Watching What We Eat

The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows

by Kathleen Collins

Hardcover, 278 pages, Continuum Intl Pub Group, List Price: $24.95 | purchase

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Watching What We Eat
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The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows
Author
Kathleen Collins

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Excerpt: Watching What We Eat

WATCHING WHAT WE EAT

The EVOLUTION of TELEVISION COOKING SHOWS


Continuum

Copyright © 2009 Kathleen Collins
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8264-2930-8

Contents

Acknowledgments...................................................................................viiIntroduction......................................................................................1Early Period (1945-1962)..........................................................................11Chapter 1  Stirrings: Radio, Home Economists, and James Beard.....................................13Chapter 2  La Cuisine and Canned Soup: Dione Lucas vs. Convenience................................44Middle Period (1963-1992).........................................................................69Chapter 3  Julia Child and Revolution in the Kitchen..............................................71Chapter 4  The Me Decade and the Galloping Gourmet................................................101Chapter 5  Cultural Capital and the Frugal Gourmet................................................130Modern Period (1993-Present)......................................................................157Chapter 6  A Network of Its Own...................................................................159Chapter 7  Good Television........................................................................186Chapter 8  "Democratainment": Gender, Class, and the Rachael-Martha Continuum.....................211Chapter 9  Evolution: How Did We Get Here and What's On Next?.....................................232References........................................................................................253Selected Bibliography.............................................................................270Index.............................................................................................273

Chapter One

Stirrings: Radio, Home Economists, and James Beard

In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. -Marshall McLuhan

Cooking on the Airwaves

Aunt Sammy began her radio career in October 1926. She was a figment of the Farm Radio Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, which used radio to communicate with farmers in various parts of the country. More than one hundred stations carried her fifteen-minute Housekeeper's Chat, and dozens of women from around the country played the role of Aunt Sammy, all reading from the same script adapted with local speech patterns and regional accents. For nearly a decade, she doled out advice on pest control, floor care, laundry, nutrition, vitamins, and uses for leftover pickle vinegar, and assured listeners that garlic is eaten by respectable people and that onions do not cause drowsiness. One of the show's regular segments, "What Shall We Have for Dinner?" was "concerned with the problem the average homemaker must solve 365 times a year," said the Chicago Daily Tribune. She shared recipes for standard dishes such as scalloped potatoes, broiled chicken, apple turnovers, meatloaf with green beans, and lemon jelly dessert. Some of her listeners' favorite recipes also included blackberry flummery, cider gelatin salad, rice and liver loaf, cooked lettuce, fried cucumbers, and stuffed beef heart.

Morse Salisbury, radio service chief, was credited with livening up the show so that Aunt Sammy would deliver her tips with more levity and less lecture. He believed it was important that the audience felt "talked to" and "visited with." "The first injunction laid upon the radio speaker is to be entertaining and natural and friendly," said Salisbury. Aunt Sammy would tell jokes and comment on current events and the comings and goings of people like Mrs. Hoover and Mrs. Roosevelt. "Queen Marie of Rumania is visiting my town this week," announced Aunt Sammy on one broadcast. "She didn't come to America especially to see me, but I thought she might drop in to discuss household problems. I have a new recipe, called Peach Dainty, that I've been saving for her. I am sure the King would like it, and the Prince and Princess, too."

Cooking instruction has a history as old as that of humans and fire. Cookbooks have been around for hundreds of years-the first original American cookbook, written by Amelia Simmons, was published in 1796. Food writing and recipes began to appear in American newspapers and magazines like Ladies' Home Journal and McCall's in the mid- and late-nineteenth century, and cooking schools cropped up as well. More informally, cooking advice was osmotically transmitted from mother to daughter, verbally from farmer's wife to farmer's wife and domestic servant to domestic servant and so on. When radio programs were first broadcast in the early 1920s, suddenly there was a new channel for transmitting culinary advice. Though media theorist Marshall McLuhan might not have explicitly envisioned sharing canning tips, this was a manifestation of the global village he later referred to when he explored the social effects of electronic media.

Radio cooking programs combined the informality of the verbal and the formality of the recipe, creating a virtual coffee klatch. As described in the Washington Post in 1925,

Radio has brought about a national exchange of cooking recipes. When Mrs. New York is a little bit in doubt about the meringue for her pie, she is just as likely to ask Mrs. California or Mrs. Minnesota for advice as she is her next door neighbor. If young Mrs. Wisconsin can't get her baked beans quite as brown as mother use to bake them, she can call upon the famed authority on the subject, Mrs. Boston. If a contemplated Southern dinner is on the mind of Mrs. Michigan, she can get suggestions for it from her friend, Mrs. Missouri.

