Dichter’s Dinner Dialectic

51ceV3olAQL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Laura Shapiro’s Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America, fascinatingly charts the love-hate encounter between industrialized, packaged food, and American women. Prior to talking about ‘glamorizing’ as the ultimate strategy that made packaged foods acceptable, Shapiro describes the industry strategy to promote culinary “creativeness” to justify canned, frozen, packaged foods. The casual American 1938 Fiestaware with multiple colors also embraced the same psychological principle aimed to turn housework into creative art. Shapiro explains psychologist Ernest Dichter’s influence, who used Freudian theory in the context of consumerism, as follows:

Dichter’s major contribution to packaged-food cuisine —- was an approach to cooking he called “creativeness.” He spelled it out in the form of a dialectic.

Thesis: “I’m a housewife.”

Antithesis: “I hate drudgery.”

Synthesis: “I’m creative.”

Dichter’s chief example of the dialectic in action was the house wife who used canned foods to save time and effort but never, ever served them right out of the can. Instead, she developed a skill for “doctoring up” the contents, thus convincing herself she was personally involved in preparing the meal. “She may spend less time in the kitchen and she may buy canned food,” he wrote, “but she makes up for it by greater creativeness.” This analysis proved to be an immensely useful concept for the food industry. Creativity was the personal touch that would turn an ordinary dish into an epicurean one, and creativity was how women trained in political science or ancient Greek would find complete satisfaction in housework. Above all, creativity was the fairy dust that would transform opening boxes into real cooking.

This makes me think about what packaged foods I buy in the conflicted context of Micheal Pollen’s advice to “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” My pantry is filled with canned coconut milk, condensed milk, evaporated milk, dried pastas, tahini and various sauces. I also have pancake mix, a few soups (not for cooking), broth and stock. In my freezer, aside from frozen vegetables, I have frozen puff pastry, parathas, rolls, emergency chicken pot pies and florentine, hashbrowns, sausages, ice cream and more. It seems my packaged products fall into two general categories, as ingredients in a recipe or a complete snack/meal. Either the packaged item is completely transformed or minimally garnished and eaten as is. I haven’t been trained to doctor, only to cook or not to cook. To take creative credit or not. To outsource the culinary thinking to the food industry or own it.  I concede that convenience, not creativity determines my strolls through the freezer and boxed item aisles. Those aisles don’t ask me to think. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s why Pollen advises to shop the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid the center.

What fills your cart and why? I wonder what a similar study, as Shapiro’s, would reveal about us today.

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