Jet Age Bread

Until the middle of the twentieth century, in the United States, gourmet cooking was something associated with precious, effete members of the fashionable upper class. It was about haute cuisine, served with great formality, but it was also about snails and calves’ brains and, possibly, chocolate-covered ants. Middle-class Americans weren’t encouraged to fuss over their food, and even moderately wealthy households hired cooks when they could. Cooking was something you did because no one else was going to do it for you, and about the only people who were expected to get excited about it were eager brides and motherly home-ec types with treasured family recipes and Mayberry-style blue ribbon preserves.

But in the years following the Second World War, buoyed by an ebullient sense of sovereignty and almost double their prewar income, the American middle class discovered the culinary pleasures of newly affordable European tourism. The increase in income and social mobility (the American middle class doubled in size between 1945 and 1960) elevated expectations for middle-class wives. Important new cookbooks, culminating in Julia Child’s seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking, encouraged a new openness to continental food among middle-class Americans. By the early 1960s, a sophisticated palate and a certain culinary flair were major status symbols among the upper-middle class.

Appreciation for international cuisine paralleled the air of UNICEF-flavored benevolence middle-class Americans, as privileged citizens of a recently conquering superpower, were inclined to extend toward the world that seemed to lay at its feet. Sales of cookbooks quintupled over the decade; and dinner party conversation among the Manhattan cognoscenti turned to food as a medium for the expression of their cosmopolitan and fashionable open-mindedness. “Food became, for dinner-party conversation in the sixties, what abstract expressionism had been in the fifties,” wrote Nora Ephron in a 1968 article for New York Magazine, describing the tidal wave of food consciousness that first swept over well-heeled New Yorkers in the late fifties and solidified into a unanimously acknowledged marker of upper-middle class status by the middle of the 1960s.

draper new years eve
MM’s production designer, Dan Bishop, captures the perfect mid-1960s dinner party.

It wasn’t enough just to be cosmopolitan; it was important to surprise and delight your guests with your individuality, a value that exploded in importance over the course of the 1960s. Goodbye to the dowdy prime rib dinners her mother had served, with such propriety, when company came; the hip hostess of the 1960s wowed her guests with authentic, elaborately prepared curry or paella, or something French from Julia.Playboy Gourmet
And it wasn’t just women signaling their insider status with this newfound culinary sophistication. In the pages of the aspirational lifestyle guide that was the 1960s-era Playboy magazine, Hugh Hefner encouraged would-be swingers to show off their preference for continental cuisine as part of their image as sophisticated hedonists, not dreary, suburban, meat-and-potatoes family men. For the first time in America’s cultural history, it began to become acceptable for men to take an interest in what went on in the home kitchen; the final domain of solely feminine expertise, in the post-Dr. Spock era, was fading away.

Baking bread seems a little homespun for those who aspired to eat the way the international jet-setters did. Nevertheless, urbane-food guru Craig Claiborne’s classic New York Times Cook Book, which launched a zillion dinner parties in the 1960s, includes plenty of bread recipes, including this simple Cuban Bread, which Claiborne described as one of the most popular recipes taught at the James Beard Cooking School in New York (and if there was a 1960s epicure baking their own bread in New York, there’s a good chance that’s where they’d learned to do it.) It makes a great sandwich, so you can impress your fancy friends with an Elena Ruz, and show them what a citizen of the world you are.

Cuban Bread
Verbatim from Claiborne, Craig. The New York Times Cook Book. New York: Harper & Row,1961

[2 loaves]

1 package yeast
2 cups lukewarm water
1 ¼ tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
6 to 7 cups sifted flour

  1. Dissolve the yeast in the water and add the salt and sugar, stirring thoroughly.
  2. Add the flour, one cup at a time, beating it in with a wooden spoon. Or use the dough hook on an electric mixer at low speed. Add enough flour to make a fairly stiff dough.
  3. When the dough is thoroughly mixed, shape it into a ball, place in a greased bowl and grease the top. Cover with a towel and let stand in a warm place (80° to 85° F.) until doubled in bulk.
  4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and shape into two long, French-style loaves or round, Italian-style loaves. Arrange on a baking sheet heavily sprinkled with cornmeal and allow to rise five minutes.
  5. Slash the tops of the loaves in two or three places with a knife or scissors. Brush the loaves with water and place them in a cold oven. Set the oven control at hot 400° F.) and place a pan of boiling water on the bottom of the oven. Bake the loaves until they are crusty and done, about forty to forty-five minutes.

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