Cooking as a middle class SAHM task is recent

What follows below is excerpted from a now-private post discussing food in the context of (mostly) UK society between the wars and shortly after World War 2.  It doesn’t really get into the significance of rationing and it misses some key details of social structure and its changes, but there are some broad points that are correct.  I’ve bolded a specific passage about middle class cooking.

“A couple of years ago, I did a marathon read of fiction from the 1920s to the 1950s…. What drew me in were the experiences of women characters who, like the women they were modelled on, were determining their own lives – pretty much for the first time in history. They bicycled through war time London doing useful things, or sat writing fiction, or lived in squalid bed sits in houses crammed with other young women.

And, of course, they ate. There’s a lot of food in middle class entertainments, and that’s a fact.

What struck me about the pre- and post-war literature I read, was how limited the food was. Heroines drink a lot of tea, toast a lot of bread, and occasionally augment the toast with sardines. Crumpets turn up occasionally, as does afternoon tea (involving cakes) at hotels. The diet was a paelo-low-carber’s nightmare. Sunday usually involve roast meat with roasted vegetables and gravy and breakfast could involve rashers of bacon. Boiled eggs appear and butter was crucial.

Even with all the afternoon cakes and sugared teas, the average calorie per day intake of a modern girl enjoying her bed squat was less than 1200 (by my dodgy, back-of-the-envelope calculations). And on top of that she was walking (striding, usually) everywhere, when she wasn’t biking.

But two other things struck me – how incredibly narrow the diet was. The same few dishes are mentioned repeatedly. Dietary variation doesn’t seem to obsess anyone and cooking is such a low priority, that people are pleased if they have a gas ring to boil eggs on.

I also learned that if you’re starving, what your body prioritises first is fat. There’s a fantastic book called A Woman in Berlin, about a woman who is stuck in Berlin when the Russians invade. The citizens of Berlin are starving, and all she can think about is fat. It’s an obsession. Butter or grease isn’t an addition to other things, it’s the Ground Zero of food, the thing your body wants the most.

The other thing, which I learned from reading E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady (a very funny read), is that cooking wasn’t a middle class virtue, much less an upper class one. ‘Cooking’ meant leaving a note for Cook about what you wanted to eat the next day. When WWII broke out, households all over England went into spasms because the cooks and maids went off to join the land army or whatever, leaving their mistresses with homes to run and absolutely no idea how to do it. It’s only after the war that it becomes accepted that cooking and cleaning is part of a middle class woman’s set of duties.

We also romanticise a past where women stayed in the kitchen, turning out fabulous, organic, home prepared meals for their families, when that time never existed.

I guess my point is that when it comes to food and food mores – it’s all being made up as we go along, and then varnished over with this patina of fake history.”

This is fairly true, even in an American context.  Although in America, due to the influence of the pioneer mythos, women were simultaneously expected to do a huge amount of household work mostly alone and this resulted in a view of food-as-fuel, best encapsulated by the Midwestern “hotdish”, which is just a bunch of whatever is handy heated up and served with little attention to flavor or taste.

Americans ate a lot of quick foods from 1920-1950, and the mom-at-home-making-dinner was already more of a marketing thing than a lived reality for substantial percentages of the population even if the wife was staying home.  Conservatives who spin stories about the halcyon home cooking of yore seem to forget about the Automat, which was around in the incredibly recent year of…1902.  Mom’s home cooking has, at least in America, always been more of an idea (or advertising slogan) than a necessary component of daily life.  Traditional society is replete with the home cooking being grandma’s, or auntie’s, or the hired girl’s, or the eldest daughter(s).

More simply, middle class status for women has not always revolved around their skillet-slinging capabilities.  In fact, one can see that it is very much not middle class at all in the fiction of Damon Runyon, who was hardly writing about the domestic sphere himself.  And he was also writing in the first half of the 20th century.

Having the opportunity to specialize has been closer to the middle class SAHM reality than what passes for it now in America.  Now SAHMs are excoriated for daring to specialize, if they find the energy to think about it at all.

Of course, I suppose the punchline is that our household eats about 80% of our meals at home, prepared from local, organic, minimally processed or unprocessed ingredients.  But we sure don’t cook every day, and I sure don’t cook all the meals.  And that’s totally traditional.

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