In the my mother’s generation, servants became widely impossible except for the super-rich. And High WASPs were no longer exclusively super-rich, nor were the super-rich exclusively High WASP. What did the young women graduating from Smith and Vassar and Radcliffe and Wellesley in the 1950’s do about food? They knew it was their job. They had read the books. Being High WASPs, they had a deep belief in doing a good job.
And so the modern obsession with cooking began. Now I am not going all Al Gore and saying the High WASP invented the cookbook. (Although I understand in fact he had good reason to say he invented the Internet?) But High WASP women really needed cookbooks, since they had no mother, no grandmother, to show them how to make food. No food of the homeland. No cooking culture. And since they were apt to lose touch with their family’s cooks when they moved to their husband’s houses. And since, in the 1950’s, their husbands certainly weren’t cooking. And since, in the 1950’s, probably small children who usually require feeding would be arriving in the unprecedented numbers of the Baby Boom. Which Boom of course produced me, so I’m a fan.
But these women didn’t want to cook just anything. They certainly didn’t want to cook like the middle class, however the middle class might have cooked. Since High WASPs had no home cooking they wanted to cook the recipes of other homes, other people. Actually, other peoples. They wanted cultural authenticity to stand in for childhood recipes, which belonged in fact to the family cook. (This is my theory of course, developed without an iota of research or data to back it up.) My mother bought her first wok in 1970 from Taylor and Ng, a San Francisco company and Chinese-American cookbooks shouldered their way onto our pantry shelves next to Julia Childs’ (a High WASP if I ever saw one) Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My memories of Mom’s cooking involve a lot of stir-fried broccoli. Cooked with sherry. Xiao xiang wine hadn’t yet made its way to suburban Northern California. But if it had been there she would have bought it.
For my mother, her comfort foods had been Spam, Libby’s Corned Beef Hash, and Underwood Deviled Chicken, all the foods she ate when the cook had a night off, her parents were out, and she, her brother, and sister, ate with the nanny. I don’t think comfort food was allowed in my father’s house. I am not sure he even knew where the kitchen was in the houses and Park Avenue apartment he grew up in. But for my generation, comfort food was the food our mothers learned to cook from other worlds. Ironically, of course, but who knew it then, just before the women’s liberation movement began to tell them to get out of the kitchen.