I am far from the first person to believe that the kitchen can change the world. In fact, such a belief motivated the domestic science movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was largely led by women. This push – though not feminist – sought to give honor and credit to women’s work in the kitchen, and to transform how women ate. Laura Shapiro’s 1986 book Perfection Salad narrates the history and impact of this movement – and how the legacy on the kitchen was “devastating” – and how it also, in many ways, strengthened patriarchy rather than lending respect to women.
The book charts the fascinating history of “domestic science,” the ancestor to today’s “home economics.” The movement stemmed from a desire to standardize and give respect to women’s domestic work – and rather than changing gender norms or the distribution of labor, social reformers sought to do so by standardizing and making scientific this labor. Much of the change happened in cuisine – with ideas of foods being controlled, and determined for nutrition or morals alone rather also for nourishment and flavor. (Hence creations like the book’s titular salad.) The book also charts the way women interested in chemistry and economics were shunted off to the gendered world of home economics – and how this whole development tied in with the popularization of industrial foods. The book is fantastic, and I highly recommend it.
One surprise for me, while reading the book, has been the type of presence Christianity has in many of these reformer’s narratives. I am unsurprised by the presence – social reform has always had a strong Christian overtone – but rather the tenor of it. Many of the reformers presented “orderly” households as analogous to Heaven itself – and one even narrated Heaven as such an establishment! Even as scientific methods were incorporated into home economics, the base of the enterprise was still a very patriarchal one of the woman as keeper of the hearth and imparter of Christian morals (with all sorts of rather biased assumptions attached). Shapiro’s depiction of this phenomenon is unflinching but also deeply engaging – she draws the reader into the minds of the authors who she writes about from a century’s distance. As I read, I reflected on similar tendencies in many Jewish social reform cookbooks in the early 20th century – like the famed Settlement Cook Book. Even with their secularizing and assimilationist tendencies, these books still relied also on older, very patriarchal ideas of what the kitchen was spiritually – and what women should be doing there.
Shapiro published this book in 1986, but many of the notes and observations carry over to much of domestic culture today. One is: the constant pushback that people – mostly women – get for following instinct and embodied knowledge rather than something “improved,” “rational,” or “new.” We saw it with domestic science, and now we see it with much of the “health food movement.” Instinct, of course, is not always right – but there is something about knowing what will work when, and the knowledge that comes from things that cannot always be measured or codified, and the action of doing. For this insight alone, Perfection Salad remains as relevant as ever.
Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century, by Laura Shapiro