Ruth Siems, Stove Top Stuffing Inventor

Author Laura Shapiro discusses the invention — and inventor — of Stove Top Stuffing. Ruth Siems, who was the first person listed in the 1975 patent for the stuffing, died November 13 at age 74. Shapiro, who wrote Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950's America, says Siems' invention was a true "convenience food."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We read today in The New York Times of the death of Ruth Siems, who played a key role in inventing a food, making a side dish out of what had always been an inside dish, Stove Top Stuffing, sort of the Thanksgiving turkey minus the bird. Ms. Siems was the first inventor listed on General Foods' 1975 patent for Stove Top Stuffing. Laura Shapiro is the author of "Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America."

And, Laura Shapiro, thank you for joining us en route to your Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow.

Ms. LAURA SHAPIRO (Author, "Something from the Oven"): It's a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Tell us about Stove Top Stuffing and what it marks in the development of American cuisine.

Ms. SHAPIRO: Well, it's one of those little milestones in the long road of the history of convenience foods. And like most of these foods, it was a solution that we got long before we had the problem. By the mid-'70s, when Stove Top Stuffing appeared, you know, we had ready-made stuffing mix. All you had to do was pour in the melted butter, and the more melted butter the better it was, and there was your stuffing. So this was, like, another step, and one that was really completely unnecessary, which is culinary history in this country.

SIEGEL: It was sort of saying, though, you can take a food that you mostly associate with one very festive day of the year and make it a part of any meal you make at home.

Ms. SHAPIRO: Yes, they did that. And I don't know. To me, that is--that's just a little bit creepy. There are certain things that you really only want in certain combinations, and you only want them at one time of year. And I think that's why it's so difficult to make innovations in a holiday like Thanksgiving at all. So it's kind of a remarkable invention when you think about it, because not only did she think of it in the first place, but she really put it on the map. Apparently, they now sell something like 60 million boxes of this a year. So in the whole sort of terminology of stuffing, this has become stuffing.

SIEGEL: You mean there are now millions of Americans who would just as likely expect to find stuffing inside a can as inside a bird.

Ms. SHAPIRO: Well, exactly. Or inside a box. And as you know, if you read the hundreds and hundreds of directions for roasting your turkey that appear in the food pages at this time of year, there is always some very sage advice that says to cook the stuffing outside the turkey. And she, of course, was way ahead on this. She had it outside the turkey, and she didn't even have the turkey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHAPIRO: So it was really--it was a step that nobody had dreamed of taking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And you don't find it entirely dreamlike in the end, that it was achieved. You're at least ambivalent about this step forward that was taken.

Ms. SHAPIRO: Well, I just--you know, I miss all that nice turkey flavor that really belongs in stuffing. But clearly, people like me are in the--we're side dishes ourselves in the great mainstream of culinary history, because this really has become a very standard product and it is how people think about stuffing. And, as you say, it appears in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of recipes that no stuffing had ever dreamed of doing before this came along.

SIEGEL: Is it nutritious, by the way, Stove Top Stuffing?

Ms. SHAPIRO: I doubt that it's any worse than any other stuffing for you. I mean, if you take a whole lot of bread crumbs and pour a whole lot of melted butter in it, you don't have what you'd call a nutritionist's good time. But that, of course, is why it's delicious.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for stopping--Where are you now? You're in the middle of Massachusetts en route to your...

Ms. SHAPIRO: We're in the middle of Massachusetts on the way to Boston, right near where the first Thanksgiving was. And believe me, our stuffing is going to be in the turkey where it belongs.

SIEGEL: Well, Laura Shapiro, author of "Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America," thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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