Quotulatiousness

December 6, 2017

QotD: Why mid-20th century Americans ate what they did – 5

Filed under: Economics, Health, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There were a lot of bad cooks around. These days, people who don’t like to cook, or aren’t good at it, mostly don’t. They can serve a rich variety of prepared foods, and enjoy takeout and restaurants. Why would you labor over something you hate, when someone else will sell you something better for only slightly more than it would cost you to make something bad?

In 1950, the answer was “because we’re not made of money.” A restaurant meal was a special treat, not a nightly event, and prepared foods were not so widely available, in part because women tended not to work, but also because food processing technology was so advanced. So women had to cook whether they liked it or not. Many of them didn’t like it, so they looked for ways to reduce the labor involved. And it’s far from obvious that what they did with those shortcuts was worse than what they would have done without them. Think of the kind of casserole a bad cook might have made without canned soup and frozen vegetables. She’d probably have boiled the vegetables, because that’s the easiest way to prepare them, and boiled them to death, because she wasn’t too fussy about timing. (Out of season, those vegetables would have been limited to a few hearty root vegetables.) If there was a sauce, it probably would have been horrible. Let’s not even start on what she might have done with the meat. Canned soup and frozen vegetables start sounding pretty good.

That was the baseline most people were working off. They were not comparing what they ate to what they might have gotten at a good restaurant; they were comparing it to what they would have gotten without the shortcuts, because, to reiterate, most of them rarely ate at a good restaurant.

Modern food writing has an enormous selection bias. The median cookbook reader is a much better cook, and much more interested in food, than the median audience of recipes from decades past. The bad cooks, the indifferent cooks, the folks with the cast iron palates and Teflon stomachs, are all off doing something else. And since good cooks tend to raise good cooks, the median food writer waxing lyrical about Grandma’s homemade beef stew doesn’t realize just how many bad cooks were around. Or that recipes needed to be written for them, because however limited their talents or interest, they still had to put a meal on the table every night. A lot of terribly mediocre recipes are floating around from the era, and that’s exactly what most of the terribly mediocre cooks were looking for.

Megan McArdle, “Friday Food Post: The Economics Behind Grandma’s Tuna Casseroles”, Bloomberg View, 2015-10-30.

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