Reviews in American History 33.2 (2005) 263-271
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The Joy of Cookbooks
Cindy R. Lobel
What is it about cookbooks? About 24,000 are published annually, and cookbook sales increase by 5 to 10 percent each year. In the United States, the past decade has seen revised publications of The Joy of Cooking and Fannie Farmer as well as a new, 1000-plus-recipe tome from Gourmet Magazine, with an initial print run of 250,000 copies. In addition to the flood of published cookbooks, there are thousands of websites devoted to cooking. A google search for "recipes" yields over 29 million hits. Newsstands are full of food magazines. The Food Network has made celebrities out of chefs and is itself a cottage industry for cookbooks. And in recent years, non-food celebrities have jumped on the cookbook bandwagon. This past year, Maya Angelou released a food memoir accompanied by recipes. The American thirst for cookery instruction is, it seems, unquenchable.
Despite the cultural phenomenon that is cookbooks, academic have been slow to study them. Women's historians have used cookbooks as sources for years to understand women's roles and activities in American society. But few scholars have concentrated on the history of the cookbooks themselves. In recent years, this situation has begun to change as a few monographs and anthologies on cookbook history have emerged. They include Janet Theophano's Eat My Words (2002) and Anne Bower's edited collection, Recipes for Reading (1997). On the research front, the Michigan State University Libraries has recently created an online collection of historical cookbooks, with scholarly commentary.1
With Manly Meals and Mom's Home Cooking, historian Jessamyn Neuhaus joins this scholarly conversation. Like many contemporary students of gender in American society, Neuhaus sees value in examining cookbooks as important reflectors and producers of gender norms. In Manly Meals and Mom's Home Cooking, she examines over three hundred commercial cookbooks published between 1920 and 1963 to gauge their role in advancing gender conventions. [End Page 263] Along the way, she surveys the history of American cookbooks, reacquainting her readers with some of its stars like Fannie Farmer's The Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896), which innovated exact measurements and explicit instructions; Irma Rombauer's The Joy of Cooking (1931); Craig Claiborne's New York Times Cookbook (1961), which brought gourmet cooking to American audiences; and Peg Bracken's The I Hate to Cook Book (1960). And she introduces a larger number of lesser-known cookbooks, such as A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband with Bettina's Best Recipes (1932) and The Best Men Are Cooks (1941).
Neuhaus's central argument is that the gendering of home cookery is a twentieth-century invention, part of what she sees as a larger reinvigoration of domestic ideology in twentieth-century America. Nineteenth-century middle-class homemakers were household managers—they directed servants and cooks rather than doing the household cooking themselves. But over the course of the twentieth century, as ready-made foods became more available and as middle-class women made social gains outside of the home, food preparation took on an increasingly important symbolic role. Convenience foods, electrical appliances, and advanced instruction made cookery simple enough for anyone to master. But instead of shrinking, the expectation that women would be the primary cooks for their households increased over the course of the twentieth century.
Early American cookbooks, Neuhaus shows, assumed a basic knowledge of cookery and provided scant instruction to their users. Women, it was assumed, learned how to cook from their mothers (or more accurately, learned how to run a household, for most readers of early-nineteenth-century cookbooks were elite and middle-class women who oversaw servants who did the cooking). These works, Neuhaus suggests, did not necessarily draw an essential connection between gender and cookery but rather assumed, since women ran the house, that they would run...