Danielle Dreilinger explores the history of home economics in her new book – NOLA.com

Danielle Dreilinger came to New Orleans from Boston in 2012 to work for The Times-Picayune, where she spent years reporting on education in the city. Following a Knight Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, she completed her new book “The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live.” The book chronicles the field from its creation in the mid-1800s and its opening of educational and professional opportunities to women to its current reach, incorporating science, economics, education and more. While the term “home ec” came to be stigmatized as junior high and high school classes mostly for girls, the book explores how the field touches on many aspects of American life and re-evaluates its place. Dreilinger will be interviewed by Times-Picayune food writer Judy Walker at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 5 (Visit octaviabooks.com to find a link).

Gambit: Why does home economics get a bad rap?

Danielle Dreilinger: Home ec fought against the “stitching and stirring” stereotype for decades. Even when home economists (codified it) in the late 19th century, there was already this tension between “Is this a field that represents liberation or is it repression?” The women who were running the show knew they were reframing the work of the home as intelligent, intellectual, worthy of study, worthy of labor. But they also knew what the stereotypes were. Margaret Murray Washington at Tuskegee (Institute) was training Black women to be leaders in their communities. She knew perfectly well that white people were looking at her and thinking, “Oh great! You’re training Black women to be maids.” 

What happened was, the first time this (move to de-emphasize home ec) hit was a reaction to Sputnik in the late-1950s. It’s the first time you see the U.S. education system flip out and say we’re not doing enough math and science. They were not seeing home ec as science, even though there is the chemistry of cooking and plenty of science and engineering in the field. 

Gambit: How far and wide have home economists reached in our culture?

Dreilinger: It was really surprising just how enormous the reach of home ec is. I would look at big societal developments and pieces of world history and say, “Gee, I wonder if home ec was involved in that?” I would look it up and low and behold it was.

In World War II, there’s a really dramatic story about a dietician who was working in a military hospital in the Philippines and she was interned with other prisoners of war in Manila for the duration of the war. She organized gardening and food distribution in order to keep prisoners alive, given that what the Japanese were giving them was inadequate. There are stories of adventure like that.

In the Cold War, home ec became part of the soft power that the U.S. government and various foundations and organizations were marshalling against communism. They thought that people who were starving and living in squalor would be susceptible to any strong man who promised to make their lives better. They thought if they trained people in all these countries in home ec, they would be able to live healthier, happier lives and that would align them with the U.S.

Dietitians who trained in schools of home economics developed space food. A couple women worked on space food. They were all military. Before there was NASA, space was a project of the military. There was a woman named Bea Finkelstein, who I call a “dietician to the stars,” and she created the first food that was eaten in space. She created these high-protein slurries, like baby food in a pouch. John Glenn ate the first food in space. It worked fine, but it turns out that space food was this high-tech engineering challenge complicated by human nature. They already knew from research on soldiers that when people hate the food they’re being given, they just stop eating it.

Gambit: The book covers a lot of territory, but what’s an example of something that amused you about home economists’ work on food?

Dreilinger: I feel like this is shooting fish in a barrel, but Jell-O salad. Jell-O was advertising in home ec publications and hiring home economists from early on. Jell-O salads were just so popular. 

The Jell-O molds are kind of appalling, but there were so many recipes. There’s one I found from General Foods called salad pie and you take lemon Jell-O and mix it with tomato sauce and frozen mixed vegetables and you layer it in a pan and decorate it with piped mayonnaise.

I have a cookbook of favorite recipes of home economics teachers, and there are so many pages (of Jell-O recipes). They looked pretty, but people loved the home ec recipes. I don’t entirely get it.

You could count the sales. When someone created a recipe that took off that involved lemon pudding mix in their cheesecake, sales of the mix would triple.

Home economists wanted women to be able to get a meal on the table that the family would eat. They wanted to give women dressy dishes for company. Maybe something that would allow them to show their creativity, and that would sell (the home economist’s) product. A lot of these home economists were working for utility companies, so if you were a customer of Columbia Gas, they helped sell appliances. They helped you get the most out of your gas range. (The utility company) put recipes in with the bill. It was a full-service experience.