In 1926 the British version of the magazine Good Housekeeping published a series of articles under the title The Bride’s Primer of Cooking. Of course this was a time when most women married fairly young, stayed at home and were expected to know how to manage a perfect household for their husband. But the reality was that in this post-war age of increasing female education and employment – not to say new and startling technology for the home – many women were not as sure how to look after their menfolk as their mothers and grandmothers had been. The ‘Bride’s Primer of Cooking’ was doing exactly what Delia Smith’s How to Cook did for us (and her Complete Cookery Course did for our mothers): it held its readers hands and led them through the steps.
One of the topics Good Housekeeping spent quite a lot of time on in their series (four parts, to be precise) was how to bake a cake. A cake was clearly not going to keep a home together, but it’s striking that it was still apparently regarded as an essential element of the new bride’s repertoire. It gives us quite an insight into the range of comforts she was expected to provide (for her own enjoyment as well as her husband’s and those of guests, one would hope). Middle-class home-making and motherhood were going through a resurgence of very positive feelings at this time, and as far as the articles in Good Housekeeping were concerned, home-baking was almost always connected to family occasions and children. Being able to whip up a light and airy cake was thus a reflection of the essential female qualities of the time.
The Bride’s Primer articles on cake started in a confidential and chatty tone:
It cannot be denied that home-made cakes, provided they are really well cooked, are always welcome; but although they are so popular, it is not every housewife who can delight her family with crisp, light cakes. With some, the fault lies in the preparation of the mixture with others, a lack of knowledge of baking is the cause of failure. [Good Housekeeping, May 1926, IX:3]
The author proceeded to take her readers through the essentials of cake making, thereby assuring her that her skills as a home-maker would be complete, and her family delighted.
It’s easy to mock these sorts of assumptions about female home-making and the language they were written in, but I think that these guides to cake-making give us an interesting insight into expectations of gender and class, not to say also the fabric of people’s homes and the technology that might be found there. Just like Julia Child, Ina Garten, Delia Smith and Nigella Lawson (as well, of course, as their antecedents, ‘Mrs’ Isabella Beaton, Maria Rundell, Eliza Acton and their like), Good Housekeeping‘s authors were aiming to give women confidence. Is the key difference that (as far as cake-baking is concerned), we now perform these traditionally female roles for pleasure, and even (with tongue firmly in cheek) with our feminist credentials intact? Or should we see all of these authors as perpetuating a role for women which is connected with the kitchen and providing for others? Can we honestly say that male bakers like the French patissiere Eric Lanlard (aka Cake Boy), or the UK’s own Jamie Oliver sell their skills in the same way as Ina, Delia or Nigella? Eric is a professionally trained pastrycook, while Jamie trades off his ‘cheeky chappy’ credentials.
So what are we to think: is baking a cake still women’s work?