The manufacturers of packaged foods saw the ’60s very differently. From their viewpoint, it was a victory decade, the time when homemakers were finally getting comfortable with the idea that boxes and jars belonged at the center of their cooking. Ketchup, pancake mix, salad dressing, Jell-O—tems like these had been in widespread use before the war, but more ambitious products introduced in the ’50s had been slow to catch on. Cake mixes and most frozen foods were greeted with indifference at first; more dramatic innovations like canned whole chicken never did reach the mainstream. By the ’60s, however, resistance had abated. Speed, convenience, and the addictive nature of salt and sugar had done the trick, aided of course by voluminous advertising.
This winning formula proved to be just as successful in Canada, Britain, and other wealthy countries as it was in the U.S. Within a couple of decades, a huge swath of the population on both sides of the Atlantic was eating in a way people had never eaten before. They had dropped away from old-fashioned meals, even from tap water, in favor of soft drinks and all-day snacking. “Many people are scarcely acquainted with the feeling of hunger anymore,” Wilson writes. “The new pattern is a series of solitary snacks that we often hardly notice or enjoy as they pass through our gullet.” Today a third of all the calories consumed by an American adult comes from chips, protein bars, and the like. Soft drinks have had an especially pernicious impact: In America, consumption of them took a big leap in the ’70s, and with that came unprecedented rates of obesity. After conquering the West, the same denatured, heavily processed foods marched on through the rest of the world like an army of high-calorie invaders. “Over just eleven years, from 1988 to 1999,” Wilson reports, “the number of overweight and obese people in Mexico nearly doubled.”
Wilson makes a point of acknowledging both versions of the food revolution, the beneficent as well as the disastrous, and it’s true that for those who can afford organically raised beef and like trying new varieties of chard at the farmers’ market, culinary life has never been more bountiful. But if Wilson has the big picture, the authors of Pressure Cooker have the close-up. Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott—sociologists from, respectively, North Carolina State, Ithaca College, and the University of British Columbia—did everything short of moving in with the nine Raleigh-area women they write about. They’ve produced an extraordinary report on how the values of the good-food revolution play out amid real-world struggles.
The women in the book, some of whose stories are drawn from a larger research project involving 120 households over five years, are mostly low-income. They know perfectly well what they’re supposed to do: shop for bargain groceries, buy fresh produce, cook healthful meals, get everyone to the table at the same time. They try. But buying in bulk at the supermarket is impossible if you have no car. Serving healthful meals is impossible if the food pantry sends you home with frozen pizza, chocolate peanut-butter crackers, and spinach-artichoke dip. Staging a picture-perfect family dinner is impossible if you have no table or too few chairs, or if you’re due at work at 5 p.m.