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Cookbooks and Gender in Postwar America

Thomas Cooper Library West Gallery
Dec 1, 2008 - Jan 31, 2009
In the years after the Second World War, several new cookbook genres emerged that attempted to address the culinary needs of newly-targeted demographic groups in America. For the first time, publishers thought cookbooks for single working women filled a specific need in the marketplace. Changing, and at times conflicted, notions of masculinity in the postwar years resulted in a movement for men to “reclaim” the kitchen as a masculine-gendered space. Today, we can study these cookbooks and other examples of popular print culture to explore the changing social conditions under which Americans lived and worked at midcentury. While for the vast majority of these cookbooks, the ultimate goal of the single life still remained the search for an appropriate spouse, being single was seen as a state that could be enjoyed for all its pleasures (albeit for a limited time) regardless of one’s gender. Learning to cook well became an important qualifier in the search for single and married pleasure. Indeed, the encouraging, reassuring tone in many of these cookbooks and their suggestions, scenarios, and “action plans” for social relations is therapeutic in a way that suggests contemporary self-help books. The cookbook-as-instruction manual has always taught food preparation as a source of primary importance to leading a happy life. Either for a single person with limited time and money, or as a way to attract, influence, or seduce someone, food became a vehicle for personal fulfillment. Many cookbook authors approached their subject with humor and a light touch. The increasingly popular influence of modernist design and illustration is also present in many works. These elements often combine in sophisticated ways to address issues of cooking and gender in a newly open and articulate manner. Ultimately, however, they reinforce traditional notions of gendered power relations. Cookbooks in the postwar era, while becoming increasingly frank and open in their discussion of the sensual pleasures of food and the role of cooking in interpersonal relations, ultimately served to reinforce and guide their readers to a very traditional middle-class notion of married domestic respectability. Despite innovative methods in their approach, the ultimate goal of cooking remained constant: to prove or reinforce one’s worth as a spouse or a suitable mate, preferably one who would demonstrate a high level of desirable qualities that were closely tied to traditional gendered expectations. This exhibition assumes that the examination of American foodways and popular culinary history is an important and necessary component of American social history. This collection of books, while perhaps being the pulp fiction of the cookbook world, provides ample opportunity for serious study as social texts.