Letters Archive
Spring 2002, Vol. 10, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)
  • Reflections on Memory, Identity, and Political Action
  • Creamed and Molded
  • Nancy A. Walker Lecture and Humor Symposium
  • Race and Wealth Disparity in 21st Century America
  • Robert Penn Warren Lecture on Southern Letters: David Levering Lewis
  • Gender and Sexuality Lecture Series
  • Rethinking the Americas: Crossing Borders and Disciplines
  • Schedule of Events
  • Limits of the Past, an Interdisciplinary Graduate Colloquium

  • Creamed and Molded

    Nancy A. Walker, professor of English and the first director of Women’s Studies at Vanderbilt University, died December 12, 2000. Walker first joined Vanderbilt as director of women’s studies in the summer of 1989, a post she held for seven years. During that time she served as an associate professor of English and attained full professorship in English in 1992. She is the author of more than ten books on women’s literature and women’s humor, as well as the editor of more than a dozen books on issues in women’s fiction and journalism. Her last book examines the ways American women’s lives of the 1940s and 1950s were shaped by such mainstream magazines as Good Housekeeping and The Ladies Home Journal. Walker’s “Creamed and Molded,” reprinted with the permission of the Santa Barbara Review (Winter/Spring 1996) exemplifies Professor Walker’s own sense of humor as well as her contributions to the effort to recover how women’s humor shapes and is shaped by American culture.

    Even as I was doing research in--and on--American women’s magazines of the 1940s and 1950s, the Hormel company produced the five billionth can of Spam, an event noted by no less than the New York Times (3 July 1994). I was already thinking about Spam--and lime Jell-O, and cream of mushroom soup. Thinking about how, growing up in the very decades I was researching, I had survived it all. There, in the basement of the Ben West Public Library in downtown Nashville, they leap out at me, these casseroles and stiff shiny salads, and the women making them invariably look happy and fulfilled (and aproned and high heeled). I look for articles about women working in munitions factories during World War II, and what draws my attention is an illustrated guide to spreading deviled ham on toast, topping it with cunningly-arranged strips of processed cheese, and popping it into the oven for a real luncheon treat. Oh, the fat, the salt, the white bread.

    But there seems, in retrospect, something wonderful about those days, when America emerged, hungry, from the wartime rationing of meat, butter, and sugar, from tomatoes canned from the Victory Garden, to the glories of frozen French-cut green beans (shown in the ad held aloft, steaming, on a platter by the housewife who accepts the adoring looks of her family--including the dog). Not a flake of oat bran nor a teaspoon of yogurt intrudes on these idyllic scenes, where vegetable shortening is magically transformed into “butter” with a little packet of yellow food coloring (I did this in my grandmother’s kitchen, in a blue bowl, and the experience created in me such a craving for real butter that my adult self now buys butter for that kid with the blue bowl.)

    The New York Times and I are not alone in musing about Spam. Writing in the Nashville Scene, John Bridges speculates that Spam “must have been invented to feed soldiers in trenches. I figure it is one of the benefits of living in a nation with a large defense budget.” John’s close. Spam was first manufactured in 1937, but it did become a wartime staple, both here and in Europe. In fact, the experience of feeding thousands of soldiers during World War II had numerous effects on how Americans cooked and ate in the post-war years. A 1946 Redbook article informs me that advancements in food packaging were the result of having to drop food supplies from airplanes, which makes me wonder about the velocity of a Lean Cuisine frozen dinner dropped from 2000 feet. The same article reveals that the better-tasting canned orange juice available in 1946 was the result of applying a process used to preserve blood plasma. (I’m not going to think real hard about that one.) Some of the exciting innovations about which Redbook gushes did not exactly become household staples--for example, dehydrated corned-beef hash, which tasted “remarkably like the genuine article.” And nowhere on my supermarket shelves is the pre-packaged vegetable salad touted in a 1941 Parents magazine. The housewife who has misplaced her knife need only open a can, pull up two “parchment tabs,” and behold layers of diced green beans, carrots, beets, celery--“salad architecture.”

    But it is canned soup and gelatine which are most ubiquitous in the pages of the women’s magazines--Campbell’s soup and Knox gelatine. (These brand names must have seeped deeply into the consciousness of one Richard Yates, who in 1961 published a novel about 1950s suburbia in which the main character works at Knox Business Machines and has friends named Campbell.) Anything, it seems, could be molded into gelatine: meats, poultry, seafood, vegetables, fruits, olives, nuts. I carry with me from my childhood the truth that something in fresh pineapple counteracts gelatine’s ability to make liquid stiff, whereas canned pineapple works fine. I have never needed this fact, but there it is. “Mrs. Knox’s Sunset Salad” (was there a Mrs. Knox?) featured shredded cabbage and canned pineapple; her “Complexion Salad” added chopped parsley. In her “May-Day Salad,” the cabbage has been replaced by rhubarb, but the pineapple is still there. A can of mixed vegetable juice, a few cooked shrimp, some gelatine--lunch for the bridge club, quivering but contained.
    As were the women themselves, for underneath the apron, underneath the skirt and sweater, was the GIRDLE. As Mademoiselle announced rather sternly in 1952, “a body is what you’ve been given, a figure is what you make out of it,” with “a girdle that gives you a firm pat on the back of hips.” A pat not unlike the one that causes the pineapple-laden gelatin to drop from its mold onto the platter. The rhetoric of girdle advertisements went beyond the coyness of the “firm pat” to deny all images of bodily containment. Who can forget the Playtex “Living Bra” and “Living Girdle”? This was no undergarment, it was a sentient being, made of “tree-grown latex.” In fact, the word most commonly used in ads for “foundation garments” was “freedom,” although freedom from what was never quite specified.

