Cooking for Fun

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Cooking for fun is a relatively new concept in the American kitchen. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, attitudes about food and its preparation have changed drastically.

Early Attitudes about Cooking

Recipes and cookbooks have been around for hundreds of years, yet during colonial times, cooking was a necessity, and not meant to be fun. The housewife had endless chores, and cooking had to remain simple. This was still true into the twentieth century. A 1905 cookbook had a page of "instructions to be read carefully" that gave all the rules of cooking, including keeping one's hands and the kitchen very clean, wiping the grease off of dishes, and not throwing cabbage water down the sink.

During the twentieth century, food manufacturers began to print recipe booklets telling Americans all the ways their products could be baked, fried, and boiled into appetizers, main dishes, and desserts. Making their products fun to cook with was to the advantage of the manufacturer, and would lead to the consumer buying more. Each product that offered a recipe made sure that product was the key ingredient in the recipe, such as a recipe for cucumber cream salad in a booklet from a gelatin manufacturer that, of course, featured gelatin, and a recipe for hamburger loaf that came in a recipe booklet for Bond White Bread —hence the loaf in hamburger loaf.

Another innovation was the writing of Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, privately printed in 1931 and distributed from her home. This was the first real cookbook to speak to the home cook as something more than a housewife or home economist, treating them instead as food lovers who were ready for more adventurous recipes. The book included recipes, illustrations, and cooking techniques, and has been revised numerous times since then to reflect the changing tastes of the public.

New Technology

The advent of the refrigerator during the early twentieth century, first mass produced during the 1930s, resulted in a dramatic change in methods of food storage. It allowed perishable items to be kept longer and foods to be frozen on a long-term basis, providing cooks with greater flexibility. The refrigerator also introduced a new type of dessert, the "refrigerator cake," which did not require baking. Various ingredients were assembled and then solidified in the refrigerator for twenty-four hours. As a 1949 Westinghouse refrigerator manual explained: "The food your family eats is going to be better and easier to prepare... Proper chilling or freezing of ingredients is vital to many of today's favorite foods." Pamphlets instructed consumers on how to properly freeze foods.

New, affordable cooking tools of the early and mid-twentieth century were designed to give the public greater enjoyment in the kitchen. Products such as electric blenders, beaters, choppers, and food processors enabled cooks to save significant time: for example, the beating of egg whites or heavy cream by hand was no longer necessary. These electronic devices enticed people who might not ordinarily cook.

Meanwhile, the new technology of television brought the first cooking show to NBC in 1946, featuring the chef James Beard, who went on to found a cooking school in 1955 and write more than twenty cookbooks.

Fun Cooking

With suburban sprawl becoming prevalent during the 1950s, corner grocery stores and butcher shops gave way to the one-stop shopping of the supermarket. Housewives now had more choices to make interesting dishes for their husbands and families. A 1950 cookbook proclaimed that the kitchen is a laboratory to be used for experimentation. Cooking was also touted as a way for a woman to get to a man's heart. A prize-winning recipe submitted by a sixteen-year-old girl was called "blueberry boy-bait." Many recipes were titled "Dad's favorite" or listed under a category of "men's favorites."

The "fun" cooking of the decades immediately following World War II was often filled with fat and calories. These recipes included "fried potato logs," "creamed vegetable patties," and "burger-onion shortcake." Besides high fat content, cooking of the 1940s and 1950s also involved making colorful dishes such as "Pink Enchantment Cake," a three-tiered "Party Cake" with red yellow and green shredded coconut, a "Christmas Tree Cake" with green shredded coconut and red candles and candies, and a green pimiento cheese spread-covered "Party Sandwich Cake" that featured colorful layers of ham spread, relish-butter, egg salad, and tuna.

Recipe contests in newspapers (for a $5 prize) and others such as the Pillsbury Bake-Off (begun in 1949) helped reinforce the image of cooking as a fun and rewarding pastime. Books started to appear focusing on just one key ingredient or type of ingredient; cooking with beer, wine, apples, or spices, for example.

