NWSA Journal 15.2 (2003) 204-207
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Dinner Roles: American Women and Culinary Culture by Sherrie A. Inness. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001, 225 pp., $35.95 paper.
Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs by Lynn Spigel. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001, 426 pp., $64.95 paper.
Dinner Roles: American Women and Culinary Culture examines a variety of food-related discourses of the first half of the twentieth century. Inness effectively argues that "such popular cooking literature provided a recipe for women's (and men's) behavior" (12). In eight analytical chapters, Inness examines everything from men's cookbooks to promotional materials for children's cooking lessons to women's magazine discourses on international cuisine. The chapters are relatively short (15-21 pages) and provide engaging and very readable discussions of how these various discourses contributed to constructions of U.S. femininity and masculinity over a broad span of time. The analysis is heavily descriptive, but a generalizeable argument about the contribution of each discourse to gender role construction can be easily traced throughout the eight chapters. Because of its lack of jargon, its use of ample specific examples from the discourses examined, and its coherent yet not overly theoretical argument, this book would make a fine supplementary textbook for an advanced undergraduate or introductory graduate course in gender roles, history of American women, or consumerism/advertising.
Dinner Roles does a fine job of documenting, in specific terms, the social construction of gender roles through cooking discourses, covering subtopics including men's cookbooks, children's cooking lessons, dainty "feminine" dishes, advertising of kitchen gadgets, international cuisine, Depression-era cooking lessons, wartime recipes, and the fifties housewife. The chapters on dainty feminine foods and international cuisine are especially clear in establishing the contribution of cooking literature to the social construction of femininity as well as American identity. Chapter three, "Paradise Pudding, Peach Fluff, and Prune Perfection: Dainty Dishes and the Construction of Femininity" argues that "cooking literature in the 1900s taught women not only the right way to make tea sandwiches or decorate teacakes but also how to be feminine and ladylike" (53). Inness traces articles and recipes that encouraged women to spend hours at work creating the perfect tea party, complete with dishes such as "Chicken Soup Garnished with Hearts and Diamonds of Pimento, Spades and Clubs of Truffle" (53). The chapter includes an excellent mini-history of Jell-O and its marketing to the American housewife. It also critiques the ways [End Page 204] in which these dainty dishes of Jell-O, whipped cream, coconut, and other "feminine" foods carried with them assumptions about class, leisure time, and the good life. Chapter five, "Fearsome Dishes: International Cooking and Orientalism Between the Wars" similarly argues that "[t]he depiction of foreign food, particularly Italian, Chinese, and Mexican food, provided the media with a way to indoctrinate women readers with the belief that the ideal American woman was white and middle class" (89).
Inness situates her work in the context of other writings about food including food anthropology, food history, and other food research and writing. She accurately notes that most of this writing has ignored gender entirely. She does not, however, situate Dinner Roles within other potentially relevant women's studies literature such as that on housework, advertising, or motherhood. While Dinner Roles can definitely be considered a work of feminist scholarship, some of these streams of scholarly literature could inform the book and perhaps strengthen its analysis.
Although excellent in its wide-ranging look at documents over a lengthy period of time, Dinner Roles could be much more historically specific about both what is being analyzed (exactly what documents, how many, and when published) and the historical period under discussion in each chapter. The most glaringly in need of this additional specificity is perhaps the first chapter, "�Bachelor Bait': Men's Cookbooks and the Male Cooking Mystique." The chapter purports to look at "men's cookbooks from the first half of the twentieth century...