Your Kitchen's Come a Long Way, Baby: Home Cooking Then and Now

My husband’s Aunt Judy was telling us recently about her formative days in the kitchen. In addition to her regular cooking duties, she spent hours and hours carefully measuring evaporated milk, water and corn syrup, filling baby bottles and boiling them to sterilize the “milk.” Fast-forward 40 years. Aunt Judy marvels at the healthier instant formulas available for her grandchildren. And she still avoids any kitchen task that smacks of drudgery. Convenience foods? The more the better.

We all can relate to her story, can’t we? Our early experiences shape how we relate to all the changes that have come about since we first learned to cook – the ever-faster pace of life, the wealth of new products, the confusing nutrition information. We view the 21st century culinary landscape through the filter of our own history.

Four food lovers

“There’s a lot you can learn about people by watching them in the kitchen,” said Cheryl Houston, who teaches dietetics and chairs the Department of Human and Environmental Sciences at Fontbonne University. In her case, lessons in creativity and frugality started early. “I grew up cooking from the time I was 5 … with my grandmother and my mom,” Houston said.

“I still cook a lot of traditional things,” said Houston. “I really am not a boxed-meal person.” But with 25 years as a dietitian, she knows she’s atypical in her adherence to scratch cooking despite a busy schedule. Her resilience might come from the way her relatives approached cooking - as entertainment for the whole family, particularly when money was short. “My mom taught my dad to cook,” Houston said. “They cooked together. We all shared the meal together.”

The same was true for Sonja Hughes, a retired federal employee and part-time music teacher. She and her husband of 50 years, Everett, worked together perfecting everything from biscuits to bacon and eggs. When their four sons came along, projects in the kitchen provided inexpensive fun. “I don’t ever remember a time when my kids didn’t want to fix something,” Hughes said.

Like Houston and Hughes, Carol Schlitt learned to cook from scratch. “We hardly ever ate out,” said Schlitt, an educator in nutrition and wellness with the University of Illinois Extension in Edwardsville, Ill. Schlitt’s job is something of a catch-22 - she spends a lot of time teaching and demonstrating how to cook more healthfully, which means less time cooking for her own household.

So Schlitt embraces shortcuts - to a point. “It’s fewer number of items going into a recipe,” she said. “It’s maybe starting out with a convenience product and adding other ingredients to it.”

“Speed-scratch cooking,” Linda Rellergert called it, and it’s what she does, too. Rellergert has a position similar to Schlitt’s as a nutrition and health education specialist for the University of Missouri Extension in St. Peters. She often teaches adults with diabetes how to improve their diets, and her busy schedule means she allocates half an hour to get meals on the table. She relegates complicated recipes with long ingredient lists to weekends, knowing they won’t become everyday staples.

Quicker, quicker, quicker

Throughout the 1900s, time spent on meal preparation and cleanup fell, from 44 hours at the beginning to under 10 hours by the end. If you break it down, assuming three meals a day, that comes to about half an hour per meal - quite a triumph for women (because by all accounts, men’s contributions are nothing near women’s). It’s also a triumph for the food processing industry.

We sometimes get the idea that heat-and-eat meals and packaged mixes are a recent phenomenon, but food processing was the nation’s largest manufacturing industry by 1920. Dry cereal (introduced in the 1890s) and canned fruits, vegetables, and pasta led the way, but you could also buy pancake mixes, Campbell’s condensed soup (1898) and Jell-O (1897). Subsequent milestones were: Wonder Bread (1927), frozen vegetables (1929, although not everyone had freezers to put them in), cake mixes (1949), instant rice (1950), TV dinners (1954) and frozen fish sticks (1955).

Anyone whose formative years included the dawn of the microwave, as mine do, can appreciate what it was like for children to watch their mothers use the new convenience products. “We did think frozen vegetables were a real boon,” said St. Louisan Lettie McClain. Barb Knotts, a computer librarian, remembered Saturday nights when “we had TV dinners and watched Lawrence Welk.”

In 1949 a breakthrough occurred in meat: A new breed of chicken emerged which, “paired with the injections of vitamins, antibiotics and growth hormones, allowed for the mass production of birds,” wrote Lowell Dyson, a retired U.S. Department of Agriculture historian, in FoodReview. Science was speeding along, with 400 synthetic chemical additives introduced in the 1950s alone.

A backlash against artificial ingredients came relatively quickly, but the all-natural yogurt-and-sprouts trends of the late 1960s and ‘70s were themselves taken over by mass production, according to “Can She Bake a Cherry Pie: American Women and the Kitchen in the Twentieth Century” by Mary Drake McFeely. Still, their legacy lingers. “There’s a big push for getting closer to nature,” said dietitian Schlitt. However, just taking out chemical additives doesn’t make food healthy. She cringes when she considers many of the time-saving products that line store shelves. For example, “the meat aisle has just exploded with preseasoned cuts,” she said. Too often, she warned, convenience foods like those are “extremely high in sodium and higher in fat than if you did some of the prep yourself.”