New Foods and Cooking Styles

As the population of the United States became more diverse, so did the variety of ethnic food available. With the arrival of Chinese workers who helped build the transcontinental railroad during the nineteenth century, Chinese cuisine was introduced to the American taste. At first limited to a few main dishes, such as chop suey, Chinese cooking expanded with the introduction of the regional cooking of different provinces, including Hunan and Szechuan. Italian cooking for the American public used to consist of a few main dishes, relying heavily upon red sauce (spaghetti and meatballs, for example), but during the late twentieth century, Americans were introduced to the wider variety of flavorful Italian dishes that were truer to the actual cuisine of the different regions of Italy.

The influx of Latin cultures during the latter half of the twentieth century popularized cooking Mexican-style with hot spices. During this time, second-generation Americans rediscovered their ethnic roots and helped popularize many Old World recipes. Regional American cooking styles also broke out of their local areas during the mid-twentieth century, bringing Texas-style barbecue to Massachusetts, and southern soul food to New York. Sometimes, ethnic or regional restaurants were the catalyst that piqued the public interest in that cooking style. In 1954, for example, the Pink Teacup café opened in New York City, serving southern-style soul food. Over the years, their recipe for sweet potato pie has become a classic, reprinted in Liz Smith's newspaper column annually.

Diet and Health Cooking

In the early years of the of the twentieth century, the amount of processed food available increased dramatically. Canned, processed, and preserved foods were being turned out in massive amounts by factories. There was little concern over the amount of fat in a diet. Most of America enjoyed high fat, high calorie diets, and the recipes of the time reflected this trend. Butter, eggs, and cooking oil were common. When nutrition was mentioned in old cookbooks, it was to promote the values of fatty foods such as butter.

Diet recipes and books existed, but did not focus so much on cooking, but rather on which foods were safe to eat and which foods could be harmful. As time passed, diet values began to change, but there were still mixed messages in the recipes. Wheat germ was praised as useful for women who wanted to give their families good food and good nutrition, yet published recipes using wheat germ included bacon waffles and pork and liver loaf.

By the end of the twentieth century, eating smart had become the leading priority in cooking. Cookbooks of the early 2000s cover every possible type of healthy cooking: vegetarian, organic, low fat, low carbohydrate, low salt, and low sugar, to name a few. Specific diet plans have their own cookbooks too. For example, the Weight Watchers support program began during the 1960s and evolved into a dieting and cooking subculture. Other popular diet plans include The Zone Diet and the Atkins Diet. With the mandatory inclusion of nutrition facts on all packaged foods during the 1990s, Americans have become more aware of the amount of calories, sodium, and fat they eat.

Julia Child

When the well-to-do Julia McWilliams met Paul Child during World War II, she knew a great deal about entertaining but little about cooking. When they married, the thirty-three-year-old Julia Child decided to learn how to cook for her gourmand husband. When his government job landed them in France, he gave her a tour of French food. Falling in love with the cuisine, Child enrolled at the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school.

Child began to teach French cooking in her own kitchen in Paris, then set out on a decade-long venture to write a complete cookbook of French recipes adapted for American taste and ingredient availability, where the home cook was increasingly using boxed, canned, and frozen foods. Years of recipe testing and revision, along with consultations with French chefs and cookbooks, culminated in a precedent-setting cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking published in 1961 by Knopf.

The book earned her rave reviews and TV spots, as well as a tour of cooking demonstrations. Viewers of Boston public television loved watching her cook, and the station manager and program director convinced Child to film three pilot episodes, leading to a public TV show in 1963. Child's sense of humor and ability to improvise through mistakes were a hit with viewers. Eventually, they made 119 shows.

Child helped bring about a great change in the way Americans looked at food and cooking, bringing joy and enthusiasm to the process and encouraging people not to fret over mistakes. She also did a special for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) with chef Jacques Pepin in 1994, "Julia Child and Jacques Pepin: Cooking in Concert." The wildly popular show brought together the home chef and the professional chef and led to a series.

