What comes to mind when you think of the United States of America in the 1950s?
Do you imagine a white, middle class, heterosexual married couple with a growing family of two to five children? Do you picture the father driving from work to his home in the suburbs with a white picket fence? Does he kiss his wife at the door and ask her what is for dinner? Has she spent the entire day cleaning the house and preparing a meal of meat and potatoes?
Watching current movies and listening to radio pundits would certainly make you imagine the 1950s in this manner. However, as Stephanie Coontz in “The Way We Never Were” demonstrates, American family life was not like an episode of “The Donna Reed Show.” Yes, during the post-war boom a larger demographic of Americans were marrying young, having babies, and enjoying the spoils of heightened national economic prosperity. Strict gender roles relegated white, middle class women to the home and the role of housewife and mother. However, even if they wanted to, many women could not live up to this racialized, classed, and gendered cultural ideal. Although Betty Friedan faced the “problem that has no name” during her years as a housewife in the 1950s and early 1960s, poor women continued to work outside of the home during the period out of economic necessity. Segregation in the south and racism throughout the country shaped women of color’s gendered experiences differently. Additionally, as historians Sara Evans, Alice Echols, and the numerous contributors to the excellent anthology “Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945- 1960” have demonstrated, the 1950s was not a period devoid of dissent and political activism.
Similarly, the way people cooked and ate in the 1950s was not all Pineapple Upside Down Cakes, Pot Roasts, and Baked Alaskas. Ethnic foods did not disappear. Vegetarian Seventh-Day Adventists did not suddenly eat meat and Hasidic Jews did not begin eating bacon just because pig products were popular during the decade. Nonetheless, in a period where the culturally dominant values encouraged women to marry young and devote themselves to their cooking, cookbooks provided a how-to guide to perform their social roles. Apart from home-economics classes and lessons from family members, cookbooks and women’s magazines provided women with information of how to cook popular dishes of the period.
The “Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook,” first published in 1950, quickly became a bestseller. This cookbook built on the popularity of the Betty Crocker brand identity, which had first emerged in 1921 when the Washburn Crosby Company wanted to personalize responses to consumer inquiries about baking. Over the years, numerous home economists answered questions under this pseudonym. By 1924 Betty Crocker had a radio cooking show and in the early 1950s, Betty Crocker became a television personality in a variety of programs on CBS and ABC. The brand continues to be popular today.
Unlike the two other cookbooks our blog has so far reckoned with, the Betty Crocker Cookbook leaves little to no guesswork. Every recipe has step-by-step instructions with careful measurements and temperatures recommended to the reader. The opening pages give so much detail about how to approach each recipe that this book would be the perfect gift to a person who has never cooked before and had no idea how to use even the most basic kitchen appliances. I can imagine many young brides received this text on their wedding days in 1950s. This text is different also in its many pictures, showing exactly what the dish should look like. Although you might imagine that such a book would seem highly impersonal, the writers include little anecdotes above many of the recipes, mentioning if it was their grandmother’s favorite type of cookie or if it was a distinct food to their hometowns. As a result, the cookbook manages to make cooks feel like they can be part of a larger community of women around the United States, all trying to demonstrate their love for their families through their cooking.
The “Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook” is one of the most detailed and comprehensive cookbooks I have ever read. It is no wonder that the book is in its eleventh edition (although the most recent edition has modified recipes that reflect the changing nutrition standards of the twenty-first century).