Follow the Food: Using Cookbooks and Cooking to Rethink Cold War Domesticity

Tracey Deutsch and Stephen Vider

There may be no more iconic image of 1950s domesticity than Betty Crocker. A fictional spokeswoman created in 1921 by Washburn-Crosby, the company that would soon become General Mills, Betty Crocker first rose in influence as host of a radio cooking show but her authority and prominence expanded enormously with the publication of The Betty Crocker Cook Book in 1951—the first cookbook to become a bestseller. Her name has since come to stand for the combination of corporate products, processed foods, and maternal domesticity that so many associate with the stultifying norms and narrow cuisines of Cold War life.    

Scholars seeking to complicate this time period often position themselves against figures such as Betty Crocker, arguing—quite rightly—that there was more to this time period than trite images suggest. Arlene Avakian and Barbara Haber titled their foundational 2005 food studies compilation From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies. Avakian and Haber’s anthology built on insights from earlier reassessments of Cold War domesticity, most importantly the 1994 collection Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, edited by Joanne Meyerowitz, which pushed scholars of home and family to differentiate lived reality from infamous prescriptions. As early as 1988, Elaine Tyler May, who coined the term “domestic containment” to describe the powerful Cold War ideology that linked marriage, child-rearing, and home ownership to anti-Communist security, noted that many Americans were dissatisfied with what this ideology offered in practice, and many non-white Americans never received access to the prosperity and stability it promised.[1] As scholarship on the postwar period expands, historians can now turn to a raft of powerful histories of BIPOC, queer, activist, and disabled communities, all of which inspire fuller and more complicated visions of this era.[2] In our own work, we’ve learned and written about the instability and possibilities of American consumer culture and home life in this time period, both for those who might seem to have adhered closely to midcentury family and domestic norms, and those conventionally seen as outsiders.[3] Clearly, more was going on than canned soup casseroles and smiling family dinners.

The real significance of Betty Crocker and the celebratory mid-century food culture she represents lies not in whether Americans’ meals resembled hers, but in the way that the recipes, techniques, and discourses that circulate in her name point us to a larger truth—food was a key object in forging new versions of domesticity. Midcentury domesticity, even white middle-class domesticity, was more varied and flexible than typically portrayed—a paradoxical site of both oppressive ideals and creative adaptation. Its fluidity and contradictions are revealed nowhere more clearly than in cooking. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, homemade meals emerged as an important tool for expanding social worlds and for reshaping gender and sexual expression. Following the food lets us see both the prescriptions and practices of cooking, mealtimes, and provisioning as they played out in everyday life, pointing to the possibilities that domesticity offered for self-expression and community formation. It also provides a lens on the ways the personal politics of home and family link to national and global politics, specifically how Cold War-era policies around the household, welfare, diplomacy, tourism, and trade reverberated in the foods people cooked and desired. In this article, we focus on two cookbooks and their authors to explore how Americans used food and foodways to bring home experiences that went far beyond new recipes, including new forms of sexuality, sociality, and politics. Food offered opportunities to rethink and reimagine domesticity and engage in global cosmopolitanism and internationalist movements, to work towards radically different sexual and racial orders and, in other cases, to create new sexual norms while privileging white households and reasserting American empire.

Take, for instance, Julia Child. The subject of both a recent documentary and an HBO Max miniseries, Child loomed large both physically (she was famously tall) and socially—accruing stunning fame and authority at a time when almost no women achieved public acclaim as fine chefs. Effusive and famously messy on her TV show, she challenged the norms of cookbook publishing and food media more generally: not only was Child not the construct of a food company’s marketing department, she eschewed commercial promotion and endorsement entirely. Despite and because of this, she built a loyal audience whose goodwill buoyed herself and her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), as well as the public television stations that broadcast her show, The French Chef. After three pilot episodes in the summer of 1962 were a surprise hit, Child persuaded WGBH to launch a series, which ran through 1973 and cemented Child’s fame. Her success blew away every prediction made about her and about Americans’ eagerness to devote time, energy, and resources to food.