The real (albeit fake) famed authority at the time was Betty Crocker. Like Aunt Sammy, she was fictional, but unlike civil servant Sammy, Betty was a commercial mascot. Though Betty was invented in 1921 by the flour purveyor Washburn Crosby Company to address home cooks' baking quandaries via friendly letters, according to Fortune magazine, "The radio made Betty." She began local radio programs in 1924 (preceding Aunt Sammy), went to national networks broadcasting in cities across the U.S. two years later and stayed there nearly three decades. Letter writer Betty was, in reality, a team of home economists employed by Washburn Crosby. Radio Betty was impersonated by various actresses telling listeners "how to buy, what to buy, how to make the best with what is available," said the Chicago Daily Tribune. She gave "new ideas to old cooks and old ideas to new cooks." Mondays and Wednesdays were devoted to household problems including food preparation and proper menus, and Friday was devoted to her enormously popular radio cooking school, which boasted graduates from nearly every state. For many housewives, Betty filled the role of a nonjudgmental, wise friend or family member providing advice to those nervous or lonely in the kitchen.

In addition to Betty and Sammy, there was another well-known women's program in the 1920s. If the "happy homemaker" moniker brings the Mary Tyler Moore show's Sue Ann Nivens to mind, you need to travel back about a half a century to the original, Ida Bailey Allen. Her first show, Hospitality Talks, aired in 1923 in Medford, Massachusetts, followed by The Homemakers Hour in New York City in 1926 and then across the U.S. via CBS on the National Radio Homemakers Hour in 1929. Unlike Betty, Sammy and successor-in-name-only, Sue Ann, Ida was quite real. A trained dietician, cooking school instructor and author of more than twenty books on food, cooking, and home economics, Ida was one of the most respected women in early radio.

Women's Work

Though image-free, radio was an effective mirror for domestic culture in the between-the-wars era, particularly with regard to perceptions of gender roles. One newspaper article announced:

Uncle Sam has taken unto himself a helpmate. The old boy who worried along in a state of single blessedness for considerably more than a century, and who was a pronounced women-hater for so long, has finally capitulated to the fair sex, and with the mingled pride and embarrassment of the traditional benedict he is presenting to his enormous family of nephew and nieces their new "Aunt Sammy."

Uncle can scarcely be blamed for relinquishing his bachelorhood for such a gem, but she could only have succumbed to the old chauvinistic curmudgeon out of a sense of public service. A stereotypical man-wife dynamic ensued. From one Aunt Sammy broadcast:

By the way, some of you have begun to listen in quite recently. You may not have copies of the loose-leaf Radio Cook Book Uncle Sam is sending to homemakers. I want to give Uncle Sam all the credit due him, but the cookbook was not his idea at all. After he saw how neat it was, and how easily extra pages could be added, he waxed enthusiastic-he really did. His only regret was that he didn't originate the idea himself. Isn't that just like a man?

She fed the Chicago Tribune this line, which could only have been suggested by a pragmatic and generous husband: "The housekeepers' program has a dual purpose, according to Aunt Sammy. It aims to help the housewife in the intricate and vastly important task of managing a home, and to show her how, by careful planning of meals and saving steps and labor, she may have more leisure for what are broadly termed 'cultural activities.'"

Did the radio powers-that-were really think women needed so much instruction, so many tips and suggestions to do what they'd been doing for centuries? Probably not, if they were honest about it, but radio cooking programs served advertisers and programmers quite well, as they were simple to produce and were directly tied to consumer products. But the media, in some instances, unabashedly insulted women on this front. A 1925 Hartford Courant article heaped praise on the new radio show's tackling of women's work. "The blunt truth is that American women are poor cooks even with a greater variety of food available and more money to spend for it than any other nation," wrote the unidentified author. "The radio is amazingly hastening a change in American women's knowledge of cookery because the isolated millions of women in city and country, who read no papers and stay at home most of the time, have through radio come in contact with educational forces." A nice plug for the service that radio can provide-but anonymous went on to say,

Nine-tenths of the women of the country either had to get their knowledge haphazardly or to learn it from print, which is notoriously hard for the average woman, especially when attempted all by herself.... Women are going to benefit far more than men from radio.... It brings the greatly needed up-to-date trade knowledge for their chief profession of cookery, homemaking, child-raising so vital to any nation ... Radio is going to lift the level of woman's intelligence; lift the level of American cookery to a point where we need not be quite so ashamed of it as now, and lift child health to a higher point.

It wasn't just women in the home kitchen every hour of the day, but when men did intentionally amble in, it was a lark-not their "chief profession" by any means. Encouraging men as food hobbyists was even advocated by some. In 1939, the New York Times's Kiley Taylor reported that the imagination and efforts of men interested in cooking as a hobby could potentially improve American cuisine. These men cook what they like, to please themselves and each other (not to feed the kids lunch), noted Taylor, and women should be patient and grateful that they get a partner in the kitchen. If a man shows interest, she wrote, "his wife is flying directly in the face of providence if she fails to encourage him," even though said partner is admittedly like "Ferdinand in a china shop." Betty Crocker declared that widowers and single men from all over wrote to her upon listening to her radio show. "Many men are genuinely proud of their culinary skill," she said, "and see nothing undignified or unmasculine in being able to turn out a batch of fluffy biscuits."

