Image taken from Clotho98′s Flickr photostream and used under Creative Commons license
For dinner last night I made a staple of my childhood: tuna casserole. I’m sure that most families have a version of this – a combination of tinned tuna, tinned mushroom soup, grated cheese, mayonnaise (yes, really), and macaroni. We also added chopped green pepper and spring onions to ours. As unlikely as it sounds, it’s really delicious.
It’s easy to deride this kind of cooking which relies so heavily on processed food – in fact, my mother thinks that she found the recipe on the label for a tin of Heinz soup. And we’ve grown accustomed to viewing processed food as an unmitigated, unredeemable evil: as packed with strange chemicals, sugar, and fat, and being at the root of the current, global, obesity crisis.
But it’s worth thinking about processed food in historical terms. When it became widely available in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, it was advertised as the ‘scientific’ way of feeding modern American families. Hygienic, hermetically sealed, and, allegedly, nutritionally optimal – having been formulated by domestic scientists – this was the food of the future.
The lurid advertisements and recipes for these new products now exude a kind of horrifying fascination: how did people eat all that plastic technicolour food? How could they make recipes for Cherry Coke and Jell-O salad, or California Dip, the chief component of which was dried onion soup mix? Was the ultimate meal of the 1960s future the Eight Can Casserole? This was a strange concoction made from two cans of chicken, and one can each of chicken soup, mushroom soup, mushrooms, evaporated milk, and chow mein noodles.
In reality, there was no sudden shift in diets – in the US or elsewhere – as a result of the existence of Miracle Whip and other, similar products. This change occurred gradually. But supermarkets and processed food were supremely important for women. Accustomed to having to make just about everything completely from scratch, for women, the variety of cheap processed food in the
ever-greater numbers of American supermarkets – they almost doubled from ten to seventeen thousand between 1946 and 1953 – was a kind of liberation.
In fact, in 1957, the president of Campbell’s – them of the soup – remarked that packaged foods were transforming the American kitchen into ‘the point for assembling the menu’. As women entered the work force in greater numbers, so technology – also in the form of washing machines and vacuum
cleaners – made it possible for them still to feed their families within the time constraints of a working day.
I agree that the thought of a kitchen as a point of assembly is a horrible idea, and I love the way that new forms of feminism are embracing – even reclaiming – women’s enjoyment of cooking and baking. That said, though, we should think quite carefully about our attitudes towards processed food. It was one of the mid-century technologies which helped women to leave the home and
to seek work.
Much of contemporary debate about how obesity and poor diets – in both the developed and developing worlds – seems to ask for a return to a kind of mythical past, where people use a minimum of technology to prepare meals based on ingredients grown nearby. However wonderful such a vision of the future may be, it’s a very labour intensive one. And I’m not sure that we’ve adequately thought through who’ll be doing all of this cooking.