Julia Child’s success owed as much to women’s (and men’s) home lives as it did to her prowess as an author and educator. Child insisted that Americans could and should produce gourmet meals for themselves, in their own homes. She required kitchens, ingredients, significant amounts of time and unpaid labor—and homes in which to serve the food. For instance, Child’s shows centered domestic spaces, with meals displayed on a set table. Episode titles, although sometimes straightforward in naming recipes, often reinforced the kinds of domestic scenarios in which these recipes would be handy.  “Brunch for a Bunch!” was one, or “Cake for Company.” This was cooking that required home life.

But Child’s domesticity was neither Betty Crocker’s nor the kind envisioned by Crocker’s creators; she never had children and she developed her 1950s recipes through dinners with groups of adult friends and lunchtimes with her husband, Paul. She imagined gourmet meals bringing together groups of adults, not feeding large families. And although she never adopted nascent feminists’ faith in the possibilities of women’s collective action, she shared the belief that the endless demands of parenting and housekeeping were constraining. Child even opened her cookbook by noting that it was for those who could escape the “parent-chauffeur-den-mother syndrome.”[4]

Child’s vision of the joys of cooking (and eating) beyond the middle-class nuclear family most often prioritized by mid-century advertising and government policy hints at the wider array of home lives imagined and pursued in the postwar period. Born just two years before Julia Child, Lou Rand Hogan was roughly her contemporary but lived a world apart: in the 1930s, when Child was attending Smith College and sporadically working office jobs in New York, Hogan received a different sort of education working as a steward aboard Matson Line cruise ships. The Matson ships were, in fact, largely staffed by queer men, who schooled Hogan in the art of camp humor as well as cooking. Those experiences provided both the rhetorical and culinary foundation for Hogan’s first foray into food writing: The Gay Cookbook, published in 1965. Hogan’s rationale for the cookbook, as he explained in his introduction, was that there were now “new jazzy cookbooks for everyone, for every type, every temperament” so why not one for the “limp-wristed”? 

Cookbooks such as Hogan’s were not about assimilation but differentiation. Some specifically targeted home chefs who sought to distinguish themselves from the stereotypical gender and sexual roles of the 1950s, whether by cooking for husband and family with ironic disdain in Peg Bracken’s The I Hate to Cook Book (1960) or embracing a new singles culture in Thomas Mario/Sidney Aptekar’s Playboy Gourmet (1961) and Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girls’ Cookbook (1969). Others embraced cuisines tied to specific ethnic, religious, and racial identities, such as Jennie Grossinger’s The Art of Jewish Cooking (1958) or the 1950 translation of Ada Boni’s The Talisman Italian Cookbook, which were as likely to be picked up by those hungry to reclaim their own heritage as by curious outsiders.[5] Hogan, for his part, was Irish but his cookbook included a recipe for gefilte fish, with an explanation of its place in the Jewish Sabbath. He also noted that those reluctant to “serve an item with the racial connotation of gefilte… could simply call them ‘fish balls,’ (being very gay about it!).”[6] The point was not just to target those audiences, but to make those communities legible to outsiders through food. The Gay Cookbook not only provided gay men a guide to the kitchen but gave all readers a view of queer domesticity unrepresented in mainstream American culture—replete with discussions and illustrations of nightly trysts and queer parties.

Those glimpses of gay domestic life reflected the larger ways queer and trans people came to value home-spaces as sites of safety and connection in the years between World War II and the rise of gay liberation. Personal photographs from gay and lesbian couples reveal holiday dinners, elaborate parties, and even weddings, hosted at home. These images document everyday practices of intimacy and inclusion, allowing scenes that we might normally assume were reserved for normative heterosexual households. A 1954 photograph album from a California couple, Lee Fuller and Frank Leach, for example, reveals the domestic life they built together, one that challenges notions of home and the domestic as inherently isolating and alienating for Cold War queer Americans.[7] Rather, home could also be a site of sociality and connection. Indeed, private spaces of the home were critical to community formation and self-expression, offering a security and a claim to normativity that bars and public venues did not. Fuller and Leach, in fact, shared their home with Fuller’s mother, and their dinner table was frequently host to friends. During the 1960s, trans activist Susanna Valenti and her wife Marie hosted regular weekend gatherings at their house in the Catskills, “Casa Susanna,” providing a rare space for middle-class trans women to come together, often away from their spouses and children. While guests might split off during the day, they came together for elaborate dinners, cooked by Marie, as well as drinks, hosted in a barn Susanna and Marie converted into a bar, as documented in photographs first published in the community magazine Transvestia.[8] Like Leach and Fuller’s album, the photographs of Casa Susanna document a domestic world that both reinforces the importance of ordered meals and used them as opportunities to create new families and communities.

