A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove

It's hardly surprising that I've had my eye on this book for a while now. Laura Schenone does an excellent job of giving an overview of Americans' lives in the kitchen while avoiding reading like a text book. It's not hard to forget, however, that Schenone is not a historian.
While I believe that her passion more then makes up for her occasional fuzzy scholarship, it might be hard for an avid historian of a particular period to get past a few points where she obviously relied on assumption. The Forward and Chapter One, in particular, are a little frustrating to me because she insists on imagining what women a thousand or more years ago were thinking, feeling, and doing, with little to no evidence. The last chapter is similarly uninspired. Dialog tapers through the 40's and 50's, and by the 1960's is all jumbled together and discussed via news bites rather then the personal voice of average women, leaving the reader feeling unfinished and rushed.

It is the middle chapters which are the important part of the book, and in which Schenone truly shines. It is obvious that the Victorian Era through WWI is what she really loves. A great deal of attention and thought went into writing this portion, leading me to wonder whether cutting it down to say, only 150 Years Over a Hot Stove, might not have made for a better book.

Most interesting to me were the links she drew between shifts in culture due to the Industrial Revolution, and insistence that women remain in the home. In Chapter 4, Virtuous Cookery, she makes a good argument for the idea that before the Victorian Era, the home was expected to function both as house and workplace for all but the most wealthy. This changed as men began working away from home in factories, creating "separate spheres", and the culture began to expect women to create a "nest" or "haven" for their husbands and children, keeping it scrupulously clean and decorated:

In this way, industrialism radically transformed the very idea of home from a messy workplace and economic unit headed by the father into something very different--a safe haven in a heartless, money-driven world. A glorified place. Women would make it so by doing a better job of mothering, housekeeping, and cooking.
The impact on food would be profound...
..Now, cookbook authors told American women that food should be able to achieve much more. Through proper cooking, women could encourage better health and better morality. They could prevent infants from dying. They could fight the adulterations of commercial food products. They could prevent greedy desires in their husbands and sons. They could end alcoholism, They could help their families gain upward mobility, higher status, and more comfort by securing appropriate table manners and etiquette.

This book surprised me by repeatedly making me cry. I wept at the stories of cultures forced to dress, act, and cook in a way considered "American" during the Nationalist period. My heart ached for the millions of women who have had constant pressure from those around them telling them who they are. I was in awe reading the stories of those who rose above it all...who took their skills and talents in the kitchen and made a place for themselves in an unfriendly world.

In all, I found the book inspiring. The pictures spread through are excellent, and the recipes are fascinating, playing directly into what is being discussed. It made me think about my own ancestors, and wonder whether anyone has asked my older relatives what their parents and grandparents cooked. In particular, it's encouraged me to begin the slow process of getting in touch with my maternal grandmother's family, to try to find out what, exactly, my great grandmother did when it came to cooking on her little farm in Colonia Dublan, Mexico. I know that they grew corn and peaches, but did she have a stove? Did she cook food like her Swiss and Danish ancestors, or was it more similar to local Mexican food. Or, perhaps, even then was there an overarching Mormon cuisine?

It also made me think, deeply, about what of the role assigned to women in my religious beliefs is accurately true, and what is the perspective of loving, well-meaning men who's models were their 19th century mothers and grandmothers. Is the concept of women having superior spirituality, giving them a mystical ability to care for those within the confines of their home really less the 200 years old? Does that mean that there's a medium, a balance between that mythical paragon of motherhood, and the busy, working woman of today?

While A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove isn't perfect, it is very well done for a first published work, especially if it is capable of forcing the reader to think. It is too easy to get complacent when it comes to everyday issues that shape what we do and who we are, and Schenone gently forces the reader to drop those assumptions, and consider the plethora of ways women have interacted with their role in the home.

A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove on Amazon.

A preview on Google Books.


CitygrrlDC said...

Thanks for your review! I found your notes after I'd read the book and found them useful and accurate. I adored the book! Particularly the early & middle sections, which you note as being the strongest portions and part of a truly engaging and intriguing history. While I also agree with your assessment of the weakness of the final chapter and elements of her 1900+ sections, that didn't stop me from regretting the offer I'd made to give (vs loan) the book to a friend :)

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