I recently slogged through Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad, and it was pretty good. Her voice is academic and a little dry. She does have a real penchant for subtle comic understatement, but this is not the province of the Gangster and it took me about 100 pages to catch on. It’s all about the scientific cookery (or domestic science) movement in America in the mid 19th to early 20th century. The movement aimed to bring housekeeping and cookery up to the level of the more serious male pursuits of science and engineering and so forth. (I see so many parallels between this and modernist cuisine, I think it warrants at least one senior thesis.) This is the women’s movement that brought us Home Economics class.
I took Home Ec. in high school (now they call this “Family and Consumer Science”?!,) and it was absolutely useless. A lot of guys took it since they thought it would be full of females. It was not. I took it because I thought we would learn to cook some fancy-ass 80’s food straight out of the Silver Palate cookbook, then have a second lunch. We did not. We made cinnamon toast. I should have taken Shop.
Based on this experience alone, I agree with Shapiro’s premise that this movement was a bunch of hooey. Then there’s the sad denouement. Apparently the movement really went off the rails towards towards the late 19th century. Or maybe it just reached it’s absurd logical conclusion. The domestic scientists had always imagined themselves as social reformers, then they started telling people how big their butter pats should be (bigger the butter, the slicker the sandwich—that’s what I always say.) They kowtowed to silver-tongued food product salesmen, and shilled their brands at trade shows. The movement’s integration into mainstream academia created a sort of separate-but-equal hierarchy wherein female students were steered away from career track studies and into their domestic counterparts. Imagine, you could have been right there with Marie Curie, discovering radioactive decay, but instead you were tracking the decay of the family’s egg supply.
That ain’t right! Chicks can math too! But here’s the thing—I think Shapiro is a little too hard on these old-timey broads. She holds the leaders of this movement in a sort of comical contempt (and some of their ideas really are pretty funny, they purposefully make menus of all-white food, which they cook and don’t eat,) but housewifery is still hard work.
I don’t know if you know it but, I’m not really a gangster. I’m actually a stay-at-home-dad. A housewife, if you will. I only write at night, when my frivolous scribbling won’t distract from my duties as a housewife and father. But, before you laugh, I just wanna let you know that this shit is hard bro! Hardcore, that is.
I tried to send my wife to the grocery store the other day. I came up with a few ideas for dinners for the week, made up a list of groceries and then said: “Well… I need a roast for roast beef. I don’t know what they’re going to have. If they have a top round, or London broil sale, get a first cut, but have them split it laterally first and take it from the big side. But if they have bottom round, just get the first cut, have them cut into a new one. Sometimes they call it the watermelon cut. Wait, is top sirloin on sale? No, that’s sirloin tip steak, and you’ll need to see if the roast is actually cheaper than the steak at sale price. And it’s hard to get a good cut of. Actually, I’ll just get the meat later this week. Hot dogs? Yeah no, Hebrew National kind of sucks, Country Natural are worse. Maybe I’ll just go to Old Country Sausage later this week. We need some lettuce for salads, but I don’t know what looks good. If they have escarole, and it looks good, get that. If not, get romaine, unless it’s all crappy and dark….” I hadn’t realized, even shopping at the supermarket requires an enormous skill set.
I know, “this isn’t fair Gangster (I mean housewife), you used to work at the meat department cutting meat. You’re like a Gangster (or housewife) of meat! A regular citizen like your long suffering-wife can’t be expected to know all this stuff about buying a roast.” But that’s just the thing, all these old-timey housewives would probably put a butcher through the paces. Take Fanny Farmer for example, I bet that leering old McCreedy took a step back whenever she strode through the doors of his Boston butchery.
What I’m saying is, you gotta cut these ladies some slack. Even when I pour every ounce of my male privilege into it, I struggle to keep the floors clean and get a healthy, delicious meal on the table before 8:00 pm. I got an electric dryer. I have a gas stove and the full force of the US regulatory machine to ensure that my baking soda is, in fact, baking soda. I have been prepared for the role of housewife since I was a little kid and my mama made me help her clean the house and taught me how to fold laundry, then I spent 15 years taking care of myself. These ladies got married straight outta high school to men whose penises they had never even seen—perhaps not even in pictures. I too would like a school to teach me how to. Besides the bland food and the sanctimonious nattering, I’d say the only the mistake the Mary Lincoln’s and the Sarah Tyson Rorer’s of the world made was not educating the young men of Boston in the fine art of housewifery.