In addition to shows with Child, Pepin has hosted his own shows and written his own books. Focusing on teaching skills in the kitchen, his 1976 book La Technique: An Illustrated Guide to the Fundamental Techniques of Cooking is a step-by-step guide to such basic things as separating eggs and carving meat. Pepin believes that while creativity is key to successful cooking, that cannot be accomplished without mastering basic skills with knives and other equipment and understanding how food cooks.


The lines between chef, cookbook author, TV contributor, entrepreneur, and celebrity have been blurred. Emeril Lagasse, chef and owner of a number of popular New Orleans restaurants, was given his own TV show teaching the basics. How to Boil Water was followed by Emeril and Friends. When cable television formed the first network devoted to cooking, The Food Network, in 1993, Emeril hosted one of its first shows, Essence of Emeril and later Emeril Live. He has authored a number of cookbooks and appeared as food correspondent on Good Morning America. He also markets his own line of food products, including his famous "Essence" spice mix.

Lagasse followed in the footsteps of Paul Prudhomme, another popular New Orleans chef, who has hosted television shows, written for magazines, authored cookbooks, and sells a line of food products. Yet another celebrity restaurant chef who has crossed over into television and cookbooks is Wolfgang Puck. Many Food Network chefs, such as the Naked Chef, have attracted a large following. Many of these celebrity chefs also have their own line of cooking products such as pots or utensils, or, as in the case of Wolfgang Puck, they endorse them. Jacques Pepin designed his own line of kitchen textiles.

Sometimes even without a TV series, chefs will publish a cookbook based on the popularity of their restaurant or bakery. The Magnolia Bakery in New York enjoys considerable popularity; its chef owners Jennifer Appel and Allysa Torey published The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook: Old-Fashioned Recipes from New York's Sweetest Bakery in 1999, replete with recipes for muffins, cookies, layer cakes, pies, cheesecakes, icings, and fillings. Theme cooking books cover a wide variety of topics, such as the Beatles and the Civil War. Cooking dishes with silly Beatles-esque names or concocting the food eaten by confederate soldiers can turn music and history buffs into cooking buffs.

Contemporary Cooking for Fun

The main goal of all of these shows and books is to make cooking more accessible to those who cannot or do not like to cook, and more fun and interesting for those who do. One effect of the explosion of cooking shows and cookbooks has been the opening of the kitchen to men. With the average marriage age several years later than in the mid-twentieth century, and more men living on their own before marrying, they have more time to learn how to cook.

As more fast food restaurants and ready-made foods flood the market, cooking from scratch has become a hobby, no longer a necessity. With more women entering the work force toward the mid- and late-twentieth century, cooking for fun was relegated to weekends. Many people who cook regularly in the early 2000s make time for it because they enjoy it so much.

See also: Coffee Houses and Café Society, Diners, Dining Out, Fast Food


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Ferrone, John, ed. The Armchair James Beard. New York: The Lyons Press, 1999.

Fitch, Noel Riley. Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Lagasse, Emeril. Emeril's TV Dinners: Kickin' It Up a Notch with Recipes from Emeril Live and Essence of Emeril as Seen on the Food Network. New York: William Morrow and Co. Inc., 1998.

Pepin, Jacques. La Technique: An Illustrated Guide to the Fundamental Techniques of Cooking. New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Books, 1976.

Perl, Lila. Slumps, Grunts, and Snickerdoodles: What Colonial America Ate and Why. New York: The Seabury Press, 1975.

Torres, Jacques. Dessert Circus: Extraordinary Desserts You Can Make at Home, Companion to the National Public TV Series. New York: William Morrow and Co. Inc., 1998.

Appel, Jennifer, and Alyssa Torrey. The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook: Old-Fashioned Recipes from New York's Sweetest Bakery. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

Spignesi, Stephen J. She Came in Through the Kitchen Window: Recipes Inspired by the Beatles and Their Music. New York: Citadel Press, 2000.

Rombauer, Irma S., and Marion Rombauer Becker. The Joy of Cooking. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill Co. Inc., 1964.

——., The Joy of Cooking. New York: Scribner, 1997.

Richard Panchyk and Caren Prommersberger