The worlds of straight and queer foodways could also overlap: Hogan was able to find a mainstream publisher for his cookbook (and garner an ad in the New York Times) because of a wave of interest in camp humor spurred by Susan Sontag, bringing camp aesthetics into urbane culture. Julia Child’s audiences for her food in the 1950s also included gay and lesbian friends, and her later social and professional life was populated by famous gay food personas James Beard and Craig Claiborne. Indeed, queer food and queer people were an increasing presence on the American food scene, as Rachel Cleves has argued recently.[9] There are also clues here that everyday dining rooms were more capacious than we might expect: Fuller and Leach’s album, for example, include photos of the meals they hosted with straight friends and family next to pictures of the vacations shared with gay friends. Such mixing hints at the possibilities that more complex relationships among LGBTQ people and their straight friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members were made possible in domestic spaces.

Looking at Child and Hogan together also suggests how straight and LGBTQ people may have equally participated in a new politics of pleasure: the 1960s culinary revolution ran parallel to an emerging sexual revolution, with its insistence on bodily desire and fulfillment as key components of personal and cultural growth. Child and Hogan, for example, shared a love of double-entendres and innuendo: where Hogan gave his chapters titles like “Chicken Queens,” “Loose Ends,” and “What to Do with a Tough Piece of Meat,” Child titled one show “Beef Gets Stewed Two Ways.” A 1966 episode on asparagus “from tip to butt,” included her advice that she always liked to “start with the butt” when cutting up asparagus, and ended with her leaning back, artfully inserting a long stalk dipped in hollandaise sauce into her mouth and cooing as a narrator assured viewers that Julia Child “would if she could” wish viewers “Bon Appetit.”[10] Child’s humor, like Hogan’s, linked food and sexuality as sites of reinvention to be staged at home.

Home cooking was also a platform to reimagine other identities and allegiances, beyond intimate ties. Both Child and Hogan’s work reflected a surge of interest in using food to domesticate the geopolitics of the post-World War II period. Like many Americans, they experienced the world because of U.S. foreign policies—in Hogan’s case through the soft power of interwar tourism, and in Child’s as a war time employee of the OSS (Office of Strategic Service), a postwar diplomatic spouse, and onlooker to the State Department cultural diplomacy. The Gay Cookbook and Hogan’s later cooking column, “Auntie Lou Cooks,” in the gay weekly The Advocate, effectively domesticated many of the “foreign” cuisines he first encountered aboard the Matson Line. Julia Child similarly sought to persuade Americans that they could reproduce the fetishized foods of classical French cuisine, which many had only experienced through high-end restaurants, travel, or food writing but which she had been exposed to during her husband’s time as a cultural affairs officer in 1950s France.

Other purveyors of international foods were also shaped by American efforts to establish ties with key countries or political allies. Mark Padoongpatt, for example, has shown how Thai food was first appropriated by white women who had traveled to Thailand with husbands as part of U.S. efforts to expand influence over, and corporate and cultural ties with, this key Cold War ally. These white women then returned to the United States and commercialized their “knowledge” through cooking schools and cookbooks. Thai migrants, many of whom were originally encouraged to come through student and tourism visas that the United States made available to Thailand, established community, supply chains, and retail spaces that also put a standardized version of Thai food “on the menu” for new generations of native-born Americans.[11] Chinese-born Joyce Chen, through her cookbook and cooking show (produced on the same set as Julia Child’s), joined already popular Chinese American restaurateurs in creating a surge of interest among white Americans in cooking Chinese food at home. She was able to immigrate only because of a softening in U.S. anti-Asian immigration policy and because of State Department efforts to attract elite, professional anti-communist Chinese after China’s Communist Revolution.[12] U.S. geopolitical policies, rather than unmediated “taste,” determined the access of a generation of predominantly white Americans to both continental and Asian cuisines. 

