The Way to a Man's Heart: Gender Roles, Domestic Ideology, and Cookbooks in the 1950s

Article excerpt

The way to a man's heart So we've always been told, Is a good working knowledge Of pot, pan, and mold.

The talented gal Who can whip up a pie, Rates a well deserved rave From her favorite guy.

A juicy red steak, Or a tender, fish fillet Done to a turn In a bright copper skillet

Will soothe the rough edges Of tempers, no fooling!!! And leave the man happy Contented and drooling.

- To The Bride (1956)

In the mid-1950s, the editors of To The Bride created a cookbook to advise a newlywed woman in the culinary arts and, as we can see in the above poem, to reassure the young wife that skills in the kitchen would ensure a happy married life.(1) Armed with a good pie recipe and a "juicy red steak," they counseled, a woman was ready to become a wife. In some ways, this selection from To the Bride seems to bear out the assumption that post-WWII cookbooks were part of a larger discourse that sought to limit women's roles to those of wife, mother, and homemaker. The domestic ideology of the 1950s seems vividly illustrated in the inane rhymes of these lines, which introduced a chapter coyly entitled "The Care and Feeding of Young Husbands." But can we, as historians and cultural critics, dismiss cookbooks as simply another way the "feminine mystique" was glorified in the postwar era? What, upon closer inspection, might cookbooks reveal about their role in 1950s society and the place of domestic ideology itself in postwar America?

Too often historians have echoed Betty Friedan's most famous work(2) and have characterized the postwar era as uniformly repressive, oppressive, and miserable for women. However, in the past decade, some historians have complicated this analysis. It was in many ways a repressive time, these critics argue, but there were women who were able to enact resistance strategies in the face of powerful gender ideology. Some scholars have focused on uncovering the civic life and activism of white middle-class women working in political or religious organizations and community groups.(3) Some authors point out that the political and social experiences of women of color and lesbians during the 1950s were, of course, quite different from those of white women, and require further and better historical research.(4) Others argue that a careful reading of excavated cultural artifacts supports the notion that gender and domestic ideology were not as omnipresent as Friedan suggested. Popular culture, they assert, revealed anxieties and uncertainties about domestic ideology and gender roles - uncertainties often overlooked by historians. They argue that films, television programs, and rock and roll from the 1950s presented contradictory messages about a woman's proper role in society.(5)

In the following essay, I follow the lead of these last scholars and examine another cultural artifact from the 1950s: cookbooks. I argue that a careful reading of cookbooks from the postwar years demonstrates how, at this site at least, gender ideology in the 1950s was not simply an overwhelming and omnipresent discourse demanding conformity to the domestic ideal. I examine cookbooks first published or revised any time from 1945 to 1963.(6) I cite both widely published cookbooks and lesser-known works, with the assumption that both obscure texts and best-sellers reflected the nature of domestic ideology in the 1950s. I do not claim to have drawn from an exhaustive sample: experts in the field of cookbook history note that it is probably impossible to know exactly how many cookbooks are in circulation at any one time.(7) My research sample consisted of about one hundred texts, housed mainly in the Los Angeles Public Library and the Hunnold Library in Claremont, California, and was comprised mostly of cookbooks published by corporations for promotional purposes (including Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book). I limited the books authored by individuals to those documented as popular in terms of sales or those which exemplified a certain genre of cookery text, such as books aimed at new brides or barbecue cookbooks. …