4-3. Ladies Bridge Lunch: Fannie Farmer & the gender food of ladies lunch menus

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“Like brunch, the ladies’ lunch has a menu that obeys a limited and peculiar set of rules,” says Jody Shields in her “Let’s Do Lunch” article.  What were those rules, and who set them? It’s complicated but, put simplistically, it was Fannie Farmer. At least she got the blame.

You may have her latest cookbook on your shelf, yet not realize what an historic figure Fannie was in the history of women and food. Because of her first ever book, published in 1896, the Boston Cooking School Cookbook, Fannie Farmer became the personification of the domestic science movement (you probably never heard of that either) that had begun much earlier.

It was considered a progressive movement on behalf of women when begun, with the best of intentions and idealistic goals. They wanted to teach homemaking and nutrition as a science, to give status and dignity to homemaking. But one of the concepts to come out of their movement (probably inherited from Victorian Britain) was that of gender food. The idea that men and women required different kinds of food, enjoyed different foods, and some were just not suitable for women–unladylike.  It went so far as to indicate if men did not LIKE their presumed favorites (steak etc) they might just not be all that manly.  As in the “real men don’t eat quiche” saying (and title of a book).

Perfection Salad by Laura Shapiro is the classc book on this topic of food and women and women’s history.  She gives these examples of two lectures offered by the Boston Cooking School in the 1890s on menu planning:

For the ladies feminine palate, suggested is fish and egg entrees, a salad of fruit and marshmallows, ice cream for dessert along with fudge and caramels.

Their husbands? Serve pate with chili peppers, fried rabbit, eggplant, a potato casserole, and salad–and pass a ham with that salad!

The “peculiar” rules for what women ought to eat included food masked in sauces, tinted and decorated food, creamy food, “contained” salads to avoid a messy plate seen as distasteful for ladies–no messy drippy tossed salads.

What’s more contained than a gelatin salad of vegetables or fruit imprisoned in gelatin? When Jell-0 came along with its jewel-like colors and ease of preparing, it was like manna from heaven for the menus of ladies lunch.

It’s no accident then that Jell-O salads (called congealed salads by many) are one of the dishes indelibly and ever after identified with ladies lunch and why Laura Shapiro named her book  Perfection Salad an early example of a congealed salad.

My first fancy dinner party after I got married back in 1948 actually confirms this truth–when I didn’t even know that term “gender food.” My experience at least tells me, real men don’t eat congealed salads. I made a beautiful tomato aspic ring mold for a Christmas party, complete with a small bowl of green avocado/parsley sauce in its center. Not one man at the party even touched that salad!

So perhaps there’s something to the idea of gender food?

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