I was so excited for this book. I like cookbooks and I like vintage books. American Advertising Cookbooks: How Corporations Taught Us to Love Spam, Bananas, and Jell-O sounded so good. I think maybe I let my expectations get the better of me, because in the end I was a little disappointed.
This book has pictures, which are really interesting and pretty, mostly of old cookbooks and recipes in said books. One problem is that the pictures either don’t match the words on the current page and thus have no context for meaning, or they meant to be the entire argument. One of the core points of the book is how racist a lot of these books were. The problem is that a lot of the time, a statement like, ‘Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben were food advertising that was racist’ and then the pictures and that’s it. There’s virtually no in-depth attempt to explain the rationale and why it was flawed by today’s standards. There’s also very little actual analysis or discussion of how such ads became so pervasive and their remaining influence on society and food culture. There’s some general reasoning, but I really wanted more on the history and more interpretive argument. Given that I haven’t done the research which the book admits is required, how am I supposed to fill in the specifics? I understand that this is not meant as an academic study, rather as a general interest book. I can also admit that as a professional academic my standards might be skewed from that of the general public. But still, I really wish there was more depth.
I found the history of the introduction and early marketing of things like pineapple and bananas really interesting. I also found interesting the information about gender expectations over the middle and later decades of the 20th century. I do think that some things, like Jell-o recipes, get a little bit of an unfair presentation as little more than entertaining short cuts that were popular for a while. I happen to like Jell-o and some Jell-o salads. Just because someone once thought it might sell a few boxes and can to publish something as terrible sounding as “Meat Salad Mold” which included unflavored gelatin, canned lunch meat, tomato juice, celery, pickle, onion, and cream cheese doesn’t mean that all such recipes are equally horrific. Some of the recipes actually sound like something I wouldn’t mind trying, like “sherry pineapple tower salad” which includes lemon Jell-o, sherry, pineapple tidbits, lemon-lime soda, strawberries, and candied ginger (I’m leaving out the celery because I’d totally be leaving that out in practice too).
My final problem is that sometimes a term or a picture would be presented but not explained until a page or three later. For example, “potted meat” is referred to but not directly defined until almost three pages later. Which means, if you don’t want to waste time checking your phone, that you have to go a few pages confused about what exactly that is until it’s defined. I was a child of the 80s; how am I supposed to know what something was that was poplar several decades before?
Overall, this book had some interesting moments, and a lot of interesting pictures, but it didn’t follow through on the promise to make a real interpretive argument. If this had been submitted to me as an assignment, I’d give it a B. Good idea, some clear effort made at the research, but just too thin on actual content in terms of analysis and reasoning.