The author makes parallels between our time and the past quite explicitly: especially the efforts of well-meaning upper-class people to change the diet of the poor, and above all in the way most people saw women's skills and commitment to home cooking "through a prism of gender and morality that obscured the nature of cooking as labor." (p 128)
Attitudes towards food prepared outside the small and inadequate kitchens of the era is interesting. In the 19th century, baking bread was considered a housewife's duty and "baker’s bread was considered 'poor- folksy.'"(p 67) Canned foods were originally very expensive luxuries, allowing rich people to eat out-of-season or rare dishes; eventually they became commonplace or even markers of lower status.
Although it's only one of many themes of the book, I was especially interested in the discussion of how industrial food affected the poor, and especially in the implied and specific comparison to the ongoing problems that still exist. "Industrialization," Turner writes, "served to eliminate the work that men (and children) had once been assigned to do, while at the same time leaving the work of women either untouched or even augmented. Men were released from household work to wage work; women remained behind with their traditional tasks, which were lightened but not materially changed by urban amenities." (p. 125)
As in today's world, industrial food and ready-to-eat food -- often prepared in other women's small-scale kitchens or purchased from pushcart vendors -- made women's work easier. In some communities, less burdensome cooking freed women to earn money outside the home or by doing piecework or taking in boarders inside her home. However, the downside of industrial food was even worse in some communities. Refined white flour or milled cornmeal were seen as luxuries, but were a disaster for nutrition in the South:
"...effects of industrialization on the diet of all rural southerners, and especially on mill workers with poor diets, was the loss of nutrients caused by refining grains. By 1907 the flour and cornmeal that had previously been stone-ground in small local mills was being milled by large commercial roller mills and refined to remove all the germ and bran. The resulting refined flour or meal was extremely popular but caused an epidemic of pellagra. ... Pellagra hit the poorest folks hardest because they lacked a varied diet and depended almost entirely on the refined flour and cornmeal as a source of calories. Pellagra was also worse among the nonworking members of mill families — mothers, young children, and old people — because they received a smaller share of the family’s food." (p. 107)
|Piece work in the kitchen.|
I was especially intrigued by How the Other Half Ate because of my recent visit to the New York Tenement Museum, and my recent reading of Robin Shulman's book titled Eat the City and of Laura Shapiro's book: Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century, a history of home economics and the Settlement House movement. My culinary book club recently discussed Shapiro's book, as well.