Kitchen Culture

Karen Joy Fowler

The Sweetheart Season

Henry Holt

Substantively and spiritually, Minneapolis shaped the way America cooks. Local gals Betty Crocker and "Ann" Pillsbury may have been fictive, but they--more than James Beard, more than Alice Waters, more than even Julia Child--prescribed how and what American families would eat. At the dawn of the century Betty and Ann taught women from a pre-industrial society how to cook in the new world, using new technology (like baking powder), and new products (like bananas). During the wars Betty and Ann guided women through food rationing, showing them how to make meatloaves out of oatmeal. After World War II they provided counsel to millions of war-brides who suddenly found themselves isolated from their mothers, dealing with new husbands in new kitchens, and when the women headed to work, Betty and Ann were there with advice on low-maintenance dinners, i.e. hot dish. Banana creme pie. Cake mixes. Canned icing. Pop-open cans of refrigerated dough. Pineapple Upside Down Cake. All these innovations stemmed from Mill City, and whether or not you embrace them, they may be our region's most prominent claim to influencing the national body and soul.

But Ann and Betty didn't just provide products and recipes. They hosted radio and television programs, they employed immense customer service departments to advise thousands of women seeking answers on everything from stain removal to man trouble. Ann and Betty were even responsible for a little feminist progress, providing examples of powerful working women, and liberating wives and mothers from some of the rigors of kitchen labor at least as much as, say, the Kellogg and Post boys did. The breakfast-cereal barons got their novelistic tribute a few years ago with T. C. Boyle's The Road to Wellville. So it's fitting then that our fictive heroes have finally gotten their fictive due, in Karen Joy Fowler's new novel The Sweetheart Season.

The book is about post-World War II life in Magrit, Minn., headquarters of a company called Margaret Mills--which is just like Pillsbury or General Mills, but cuter and tinier. Maggie Collins is Margaret Mills's Ann/Betty equivalent, but she's a bit spookier than her models. For one thing, she exerts an almost Svengali-like power over her creator, mill owner Henry Collins. For another, she functions alternately as an alter ego and a rebellion-inducing authority figure for the dozen young women who work in the mill's test kitchen. Furthermore, Maggie sometimes appears as a ghost.

That's because Magrit, it seems, isn't as Minnesota Nice as the rest of the state. Magrit is seething. Half of Magrit hates the other half, due to some dynamite and a badly placed dam. None of the girls who constitute the focal point of the book can find beaus, because none of the young men who left Magrit to fight WWII returned, the result of both death and disinterest. So, in order to heal Magrit and help the girls find suitors, Henry Collins founds an all-girl baseball team, named after his trademark cereal "Sweetwheats." Enter the Sweetwheat Sweethearts, who work through all of the postwar feminist issues--whether to marry, whether to fight fat, whether to embrace gender types. In Fowler's unique, well-plotted style, she paints an impressively researched but very funny portrait of the United States on the verge of plenty:

With the end of rationing, what the American palate craved most was meat. Roasted, baked, braised, stewed, fried, gravied, ground, chipped, creamed, sliced onto toast, wrapped in pie crusts, stuffed into peppers, boiled into soups, dipped into horseradish, smothered with caramelized onions, pounded and breaded, but best of all, plain. Meat, with salt. Meat, dripping with butter and blood. Great, glistening slabs of meat. In 1947 Americans ate 155 pounds of meat per person. It was more than a craving. It was a personal best.

Fowler also does a nice job of presenting the "self-help" that saturated the media in the postwar period, but in a way that isn't predictably didactic. "Polls have recently confirmed what has long been suspected," she writes. "Most men do not want brainy women. Stewardesses have turned out to be that occupation blessed most often with marriage. The key elements appear to be uniforms and travel."

My one bone to pick with Ms. Fowler is that she has nothing much to say about Minnesota or Minnesotans, and so her portrait of Magrit seems to be about an idealized generic rural place--say, upstate New York. Suffice it to say that there are no Norwegians in this north-central Minnesota town, and that on the first day of May the girls head into the snowless northern forest to pick flowers. But aside from regional wound-nursing, I found Ms. Fowler's book invaluable both for her lyrical ease, and for the resonance she restores to the über-housewives of yore--who linger still in our psyches and on our grocery store shelves.

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