While a small number of men enjoyed cooking as a pastime at home, they were running the prestigious restaurant industry (as they are for the most part today). There was, however, at least one professional who crossed over into the home via radio. In the early 1930s, New York restaurateur George Rector hosted Our Daily Food Recipes wherein he discussed food, menus, school lunches, and, once, the machinations of a grape juice factory.

Mixed messages were directed at women from multiple directions. As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin described in her book No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II, Rosie the Riveter was pushed aside after the war's end by images of women reclaiming their rightful place at home. Goodwin provides accounts of magazine interviews with women who willingly, and sometimes with relief, left the workforce, making way for men looking for work. She wrote, "Magazines that had once given prominent display to products such as Heinz soup and GE cleaners, which allowed women to fly through their chores at home so they could rush to their work in the factory, now featured menus that took a full day to prepare." So while some women reluctantly went back to the stove, others embraced the homemaker role and took recipe collecting and cooking seriously, whether for their own edification or for the well-being of their families. The impetus to do well at such tasks would add to a motivated audience for cooking instruction on radio, and then television.

Radio's Mission

It is quaint to imagine that radio broadcasters produced programs to instruct and to provide a networking outlet for housewives, and, publicly, that was the mission. But then as now, the objective of any broadcasting organ is to sell products for its advertisers. Food and kitchen appliance companies figured out that cooking shows were a super way to market their products. Proctor & Gamble began advertising on the radio in 1923, for instance, providing an ideal forum for radio programs featuring recipes using Crisco. In a stark representation of commercial broadcasting's bottom line, cooking instruction was literally a byproduct.

With the media bashing women's impoverished cooking skills and the advertisers compelling them to sing the virtues of what was often essentially junk food, women were at an impasse. The Mary Lee Taylor Show, broadcast from the PET Milk experimental kitchen for two decades starting in 1933, was hosted by the eponymous home economist (actually a pseudonym for Erma Proetz). On one installment, listeners could hear Miss Taylor interacting with a male counterpart, perhaps to disabuse listeners of the idea that Mary might just be brazen enough to make stuffed vanilla wafers for herself. "If you could look into this PET Milk kitchen through your loudspeaker, I know you'd think that the stuffed vanilla wafers I've been putting together look mighty festive," Mary said. "The creamy yellow filling, bristling with coconut, certainly has a come hither look. Mr. Cole is reaching for a second one with a look on his face that makes me think the first one just hit the right spot." She read the recipe very slowly and repeated each part for dictation: "Melt over boiling water. [Pause.] Melt over boiling water." Miss Taylor emphasized the nutritional charms of this recipe that required only four grocery staples: PET milk, coconut, marshmallows, and vanilla wafers. "Let young daughters try their wings with this recipe, easy and most wholesome," chirped Mary. "All PET Milk is irradiated to add vitamin D to help teeth and bones grow properly." Maybe the idea was that one nutritious element casts a healthy glow over the whole operation. The desire for women's cooking or the nation's health to improve was at odds with the advertisers' agenda, a dynamic that is often at work today. Competing messages and far-fetched nutritional spin were ever thus.

American-born women weren't the only targets of persuasion. Being as much of a middle-class American as possible was of major importance in the early twentieth century, no matter who you were. "Radio has been a boon, especially to the millions of foreign-speaking women, rather unused to American ideas, and coming from parts of Europe primitive in ideas of cookery," reported the Hartford Courant in 1925. "They are learning modern cookery by radio with splendid results in home nutrition. This kind of Americanization is practical and productive and will be reflected in better national health." As historian Mary McFeely wrote about cookbooks,

As agents of our consumer culture, [cookbooks] speak ... to American ethnic groups: Italian Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and indeed to all working-class Americans, saying, "this is what you ought to aspire to." While aspirations may be difficult to achieve or altogether unsuitable, they nonetheless are presented as goals.

As more people were listening to radio than ever before in the years surrounding World War II, these messages were sure to reach a mass audience loud and clear.

During the war, hundreds of thousands of women took off their aprons, marched into the workforce, and volunteered in the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). For many women, cooking and domesticity were put on the back burner. Those ineligible to be a WAAC or paid labor force worker, however, might feel powerless and constrained. A Christian Science Monitor article in 1943 depicted such a war wife:

While she has been peeling potatoes, washing dishes, exchanging ration stamps for groceries with the delivery boy ... the radio has been telling her of the WACS (Women's Army Corp), the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), the men on the beachhead near Naples, the dogfights in the air over the South Pacific.... Of course she does her bit in the war activities, but somehow all the italics in her life seem to come out of the cook book instead of the military manual.

(Continues...)