Strawberries all year

As a barometer of the incredible changes in grocery stores, there’s nothing more striking than strawberries. Other fruits and vegetables have proliferated – there are some 400 varieties widely available - but seeing strawberries in the dead of winter really illustrates how quick and inexpensive shipping has become. However, the availability of out-of-season berries might actually deter people from experimenting with other produce. It definitely discourages them from eating local, seasonal produce, a maxim that has been around at least since Fannie Farmer promoted it in the1927 edition of her “Boston Cooking-School Cook Book.”

“Even though it’s available, I’m not sure people are taking advantage of the variety as they should,” consumer educator Rellergert said. One reason may be that “we kind of lost some of the [kitchen] skills,” Rellergert said. Studies have found that many Americans are insecure about their cooking knowledge. That makes them unadventurous. “Most people have a repertoire of only 12 to 15 different recipes,” Schlitt said. They repeat them with only minor variations, and they fall into the same pattern at the grocer. Houston, who is training the next generation of dietitians, said, “I certainly know my students don’t know how [to cook].” She has watched them plug ingredients into a computer and get back a recipe that isn’t workable in the lab because they don’t have a clear idea of what each ingredient does in the first place.

On top of the grocery selection, there’s the overwhelming nutrition advice, the explosion of cookbooks, the gazillions of gadgets and appliances … who has time to keep up?

Professional chefs, for one. “I think food TV has changed how we think about cooking,” Houston said, echoing a common theme. She has no complaints about some of the personalities - “Rachael Ray is one of my favorites,” she said - but when people can’t participate or taste the finished product, they’re not really learning how to cook. “It’s become almost a craft to watch other people do,” Schlitt concurred.

A better method of education is cooking classes. “We have a myriad of [participatory] cooking classes in St. Louis … where I can make something and learn a new skill,” Schlitt said. Those are much more valuable than mere visual exposure.

Calling for backup

Having a mentor in the kitchen is most valuable of all - and many of the cooks interviewed routinely call up relatives for tips. “My aunt never did use recipes. Everything was in her head,” Hughes recalled. “After I got married, I’d call and ask her [advice]. I’d write everything down.”

Hughes herself is the role model for her sons, and she proudly described their various realms of expertise in grilling, stir-frying and baking. Similarly, Schlitt, who lives in Belleville, didn’t seem at all put out that she raised a son so concerned about getting his recipes right that on a recent visit home he drove to St. Louis to find high-quality chocolate for his brownies.

Hughes’ confidence in the fundamentals of cooking is paying off now, because her husband’s health has forced changes in their diet. She is living what educators like Schlitt and Rellergert teach, taking out sugar and fat and cholesterol from her dishes. Her first interest in nutrition came in the 1950s and ‘60s, when her sons were small and best-selling author Adelle Davis’ books were shaping many parents’ ideas on what to feed their children. Now Hughes tops her pies with a crumb crust or makes cobblers to get rid of hydrogenated fat. She uses artificial sweeteners or fruits. She maneuvers phyllo dough. She’ll try anything. “I’ll call it a French specialty and put it on the table,” she joked. Although she doesn’t feel the food has changed that much in taste, she said, “My husband doesn’t like it. When we have company he says, ‘Don’t do it. Fix things like you used to.’”

Women who taught their husbands and sons to cook - or, like Hughes, allowed their husbands to have a say in their kitchen experiments - talked as if they had opened up a new frontier. “Women still do have a very special relationship with food,” said cookbook author Laura Schenone during a visit to St. Louis earlier this year. “Cooking still does matter a lot, maybe all the more because we’re all so busy.”

That’s why experts worry so much about trends toward fewer parents teaching their children to cook and fewer families eating meals together. “I think that’s a big concern,” Rellergert said. “Children especially don’t develop good health habits - or good table manners.”

Yes, it takes extra time and it means more cleanup, Houston said, but “there’s nothing I like better than getting the kids involved.”

No longer banished

But to get the kids involved, you need to have adequate space. “If you’ve got that tiny little triangle,” Houston said, referring to the early-20th-century breakthrough in arrangement of the sink, stove and fridge, “why would you want kids in there?” Moreover, “if your kitchen is disorganized and it doesn’t flow quite right, why would you want to spend time in there?” On a broader scale, changes in home design mean that cooking is often central to whatever else is happening. Big, open kitchens “have become very attractive to be around,” and visitors “become part of the fun,” Houston said.

That, perhaps, is what will save home cooking in an era when 40 percent of the average household’s food dollars are spent away from home. Fully prepared, ready-to-heat meals and home delivery of restaurant food are soaring, proving that people want to eat at home with their families. Maybe home cooking enthusiasts can spread their conviction that it’s possible to whip up something delicious in the time it would take to drive to a store (or wait for the delivery). If they can, the idea of cooking as drudgery might be replaced by a sense of wonder at the possibilities.