food · food history · nonfiction

Better Than Homemade- Carolyn Wyman

Food history! The history of food has always fascinated me. Books on cooking trends, food usage and availability, food justice, wartime rationing, and other food-related topics are absolutely my jam (hehehe. Jam. Get it?). And while I’m not exactly a foodie, I’m far from a ‘Break out the processed foods, guys!’ kind of gal. I cook probably about 90% of what we eat from scratch (right down to bread, yogurt, jam/preserves, veggie burgers, etc). I haven’t yet mastered tortillas and my granola bars have been crumbly in the past, but I’m comfortable in the kitchen and love trying new things. That said, Better Than Homemade: Amazing Foods That Changed the Way We Eat by Carolyn Wyman (Quirk Books, 2014) absolutely belonged on my TBR list, because, well, FOOD.

The second World War changed so much all over the world, and American food culture wasn’t exempt from these shifts. Food preservation technology had advanced, thanks to the need to store and ship food to the troops overseas, and the food industry poured a lot of effort into making the American public more comfortable with processed foods in an attempt to unload their leftover stock (and increase profits, of course). Processed foods were celebrated as time savers, as healthier alternatives to fresh (yes, really! Why have the vitamins that are actually in a certain food when you can strip them all out, then spray on a synthetic version? Looking at you, white bread…), and as technological breakthroughs for the modern home. Better Than Homemade brings this era to life in an examination of beloved (mostly) American products that revolutionized- and not necessarily a good way!- the way we eat.

Warning: you may see large portions of your childhood displayed in these colorful pages. Cheez-Whiz, spray cheese, Velveeta, Kool-Aid, snack cakes, the history of all these products and evolution of American food culture are laid out in this easy and fun-to-read book. It’s nostalgia between two covers, although you might be squinting at some of the products in a queasy haze, thankful that your tastes have grown and expanded.

I really enjoyed reading the brief histories of the companies who made some of my favorite childhood foods and viewing the different product packaging (it was kind of neat to recognize the labels and packages from my childhood on the pages that featured a lineup of product packaging). I don’t use many of these products any more- I do keep potato flakes around for a certain bread recipe; I keep a tube of refrigerated biscuits in the fridge for breakfast sandwiches; I do use cooking spray, occasionally I’ll spring for some Aldi-brand Tater Tots, and I still have some seriously ancient boxes of Jell-o in the pantry- but I ate Hamburger Helper, canned pasta in various forms, boxed macaroni and cheese, and crescent rolls as a kid, and my mother still uses Minute Rice, so reading through this book was a food-related stroll back through my younger days, days with far less concern for my own nutrition.

The funniest part of this book was turning the page, seeing a product I hadn’t thought about in years, and then having the television jingle from a commercial the company put out in 1987 run through my head. Like, SERIOUSLY, brain? There isn’t any better use for the brain cells storing that song??? This is why I did so badly in high school chemistry, you guys; my brain is too busy keeping a death grip on the Carnation Instant Breakfast jingle from when I was nine years old, and the rest of me is over here wondering what it was I came into the kitchen for…

If you’re interested in the intersection of food history and pop culture, or you’re my age (39 today!) or older and feel like revisiting the foods you ate growing up, a serving of Better Than Homemade just might hit the spot. 😉

Visit Carolyn Wyman’s website here.