Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"How the Other Half Ate"

"Any question about cooking was also a question about women’s role in society," wrote Katherine L. Turner in How the Other Half Ate: A History of Working-Class Meals at the Turn of the Century (p. 122). The book documents how the poorest layer of American society in the late-19th and early 20th century ate. I learned a great deal about the rise of industrial food, how the poor obtained food, how their kitchens were equipped, and how they prepared meals to be eaten at home or taken to work or school. While immigrants found America a land of plenty, especially a land of abundant meat, the book shows how hunger was often a problem for the poor in the era under discussion.

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.
Turner's chapters on urban food and cooking among the poor and immigrants were also very interesting. The comparison of the middle class and upperclass kitchen to the kitchens of poor people around 100 years ago or more is especially important. In middle and upper class homes, inhabitants desired a separation of the kitchen from the public areas of the home, especially shunning the odors of cooking. Poor families, living in crowded spaces, used the kitchen as the center of life. Among the fascinating photos of early tenement kitchens that illustrate the book, one saw cookstoves, washtubs, beds, home sewing work, and sitting areas all in one room.

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.

1 comment:

Jeanie said...

This post (and book) is a wonderful complement to your earlier post. It sounds fascinating. I am so touched by how much people did with so little compared today. It really puts the present into perspective.