Cooking for the Masses? Culinary Celebrity, Gendered Labor, and Class in Mid-Twentieth-Century Argentina, Mexico, and the United States

AHA Session 57
Labor and Working Class History Association 1
Conference on Latin American History 13
Friday, January 3, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Columbia Hall 2 (Washington Hilton)
Jeffrey M. Pilcher, University of Toronto
Jeffrey M. Pilcher, University of Toronto

Session Abstract

Modern culinary celebrity is a product of social changes that occurred in the mid-twentieth century with the growth of the mass media. This panel examines the origins of celebrity chefs in Argentina, Mexico, and the United States. By exploring the life and work of Doña Petrona de Gandulfo from Argentina, Chepina Peralta from Mexico, and  Julia Child from the United States, we plan to analyze and compare changes in the public roles of women, the gendered dynamics of domestic labor, and narratives of class and nation in the mid-twentieth century in three distinct contexts of the Americas. 

Public celebrities can serve as role models who enact, or in some cases flaunt, idealized forms of behavior. Celebrity chefs exemplify the contradictions of food in modern societies, such as the tension between models of elaborate home cooking and affordable everyday convenience or between indulgent foods and shrinking waistlines.  While Julia Child, Petrona C. de Gandulfo, and Chepina Peralta all enjoyed enormously popularity, it is questionable whether they offered a realistic model of cooking within their societies beyond or even within the middle classes.  Who could afford to cook with or like them?   And among those who were able, who would actually be interested in following their leads?  

These early culinary celebrities reflected and refracted questions of gender, class, and nation. While Doña Petrona and Chepina Peralta explicitly directed themselves to female homemakers, Julia Child sought to a reach a more gender-neutral, if still female-dominated, audience.  Each cook sought to present a version of aspirational cuisine, something that would allow women, primarily in their capacity as unremunerated homemakers, to contribute to their social capital and that of their families by making delicious and often labor-intensive meals. Interestingly, despite the culinary distinctions between Argentina, Mexico, and the United States, these domestic experts along with other opinion leaders followed a trajectory that began with French haute cuisine but then moved toward more local and national ways of cooking. Did such a shift actually contribute to nationalization by helping to forge audiences that once comfortable with French models were empowered to move beyond them, as with the American regional cuisine of the 1980s or its Latin American counterparts such as the nueva cocina mexicana (New Mexican Cuisine)?

Further, what was their impact on future public culinary performances in their respective contexts?  Julia Child, Petrona C. de Gandulfo, and Chepina Peralta cultivated images of domesticity that belied the business acumen they relied upon to build their careers and to open new spaces for women in early television. They developed the new genre of cooking for entertainment that eventually gave birth to round-the-clock culinary channels and what some have labeled “gastroporn”— cooking that is intended not to be eaten but rather consumed by the eye in a voyeuristic, and often sexualized, fashion.  By considering the trajectory and reception of these three culinary pioneers, this panel will consider what their successes, failures, and legacies reveal about culinary celebrity, gendered labor, and class dynamics across the Americas.

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