Steak for men, salad for women
A century of gender programming from America's cookbooks
Have you ever wondered why women's cooking tends to be tired and routine, while men can make culinary magic with hotdogs, omelettes, and fried potatoes? Or why juicy steaks are man-food, while dainty salads are for women?
These stereotypes may sit like a rock in the belly, but the message has been reinforced over the past century in American cookbooks, says Jessamyn Neuhaus, author of "Manly Meals and Mom's Home Cooking." She explores generations of cookery instruction and finds they didn't stop at recipes for Jell-O salad and tuna casserole. From Fannie Farmer and "The Joy of Cooking" to "The I Hate to Cook Book," cookbooks have long told women more than how much flour to put in their devil's food cake. They have reflected and reinforced social attitudes about the distinct roles of men and women.
Here's a helpful hint from the 1930 "Cooking as Men Like It": "The male of the human species likes strong flavors. He hates the pallid, pasty, insipid dishes which so many American and English women serve." Women, on the other hand, naturally preferred salads, aspics, and creamed meats, and many cookbooks would accompany recipes with statements such as, "This one is for the ladies" or "Save this for the girls at the bridge party."
During World War II, middle-class women were working for wages - and some were enjoying it, to the consternation of society at large. Cookbooks reinforced the message that cooking (and homemaking) was the most important form of patriotism. The author of "Square Meals on Short Rations" echoed another common sentiment: "Poor health is an insidious saboteur that works havoc with the total war effort. Every healthy American Family is a fighting unit on the side of the United States."
With the rise of processed foods, women were shown how they could simplify their cooking tasks by combining processed foods. The most prominent voices in this department were, of course, published by food-processing companies. Make a quick casserole by combining three cans of green beans with cream of mushroom soup, or a tasty dip combining powdered onion soup and sour cream. The 1950 "Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book" included a recipe for "Emergency Steak" - ground beef extended with crushed Wheaties and shaped like a slab of steak.
In the postwar '50s, women were urged to yield their wage-jobs to the returning men and to go back to homemaking. Cookbooks prodded and encouraged women to accept their lot with a smile, to "be pretty, be bright, and be a good cook," in the words of one.
The author of "The Cookbook for Brides" suggested that women could enrich the breakfast hour with their personal charms: "An intelligent and beautiful bride I once knew had an excellent plan of procedure. Setting her mind to it, she rose 15 minutes before her husband and slipped noiselessly into her dressing room. There she tinted her complexion and put on a beguiling breakfast coat. When her husband's eye rested on her, a few minutes afterward, she looked as though she had just stepped from a freshly washed and rosy cloud. Breakfast proceeded happily and at the last check the marriage was proceeding securely."
At the same time, cookbooks carved out a man's place in the kitchen: While women were tied to daily meal preparation, men were cooking hobbyists, naturally talented and exploratory, and had much to teach uninspired wives who needed to be told which end of a teaspoon is up. They had to show how men's cookery was entirely different in nature from women's - that a man would never cook like a woman, or eat like a woman. Thus the rise of the man's domain (the grill), the man's cooking schedule (weekends or special occasions), and the man's palate (steak and potatoes, not frilly salads).
One popular book, "Wolf in Chef's Clothing," even showed how men could use their prowess in the kitchen to woo women. The author offered menus to seduce different kinds: steak and potatoes for the athletic girl, lamb chops and salad for the "round and fluffy" indoor type, spaghetti and coleslaw for the intellectual type, and fried chicken for the "3 Bs" (brains, bonds, and beauty).
"Manly Meals" is often dry and academic, and spends little space on contemporary cookery books. But readers - especially veteran home cooks - are likely to find it worth tasting.
• Julie Finnin Day is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.