    Nor was a gelatine salad the only foodstuff to be molded. In a 1941 Woman’s Home Companion, clever “Mrs. T.” nestles halves of hardboiled eggs in muffin tins and molds ham loaf around them for baking into “wee loaves.” In the same month Mrs. T has baked lamb loaf in a ring mold studded with sliced stuffed olives. Pudding is molded into custard cups, to be unmolded for serving (that firm pat again). And what was not molded tended to be otherwise contained in pastry shells, for instance. Our same Mrs. T. serves her family vegetables in cream sauce in pastry shells.

    If Mrs. T. had just followed the advice of the Director of Home Economics for the Campbell’s Soup Company, she would have had a well-stocked “Soup Shelf” in her pantry and wouldn’t have had to make a cream sauce at all, for she would have had CREAM OF MUSHROOM SOUP. With this miracle, the Director of Home Economics tells me, I can make quick creamed chicken, to be served in a “crusty biscuit ring”---containment again. Now I’m here to tell you that I have committed a number of mushroom-soup tuna casseroles in my day, but I never ever put crushed potato chips on top, nor did I make macaroni and cheese using a can of tomato soup, and I promise to go to my grave without spreading hot Cheez Whiz on a waffle and serving it “with crisp bacon for brunch or supper,” as a 1954 Kraft ad advises me to do.

    Actually, the popularity of creamed and molded food can be traced back to the 1890s when things culinary succumbed to high Victorianism, as Laura Shapiro reminds us in her delightful book Perfection Salad. Both trends, encouraged by popular cooking schools, sprang from the era’s obsession with masking and taming whatever threatened to be naked or unruly. Thus, cream sauce, called “white sauce” (butter, flour, milk) became, as Shapiro writes, “as basic to cooking-school cookery as the stove itself . . . among scientific cooks it became the most popular solution to the discomforting problem of undressed food.” Not only vegetables, but fish, poultry, and even hot dogs were drenched in largely tasteless white sauce. And lest a salad be a messy affair of dangling and sprawling vegetables, there was the miracle of gelatine to shape them into “Perfection Salad,” which, Shapiro writes, was “the very image of a salad at last in control of itself.”

    By the post-World War II years, two things had changed. One, of course, was the introduction of myriad prepared foods--not merely Spam, canned soups, and frozen vegetables, but dehydrated potatoes, pudding and cake mixes, canned grated Parmesan cheese, brown-and-serve rolls, salad dressing mixes. So the housewife was relieved of the necessity to actually cook, right? Au contraire. Because alongside the advertisers who wanted to sell her instant rice and canned frosting were those who wanted to sell her electric ranges, mixers, blenders, and Pyrex baking dishes. So in the magazines, convenience foods were not foods at all, but ingredients. Who ever just sat down and ate a bowl of cream of mushroom soup? If anything, the availability of ready-to-eat food only increased the pressure of women to be creative, to do something with prepared foods other than merely serving them. (A fashion note in Harper’s Bazaar is ambiguous: an apron-like flounce on a cocktail dress. Does this mean that the apron has lost its utility, or that it now follows a woman everywhere?) Some people have wondered why, with all the convenience foods available, Peg Bracken published The I Hate to Cook Book in 1960. Not me.

    Take canned spaghetti with meatballs. You would think you would heat this and feed it to your five-year-old for lunch. Wrong. You make for the family dinner something called “Spaghetti Scandinavian,” which involves layering the canned spaghetti with cottage cheese (!) in a casserole, topping it with garlic-flavored breadcrumbs, and baking until bubbly. Got a jar of hot tamales? You’re on your way to an appetizer, made by wrapping pieces of tamale in bacon and baking until the bacon is crisp (my arteries slowed down a bit just reading that one). If you must have soup, get the cream of mushroom from your Soup Shelf, dilute it with milk, and add a can of deviled ham and a jar of baby-food strained peas.

    Recipes such as these come from the no-nonsense pages of Redbook and Good Housekeeping. Somewhat more upscale concoctions appeared in magazines such as Mademoiselle, which was aimed at the college-educated, upwardly mobile young career woman. In these pages, instant custard mix is not, of course, an end in itself, but instead of being told to add to it, say, strained prunes, the reader is instructed to make a zuppa inglese. Cream of Wheat is used to make a version of gnocchi, and canned tomatoes are heated with vinegar, raisins, sugar, and ginger to accompany curry. Spam is not once mentioned, nor is mushroom soup, but the pressure to get in there and cook is, if anything, much greater.
    The other notable features of the post-war creamed-and-molded phase is that what was done to food was also done to women’s bodies--or should be. If the analogue to gelatine is the girdle, the analogue to white sauce is face cream. Early in my research, a full page ad in a 1941 Ladies’ Home Journal stopped me in my tracks. Superimposed on the image of a huge carrot with three tiny women standing around it in postures of alarm (the phallic reference was unmistakable) was the line “Women and carrots have one enemy in common.” It seems that a tendency to dry out is the bond between women and carrots: the ad was for an “ice refrigerator”--the now-old-fashioned icebox. The icebox could solve the problem for the carrot, but the woman had only to go to another page in the magazine to find Jergen’s, or Pond’s, or some other cream with which to forestall inevitable desiccation. An oft-appearing Pond’s ad of the period bore the three-part text “She’s engaged! She’s beautiful! She uses Pond’s!” (The casual sequence reads in reverse order, of course), and readers were encouraged to purchase the largest available jar so they could get both hands into it at once.
    Creamed and molded, the women become indistinguishable from the food they prepare and serve. My local newspaper is currently running a series of recipes to advertise the Miss America Cookbook, and when one recipe called for both canned cream of mushroom and cream of chicken soup, I looked to see when its author was Miss America. 1955. Figures.

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