In this context, the cookbooks and recipes of many chefs were invitations to use domesticity to perform one’s relationship to globalism. Hogan, Child, and a host of other Cold War chefs—even standards such as Betty Crocker and the competing General Foods Kitchens Cookbook (1959)—encouraged their audiences to produce dishes positioned as Mexican, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, and Asian.[13] Those cookbooks echoed a practice, dating back to the late nineteenth century, that Kristin Hoganson calls “cosmopolitan domesticity,” only now at the scale of mass culture.[14] Cooking demonstrated savvy and status, allowing households to recognize the outside world and traditions not their own, without sacrificing domestic or political stability and without upsetting racial hierarchies. 

The Cold War globalism of Child’s and Hogan’s cookbooks ultimately betrayed the limits of their vision of American households, even as they worked to challenge gender and sexual practices.[15] Both presumed a white audience—home cooks to whom Asian, Mexican and even Italian food might be “exotic” and new. They also anticipated readers and viewers well-resourced enough to devote time and funds to cooking. Neither acknowledged that people of color might be audiences for their cooking—a fact stunning in its disregard for and ignorance of the long history of Black cooks producing elaborate gourmet meals in commercial and private kitchens, the importance of immigration to American foodways, and the coherent queer communities of color created before, during, and after the 1950s and 1960s. And while Hogan acknowledged the necessity of budgets, neither showed much engagement with the many constraints that shaped people’s approach to food. 

In reality, people’s class status, as well as their ethnic and racial identities and loyalties, religious affiliations, and their physical abilities led to different uses of food that in turn sustained wildly divergent domesticities—households feeding unrelated neighbors or extended family, households in which children prepared meals for parents who worked or who were unable to cook, households that were porous to neighbors and non-nuclear family members—sometimes by choice and sometimes by necessity. Black food writers, most famously Ebony magazine’s Freda DeKnight in her book Date with a Dish (1948), centered the brilliance of servants and cooks, and the culinary creativity of Black women who fed their families amid poverty long before Child and Hogan appeared on the scene.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s even mass market cookbooks would explicitly take up the possibilities for food in decolonial, anti-capitalist, and antiracist politics. Black cookbooks such as Bob Jeffries’ Soul Food Cookbook (1969) and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor’s Vibration Cooking (1970) linked home cooking of soul food to projects of political liberation.[16] Counterculture cookbooks such as Eat, Fast, Feast (1972), written by the True Light Beavers commune, and the Moosewood Cookbook (1977), edited by Mollie Katzen based on recipes from the collectively run restaurant, also worked to imagine new ways of eating rooted in novel forms of family and community. They repurposed and redirected the globalism of earlier cookbooks to a form of cultural resistance and an embrace of “natural” foodways,” with recipes that required such supermarket novelties as tahini and tamari.[17] These were not underground books—both Vibration Cooking and Eat, Fast, Feast were published by Doubleday. 

If some activists saw home cooking as a means to reinvent the family and resist white supremacy and capitalism, government agencies also hoped it might be a tool to police family forms and sexual practices. The 1964 Food Stamp Act, for example, defined a household as a “group of related or nonrelated individuals, who are not residents of an institution or boarding house, but are living as one economic unit sharing common cooking facilities and for whom food is customarily purchased in common” or an individual living alone with their own kitchen. By the late 1960s, as the food assistance program expanded, many counterculture communes and activist collectives pooled food stamps, only for the government to try and clamp down. Those efforts included a 1971 amendment that limited food assistance to households of “related” people, later struck down by the Supreme Court. Similarly, under “man in the house” laws, the presence of a man in a single mother’s home could be used to deny access to food assistance as well as other welfare benefits.[18] Even as the “traditional family” was called into question in the 1960s and 1970s, government agencies insisted on encouraging their ideal reproductive breadwinner-homemaker household, with cooking defined as a primary function and measure of the family. 

These practices and policies invite us again to reconsider food as a vehicle for many kinds of domesticities in the postwar period. It was not so much that households in this period necessarily departed from Betty Crocker-infused domestic America; it was that Betty Crocker, Lou Rand Hogan, Julia Child, and countless other authors and home cooks shared an historical moment in which food itself came to seem more and more foundational to individuals’ demands for more or better or different models of home life. Hogan’s and Child’s cookbooks not only show how personal politics intersected with global politics but also reveal how Americans came to see domestic foodways as deeply bound with new geopolitical, sexual, and social possibilities, Following the food through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s provides scholars a crucial means of re-evaluating postwar American life, exposing wildly divergent visions of what home life could entail.

