10 Questions for Laura Shapiro

Published in Gourmet Live 06.20.12
Americans should just slow down and learn to cook, the renowned food historian and author tells Gourmet Live’s Kemp Minifie
Laura Shapiro

Mention fast food, and visions of golden arches and chain eateries immediately leap to mind. Yet the concept of fast food—of meals quickly prepared and just as swiftly consumed—has gone far beyond the rapid-restaurant sector to shape what’s sold in our supermarkets and the way we cook and eat at home. In the face of constant hurry-up messaging, Laura Shapiro—author of Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century and Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America and a former columnist at Newsweek—shares some urgent recommendations and startling revelations.

For starters, the promise of easy, speedy meals we’re bombarded with today by marketing and the media is actually nothing new, Shapiro asserts. And she takes issue with the bedrock assumption that America’s home cooks—today or a half century ago, when the drumbeat began—are really in that much of a hurry. She has the long view to back it up, having devoted much of her career to studying how changes in society and the food industry have affected American home cooks—and vice versa—from the 19th century to today. Shapiro is also the co-curator of Lunch Hour NYC, an exhibition opening June 22 and running through February 17, 2013, at the New York Public Library.

Gourmet Live: You shocked attendees at a February 2012 panel discussion, “Tick-Tock: Cooking Against the Clock,” at the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference in New York City, by rejecting the long-held notion that Americans don’t have time to cook as a “big lie” pushed for decades by food manufacturers. Yet all of us have friends and family who seem sincere in their complaints that they really do lack time to cook. What makes this a fallacy?

Laura Shapiro: The whole idea of “no time to cook” was invented out of thin air to promote packaged foods. During World War II, food companies got pretty good at supplying the armed forces with canned and processed foods, and after the war they wanted to keep going and develop a civilian market. So they launched a new rhetoric around home cooking, in which smart, modern women were much too busy to spend time on old-fashioned drudgery like kitchen work. But to the surprise of the food companies, the new products were a tough sell. Most homemakers just didn’t need them. Meals were simpler in the ’50s than they had ever been: Most people had gas, electricity, and running water; you could buy chickens all plucked and cut up; you weren’t scrubbing clumps of dirt off the carrots or picking weevils out of the flour. And women were accustomed to cooking, so they knew how to toss a meal together.

A lot has changed in the last few decades. Adults are working full time or even more, and kids have their own packed schedules. What constitutes a workday has expanded until there are practically no boundaries between home and work. When people say they’re busy nowadays, they’re right. But—too busy to cook? If you’re comfortable in the kitchen, you can assemble a simple meal faster than it would take to get Chinese food delivered. If you’re not accustomed to cooking, or if you’re totally wiped out at the end of the day, preparing even a simple meal will seem impossible. Those are all true human conditions of the present day, but they aren’t about time.

GL: So if 1950s women weren’t actually feeling burdened by cooking, why would manufacturers force this notion of needing to rush? Why would they try to convince consumers of this, rather than simply ask consumers what they really needed and retool their products to meet that demand?

LS: It’s my impression that market research has never been about what people might “need.” I think manufacturers choose to develop a new product because they believe they can sell it, and once it’s developed they do whatever they can to get people to buy it. If the system were based on “need” or even “want,” we’d have good-tasting, sustainably grown fresh fruit available everywhere at affordable prices. Instead, what we have—available everywhere at affordable prices—are processed apple slices packaged with glop to dip them in.

Subscribe to Gourmet