During the early 1940s when American women were asked to help the war effort by driving ambulances or working in the nation’s shipyards, cookbooks and magazine articles underscored how these same women could serve their country by planting victory gardens, cooking healthy meals with rationed foods, and, in the words of Tekla Barclay writing for American Home in 1943, by becoming the “Pinch-Penny Privates of Uncle Sam’s Army.” Indeed, as literary historian Sherrie Inness points out in her study of periodicals from this era, Dinner Roles: American Women and Culinary Culture, “[s]ome cooking literature suggested feeding family members as though they were soldiers…[,and] women’s cooking responsibilities were, at least rhetorically, raised to the level of military endeavors.”
However, once the war was over and it was time for women to return fully to the home, Rosie the Riveter transformed into June Cleaver, that apotheosis of the happy housewife historian Joanne Meyerowitz has called the quintessential white, middle-class woman “who stayed at home to rear children, clean house, and bake cookies.” Within this historical context, Dorothea “Zack” Hanle and Martin Herz’s children’s book from 1945, The Golden Ladle, becomes a potent example of how the culinary discourse of the postwar period circulated images of white, middle-class womanhood as both idealized and sophisticated home cooks rather than members of the kitchen infantry.
Even more, though, Hanle and Herz’s book demonstrates how dominant culture appropriated the image of the enslaved mammy to invest middle-class white women with the same “magical” powers attributed to black cooks from the antebellum period onwards. In this way, The Golden Ladle remakes household cookery into a new kind of empowerment: not the double-duty of domestic and industrial work done on behalf of Uncle Sam but, rather, the work of a professional-amateur cook who combines the homespun wisdom of the mammy with a burgeoning culinary cosmopolitanism—one that presages Julia Child and the Americanization of continental cuisine in the early 1960s. And the fact that this white, middle-class woman’s empowerment narrative comes out of a written text is what intellectualizes and professionalizes the new white mammy, thereby distinguishing her from her black female predecessor, who was of either the enslaved or working classes and mostly educated through oral traditions.
The main characters of The Golden Ladle are Jo-Anne, a little girl with “long, beautiful curls,” and Mrs. Pinafore, a “plump, pink-cheeked” apparition who materializes in Jo-Anne’s bedroom the night before her birthday party. The book’s premise is simple: Jo-Anne would like to bake something for her party, but she doesn’t know how. As the narrator explains, “How happy she would be if she could say, as her mother often said to her friends, ‘Oh, it’s really nothing at all. I just whipped it up in my spare time!’” As Jo-Anne lies in bed, wishing this wish and unable to sleep, Mrs. Pinafore arrives on a soft, pink cloud of light, wielding a giant golden spoon and introducing herself as “THE MISTRESS OF ALL KITCHENS IN THE WORLD.”
The remainder of Hanle and Herz’s book shows Mrs. Pinafore teaching Jo-Anne how to make “dozens of pretty things” for her party, either by whisking her across the Atlantic to visit little European girls cooking up delicacies in their own kitchens or by conjuring the ingredients for easy recipes while the two of them float above the clouds—Mrs. Pinafore’s preferred method of travel. And while such a plot may seem like nothing more than a fluffy mix of food and fairytale, in fact the cultural work that’s being performed in The Golden Ladle is profound, especially in terms of constructions of femininity, class, and whiteness in postwar America.
Numerous scholars have discussed the problematic popularity of the mammy figure in American culture, beginning before the Civil War and extending to the present moment. To offer one example, the mammy is still used to sell Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix, a product and a persona created in 1893 by the R. T. Davis Company for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. As Toni Timpton-Martin explains in her wide-ranging study of African-American cookbooks, The Jemima Code, this trademarked mammy provides “a shorthand translation for a subtle message that went something like this…: ‘Buy this flour and you’ll cook with the same black magic that Jemima put into her pancakes.’” As represented in this advertisement from 1923, the mammy’s perpetual happiness and culinary intuition—the codes of her mythology—are appropriated by white women who wish to harness her abilities for their own domestic proficiency.
In body and behavior, Mrs. Pinafore is just such an appropriator—even though she doesn’t keep a mammy on a box in her cupboard. Rather, Mrs. Pinafore is a new kind of mammy. Wearing a self-referential pinafore and waving her magic ladle, she’s described as the “roundest, fattest lady” Jo-Anne has ever seen, with “twinkling” eyes and a big laugh. Her cooking is innovative, charming, and foolproof. And while her magical powers are intuitive—seemingly innate, beyond explanation—Mrs. Pinafore is also a writer, which professionalizes her wondrous abilities.
Moreover, by broadening Jo-Anne’s palate and cooking skills in taking her to allied countries—they visit England to make a Tiffin of crumpets and marmalade, Holland to learn Dutch Cheese Snacks, France to create Fruit Candies, and neutral Switzerland to cook Apple Delight—Mrs. Pinafore both demonstrates her own cultivated tastes and also instills them in Jo-Anne. In this postwar environment, Mrs. Pinafore is a worldly woman, which strengthens her bid as a kind of amateur-professional: exactly the ethos that Julia Child would adopt fifteen years later in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Because The Golden Ladle is intended for young girls and includes a recipe in every chapter, this narrative is didactic as well as empowering, meant to raise up white, cosmopolitan mammies for a new generation. In fact, it’s clear that Jo-Anne is a white-mammy-in-training. When she overeats Apple Delight, she says to her new Swiss friend named Clara, “Oh, my…, I have been a little pig. But it was so good. I hope you can excuse me.” And, of course, she is excused by both Clara and Mrs. Pinafore. Being “piggy”—having enough heft to throw her weight around—is vital to Jo-Anne’s training.
In the end, Mrs. Pinafore’s legacy as a white mammy is handed down by the book itself, so that Jo-Anne—as well as the flesh-and-blood girls reading along—can “grow,” both literally and figuratively, cooking and (over)eating these stylish dainties. Thus, although the white, American female cook of the 1940s does not have the masculine autonomy of her predecessor, Rosie the Riveter, she can still lay claim to a domestic literacy largely withheld from the black mammy—and, thus, to the dual authority of kitchen prowess and culinary authorship as proof of her expertise.
Barclay, Tekla. “Pinch-Penny Privates.” American Home (June 1943): 68.
Deck, Alice A. “‘Now Then—Who Said Biscuits?’ The Black Woman Cook as Fetish in American Advertising, 1905-1953.” Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race, edited by Sherrie Inness. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001: 69–93.
Hanle, Zack and Martin Herz. The Golden Ladle: How to Be a Cook Without Using Fire. Chicago and New York: Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, 1945.
Inness, Sherrie. Dinner Roles: American Women and Culinary Culture. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001.
Meyerowitz, Joanne. “Introduction: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960.” Not June Cleaver, edited by Joanne Meyerowitz. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994: 1–16.
Tipton-Martin, Toni. The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.
Walden, Sarah. “Marketing the Mammy: Revisions of Labor and Middle-Class Identity in Southern Cookbooks, 1880-1930.” Writing in the Kitchen: Essays on Southern Literature and Foodways, edited by David A. Davis and Tara Powell. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014: 50-68.