[1]Arlene Avakian and Barbara Haber, From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies Critical Perspectives on Women and Food (2005); Joanne Meyerowitz, ed., Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945–1960 (1994); Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families During the Cold War (1988).

[2]See for example, Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California (2009); Lauren Jae Gutterman, Her Neighbor’s Wife: a History of Lesbian Desire within Marriage (2020); Dayo Gore, Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (2011); Margot Canaday, Queer Career: Sexuality and Work in Modern America (2023); Michiko Takeuchi, “Cold War Manifest Domesticity: The ‘Kitchen Debate’ and Single American Occupationnaire Women in the U.S. Occupation of Japan, 1945–1952,” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, 50 (2016), 3-28; Marci R. McMahon, Domestic Negotiations Gender, Nation, and Self-Fashioning in US Mexicana and Chicana Literature and Art (2013).

[3]Tracey Deutsch, Building a Housewife’s Paradise : Gender Politics and American Grocery Stores in the Twentieth Century (2010); Stephen Vider, The Queerness of Home: Gender, Sexuality, and the Politics of Domesticity after World War II (2021).

[4]Simone Beck, Louise Bertholle, and Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), vii.

[5]On proliferation of cookbooks in the 1950s and 60s, see ​​Jessamyn Neuhuaus, Manly Meals and Mom’s Home Cooking: Cookbooks and Gender in Modern America (2003), and Sherrie A. Inness, Secret Ingredients: Race, Gender, and Class at the Dinner Table (2006).

[6]Lou Rand Hogan, The Gay Cookbook (1965), 84.

[7]Lee Fuller Photograph Album, Human Sexuality Collection, Rare and. Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

[8]Virginia Prince, “Wonderful Weekend,” Transvestia, 2 (no. 12, 1961), 14-19.

[9]Rachel Cleves, “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche: Queer Food and Gendered Nationalism in the Late Twentieth Century USA,” Gender & History, 34 (Oct. 2022), 614-31.

[10]“French Chef; Asparagus From Tip to Butt,” April 15, 1966, WGBH Archives, accessed Dec. 9, 2022, http://openvault.wgbh.org/catalog/V_B0D9EDA444FC425C8932E0BE8198AAA5.

[11]Mark Padoongpatt, Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America (2017).

[12]On US policy towards Chinese migrants during the Cold War, see Madeline Hsu, “The Disappearance of China’s Cold War Chinese Refugees, 1948-1966,” Journal of American Ethnic History, 31 (no. 4, 2012), 12-33.

[13]See also Megan Elias, Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture (2017), p. 109.

[14]Kristin L. Hoganson, Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920 (2007).

[15]This time period gave rise to a broader fetishization of so-called “ethnic” foods, albeit one that relied on the ingenuity, labor, and inventions of BIPOC and immigrant food workers. This has been well-documented by critical race and ethnic studies scholars as well as food studies scholars. In addition to Padoongpatt and Elias, see Yong Chen, Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America (2004); Jeffrey Pilcher, “Chapter 5: Inventing the Mexican American Taco,” in Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Cuisine (2012), and many of the pieces in Lucy Long, ed., Culinary Tourism (2004).

[16]Doris Witt, Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity (1999); Rafia Zafar, “The Signifying Dish: Autobiography and History in Two Black Women’s Cookbooks,” Feminist Studies, 25 (no. 2, 1999): 449-69; Psyche Williams-Forson, “Foreword,” in Vibration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl (2011).

[17]Stephanie Hartman, “The Political Palate: Reading Commune Cookbooks,” Gastronomica, 3 (no. 2, 2003), 29-40. On larger connections between food access and activism since the 1960s, see Lana Dee Povitz, Stirrings: How Activist New Yorkers Ignited a Movement for Food Justice (2019).

[18]United States Dept. of Agriculture v. Moreno, 413 U.S. 528 (1973). Alison Lefkovitz, “Men in the House: Race, Welfare, and the Regulation of Men’s Sexuality in the United States, 1961-1972,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 20 (no. 3, 2011), 594-614.