Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Pairing Science with the Domestic Goddess (My interpretation of Perfection Salad)

House work is a series of tasks that was once thought to be wholly of the female gender role. Many women in the 19th century defined the specific task of cooking as “drudgery.” A number of women sought to transform this notion of household work into an enlightened home profession by changing the way women look at their tasks. Instead of “drudgery,” the management of a home through scientific principles would make the home “run as quietly as a machine.”

It was the thought of a few notable women that women needed to look at cooking in a “dainty” way instead of “drudgery.” Through a change in language in many of the home cooking manuals pre home cooking schools, writers and theorists sought to help women make the world “more home like.” Eventually Mrs. Ellen Richards decided it was her duty to open up a school devoted solely to this training of women to care for their homes. Originally she worked with MIT to open a Woman’s Laboratory to study the science of common kitchen items such as vinegar, baking soda, spices, etc. During this time Richards expanded her own knowledge of sanitation, nutrition and other topics which she would include later in her education of women.

A revolution seemed to be occurring in and around New England where schools began to emerge solely for the education of women in what had come to be known as domestic science. Schools such as The Boston Cooking School emerged that would train young women in the care of their home’s kitchen. Women were taught in a variety of ways but the main emphasis was on simplicity so that women could go about the other chores of the house unimpeded by cooking elaborate meals. It was also thought that elaborate meals were unhealthy for not only consumption, but the woman cooking them as well. A key to these schools was not to remove the woman from her home, but to improve the over all domestic environment for the woman and her family.

Other schools opened as well in New York City which catered to women of lower income. This was an appeal to The Boston Cooking School as well, as they attempted to feed the products from their classes to the poor communities in Boston. The high cost of the foods however, impeded The Boston Cooking School from freely distributing their food, to a more practical sale of the products at cost.

Ellen Richards continued to champion her cause of scientific method in the management of cooking at home to a broader audience. Through the American Economics Association, Richards and others sought to proclaim the domestic woman as a profession. This not only sought to proclaim it a profession, but would also help champion the cause of “home economics,” which was a term that came out of the conferences which were held up in Lake Placid once a year. Then going a step further through Melvil Dewey, they were able to gain their own section in his Dewey Decimal System which gave the movement more exposure than as a sub-topic under Useful Arts.

However, Richard’s biggest disappointment was that the average woman disdained household work entirely. Even with the new technologies and organized principles, the average woman wanted nothing to do with housework. Although they had guests give lectures on chaffing dish meals and the like at their woman’s clubs, the women themselves never partook of the practices themselves. Women that did cook still desired “greedy” foods like steaks and pies. This eventually caused Richards to begin chastising women openly much to the dismay of some of her editors. Further attempts were made by leaders of the movement to support food items like Mrs. Lincoln’s Baking Powder (Mrs. Mary J. Lincoln being another proponent of the domestic science movement) and other items which sought to make the housewives’ life easier such as pre-made mixes. Some caught on, while others did not.

The domestic science movement is looked upon by many people as a failure as it sought to confine women to traditional female roles instead of championing them to equality with men. Always in the shadow of men, women supposedly could not be equal in their eyes. However, many of these women looked to champion household work as their domain and their right to govern over the household and give them an important place where men need not dwell. It is this strength that Richards and other domestic feminist sought to take hold of, but with the changing technology and social structure of the time it was a hard sell. In the end domestic cookery for many women fell back into the realm of “drudgery,” and the home kitchen lost much of its soul.

For more on this subject take a look at the book Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (Modern Library Food) by Laura Shapiro and Michael Stern. The book is a great read. Make sure you look for it in used harcover as it is only a few dollars, the same for paperback. Don't bother paying the $14 new price tag that Amazon is looking for.

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