Reader Q&A: Why Did People Boil All The Things In the 20th Century?
If time was a map on the wall, and the answer to this question was a red thumbtack, I’d place our boiling/overcooking problem pin smack into the twentieth century, right when cooking and stewing over a hot fire gave way to good old electricity. And spaceships. Ramming Speed!
My (Somewhat Unsatisfying) “Quick” Answer
The way we learned to cook throughout the lion’s share of the 20th century was by osmosis in the home kitchen and boiling goes waaaay back (also it kills scary stuff like bacteria, vitamins, and flavor). A few cookbooks are also to blame.
But Short Answers Are TOO SHORT! Let’s Dig Deeper
Europeans brought boiling to the new world (but only when the women joined the party because women know some shit…no really, look that up) as a well-tested practical skill for cooking everything from meat and potatoes to grains and vegetables. This knowledge was passed down from generation to generation with little analysis. I suppose there were bigger fish to lightly pan fry. Boiling kills microorganisms (for better or worse) and before regulations (FDA) that was an important consideration. Just look at how important “digestive” issues were in medical circles throughout the century.
Mid-century cookbooks continued a growing trend of offering not just cooking techniques and recipes, but also lifestyle and entertaining advice. If you want an interesting eye into feminism, follow the evolution of cookbooks, and read Laura Schenone’s “A Thousand Years Over A Hot Stove” (which is not a feminist book per se, but it will open your eyes to the power of the woman at the stove throughout history). These cookbooks, bibles of the kitchen and home, contain very little in the way of other ways to cook vegetables especially.
We now have more confidence in our food sources and food handling, and the internet makes it easy to learn new things. Psychologically we cook differently now because we know more and have access to endless information and ingredients.
“My Mom Taught Me”
This question about boiling got me thinking about a couple of stories I’ve heard (and admittedly, I cannot recall where I heard either of them) about why people cook with a particular method. Both stories illustrate the same point.
In one story, a woman is making a roast, and like always, she cuts the end off of the roast, seasons and sears it, then places it in the roasting pan. As her husband watches, he asks her why she cut the ends off of the roast. She says, “because that’s what my mom always did” and makes a note to ask her mom why next opportunity. When she asks her, her mother explains that she had a small roasting pan and often cut off the ends of the roast to make it fit.
In the second story, again, a member of the family is watching mom make dinner. Opening cans, she turns each one over and opens it from the bottom. The observing family member asks why. Again, she says “that’s what my mom always did” and makes a note to ask her mom. Her mother explains that they used to store canned goods in the basement and the tops would get dusty. Rather than clean up the top to open, she would just turn them over to the bottom side, which had no dust.
Both women learned to cook by observing what their mom always did. As kids, we accept things as rules, especially when they’re done by an authority figure like a parent or teacher. For the first woman, there was some cosmic reason to cut the ends off of a roast that she never questioned…until she was asked why, and learned that she was discarding perfectly good meat for years due to the limiting size of a roasting pan she didn’t even own. The second woman accepted that the way to open cans is from the bottom until she was questioned about it.
I think of these stories often when I cook. What am I doing because I understand it, and what am I doing because that’s how I was taught.
From The Great Depression to Generation Z
Our exposure to new ingredients and ways to cook almost any food is very different than in the 1900s. From The Depression to WWII the market was much more scarce. As the economy recovered, cookbooks like The Good Housekeeping Cook Book and Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book became manuals for cooking, and even decor, entertaining and even how to properly keep one’s home clean. The name of the game was boil vegetables (although sometimes steaming or pressure cooking enters the scene).
As the century progressed, convenience foods entered the market (along with some very misleading ad campaigns) and learning to cook became more passe. Moms went back to work. They didn’t necessarily pass down the boiling technique. Advertising campaigns touted the space age wonders of packaged frozen dinners and microwave ovens, and latch-key kids used the microwave more than the stove.
I’m a Gen-Xer, and a lot of us grew up on frozen and/or packaged heat and eat foods. I’ve found that in my generation many of us just never learned to cook (boiled or otherwise). The simplicity of opening a box, following simple instructions, microwaving (and even driving through for fast food) allowed convenience and what I consider a concerning gap in generation-to-generation cooking knowledge.
I personally took an interest in cooking and diet, and after reading “Diet For A Small Planet” I became a vegetarian in my teen years. I learned to make lots of dishes before leaving the nest. I emerged prepared to feed myself home-cooked food. However, I still find it common that people my age have avoided cooking for going on 50 years (and what does this teach to the next generation?).
Baby Boomers, as their purchasing power increased, discovered and demanded more ethnic and healthier ingredients and techniques. This impacted the diversity and selection of foods in the marketplace.
Now as we’ve raised the Millennials and beyond, cooking and dining styles have changed drastically. We’re less likely to cook and entertain in our homes, and more likely to meet at a restaurant. Hosting is sadly a dying art. Social media creates the anxiety that everyone else but oneself has a perfect home and makes gourmet food that looks amazing on Instagram.
A curated Instagram feed is not the same as the conditions of a real home kitchen. As a food blogger, I admittedly contribute to this anxiety. I can tell you that just outside of that perfect shot of those peaches, there is a barking dog, pots & pans in the sink, and the table has stacks of the miscellany of life. So it goes.
We see cooking today through our own lens. Oh, and the internet. We can look up any food, recipe, spice, technique, or tool, and furthermore, if we don’t have it we can have it in-hand sometimes within hours delivered to our doors.
This paradigm is very different than generations who learned to cook at their mother’s and grandmother’s side, accepting and perpetuating what was learned before them, and brought over from all over the world.
Nutrition: Fact vs Fiction
Boiling got a bad rap for ruining the health benefits of vegetables.
While somewhat true, that is over-stating it since almost all cooking does that same thing, and sometimes cooking actually adds nutritional benefits. So as we’ve learned so much more about nutrition, have endless access to ingredients, cooking techniques, and an incredibly diverse set of influences, boiling has become a thing of the past (unless it is for eggs or pasta, for instance).
We know more today about microorganisms and contaminates, and our food sources are regulated by the FDA. We don’t depend on boiling to make our food safe (and thus flavorless and mushy).
Boiling is complicated, should you wish it to be.
Next time you’re wondering why grandma or mom boiled the bejeezus out of everything, think of how knowledge was handed down, what ingredients were available, and how the FDA has impacted our confidence. Consider how that has changed over the course of the last hundred or so years.
I’ve been fortunate to receive these two books from different branches of my female family. I want to make quite sure that my love for cookbooks is noted even as I site them in this post. Cookbooks are history books. They reflect more than what ingredients make a meal, but entire cultures. These books are both from mid-20th century. Both have made it down generations to me, filled with hand-written notes on the pages, and scraps of recipes in between them. Food stains and other wear and tear make them pinnacles of my imagination. Records of the women who came before me, some of whom I’ve known, some of whom I’ve only heard stories. I wrote my first cookbooks partially knowing that my food is one legacy, but my books will carry on much longer. They’ll live and give life long past when I’m gone.
Thank you Stacy Palen*, for asking this question. I look forward to pondering and observing more about this particular topic.
*Dr. Palen recommended one of my favorite books that I read in 2018, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove, a book that kicked open my psyche regarding my deep connection to the universe, well, over a hot stove. That very same book spoke to me as I considered answering this boiling question.
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