Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America
By Laura Shapiro
In the end, it took both a cook and a feminist to liberate the American kitchen. By liberation I don't mean freedom from cooking, though the women's movement is often construed in those terms. I mean that cooking itself has been freed, or at least notably loosened, from the grip of the food industry and the constraints of gender. There was nothing inevitable about these developments; on the contrary, centuries of moral authority and the vast reach of the modern food industry were invested in quite another outcome. But in the decades following that eventful week in February 1963, fundamental changes that had been stirring since the end of the war began to register across the country.
For Julia Child, as we've seen, the holy grail of cooking was technique-the traditional skills and procedures enshrined in French cuisine. Like all good cooks, she honored high-quality ingredients, but the glorious produce and meats she had loved in France simply weren't available in American supermarkets. Even James Beard, a lifelong champion of American regional foods who had no trouble finding greatness in a plain, ripe strawberry, made his career on complex dishes that displayed the artistry of the cook, not the flavor of the raw ingredients. He could hardly have done otherwise even if the culinary fashions of the time had been different. By the 1960s, fruits, vegetables, meats, and poultry had been so rigorously standardized through factory-farming that a bland, mealy apple was becoming indistinguishable from a bland, mealy tomato. If Americans were going to develop a taste for good cooking that would see them through the assaults of the food industry and beyond, technique alone was not going to suffice.
The reeducation of the American palate started in California, far from the media nerve center of packaged-food cuisine, and farther still from the imposing standards of French classical cooking. Alice Waters was living in Berkeley, California, during the '60s, active in the counterculture and never happier than when she was cooking and eating with friends. Despite or more likely because of her talents at the stove, she didn't seek formal training. Unlike Child, she had instincts galore, and they served her splendidly. Waters, too, went to France and was forever changed by the food she tasted there, but her epiphany was different from Child's. She fell in love with the simple, seasonal food of the countryside and came home fired with the conviction that the heart, the soul, and the substance of great cooking are the ingredients; the rest is commentary. The only way for Americans to re-create French food, she decided, would be to choose ingredients the way French women choose theirs-by the time of year and the possibilities closest at hand. If asparagus is in season, that's when you cook asparagus, and at no other time. You get it right from the farm or from a source as close as possible to the farm, and it's a farm where produce is grown without any chemicals in the soil or pesticides on the crops. The cook's job is to give the finishing touches to work largely done in the field. In 1971, Waters and a few friends opened a restaurant they called Chez Panisse and put these principles into action.
From the start, Waters made a point of establishing relationships with local farmers, cheese makers, and other artisans who supplied her with extraordinary fruits and vegetables, meats and dairy products. Her talented and imaginative chefs-whom she hired for their ability to taste, not just for their knife skills-dedicated themselves to showcasing the abundant flavors that arrived.