance between closely held values of family, tradition, and class, with a consuming national current of faith in technology, modernity, and capitalism. Modernity, in turn, entailed subtle but profound shifts in the labor expected of women in the home.
Our contemporary myopic or romantic view of post-war home life, which is focused on condemning sexism and silly food, or romanticizing a perceived “simpler time,” is a discourse that obscures these shifts and renders the housewife more and more a one-dimensional caricature. What the food and household technologies of midcentury show is an America that was negotiating modernity for itself through the skill and labor of thousands of housewives.
Jessamyn Neuhaus, “The Way to a Man’s Heart: Gender Roles, Domestic Ideology, and Cookbooks in the 1950s,” Journal of Social History, vol. 32, no. 3 (1999): 529-555.
Glenn Sheldon, “Crimes and Punishments: Class and Connotations of Kitschy American Food and Drink,” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 27, no. 1 (2004): 61-72.