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'Sylvie's Love': Cooking Show History and the Demands of Domesticity

By Kaleena Rivera | Film | January 2, 2021 |

By Kaleena Rivera | Film | January 2, 2021 |

sylvie header image.jpg

(mild spoilers for Sylvie’s Love)

(Author’s note: due to the narrow confines of gender definitions/expressions in the first half of the 20th century, the time period which this article revolves around, the use of terms such as “women” and “womanhood” is used almost exclusively. This is not an intention to exclude other individuals who perform domestic duties, such as men and non-binary mnindividuals, of which there are many. The word usage is indicative solely of the messaging of the era, as well as this article’s limited scope)

Domesticity can be an artform unto itself. Much in the same way that running a company or coaching a team demands an array of skills and has people relying on you, so too does overseeing the functions of a home. It can be a deeply satisfying occupation, but if it’s not a personal choice, it certainly has the potential to feel stifling. Like the executive that secretly longs to be an artist who grows more and more depressed in their coveted corner office, a homemaker who’s deprived of independent pursuits can feel trapped no matter how lovely the home may be.

This is a large component of Sylvie’s Love, the 2020 romantic period piece starring Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha. It’s a gorgeous film that was brilliantly covered by Kristy here. The plot begins in 1957, when the handsome Robert Halloway (Asomugha) starts working at the record shop that Sylvie’s (Thompson) father, Jay (Lance Reddick), owns. Her formerly quiet existence has been shaken now that this handsome musician is casting looks her way as she attempts to enjoy watching her father’s tv and listen to records. Despite her reservations, Sylvie grows closer to Robert, and the two eventually fall in love until life takes them in separate directions. When fate brings the two together again five years later, they arrive at a crossroads.

As a young woman in 1957, Sylvie’s life is all planned out. She’s engaged to the son of a prominent doctor, Lacy (Alano Miller), who is away serving in Korea. But as she whiles away her days working at her father’s record store, she dreams about a career revolving around creating the television programs she so loves. Despite her family’s lack of faith in the possibility of a Black woman making it as a tv producer, Sylvie raptly watches shows like I Love Lucy, undoubtedly fantasizing about what it would be like working on the other side of the camera. Robert is one of the few people who listens as she speaks excitedly about her love of television, telling him, “I’ve seen just about every episode of everything.”

However, once Robert is out of the picture, Sylvie upholds her obligation; she follows through with marrying Lacy, fulfilling her destiny of becoming the housewife that her mother and society at large wants her to be. It’s no wonder then that years later, when she sees an opportunity to work in television, she leaps for it. Interestingly enough, that opportunity just happens to come in the form of one of the first major televised prescriptive components of womanhood: the home cooking show.

Cooking Shows and Domestic Life

The first iterations of cooking shows were radio programs that aired in the 1920s featuring fictional women such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Aunt Sammy and Betty Crocker, who was the creation of the Washburn Crosby flour company (using hired voice actresses). The booming number of televisions in American homes in the 1950s brought with it the proliferation of television stations, many of whom quickly recognized the audience appeal of regional cooking shows. While the primary aims of these shows were to advance domestic skills—along with cooking, other aspects of home economics were often shared as well—the other major draw was to sell goods to obtain precious advertising dollars. With companies lunging for airwave time to promote their products, cooking shows quickly became a lucrative business.

The first national cooking show to air in the U.S. was hosted by James Beard, widely considered the individual responsible for paving the way for celebrity chefs. His contemporary, Dione Lucas, was a formidable woman (she was the first female graduate of Le Cordon Bleu) who had a much longer presence on TV but whose name has, unfortunately, begun to fall from collective memory. One of the most renowned television chefs is, of course, the legendary Julia Child (widely considered Lucas’ successor), whose show, The French Chef, marked a shift in the home cooking show. Her affability and focus on food as pleasure made “fancy” cooking seem accessible to homemakers throughout the country. Over the decades, more chefs and food lovers began making a name for themselves on the national circuit, with cooking shows being a major catalyst in giving the cooking profession respect that was rarely ever shown before the 1960s.

Since its inception as a guide for women in wartime efforts, and then impressing husbands and neighbors, eventually developing an inquisitiveness (and frequent colonization) of alternative and foreign cuisines, the cooking show has most recently evolved into a form of entertainment and self-expression. However, despite earlier iterations of cooking shows with their emphasis on performing the functions of domesticity—and with it, the performance of gender—an unexpected side effect of the popularity of home cooking shows were rapidly emerging work opportunities for the very same women who were encouraged to stay home. Many women began inquiring as to how one can obtain their own show, with guides and manuals to being both in front of and behind the camera published shortly thereafter.

Sylvie and the Domestic Struggle

And it is through this route of women-friendly employment that Sylvie acquires the means to make a major step towards her dream. Now a production assistant on the fictional The Lucy Wolper Cooking Show, Sylvie quickly finds herself struggling to keep up with the demands of home. She wants to give Lacy the wife of his dreams not because she loves him or finds enjoyment in it, but out of obligation. To make it more difficult, not only is Lacy thoroughly uninterested in her new position, i.e. the fulfillment of her dreams, but is in fact quite put out, as he has invited a work colleague and his wife to dinner. He chides her: “I thought we agreed. You can work as long as it doesn’t interfere with your responsibilities at home.” As she begins to nod in acquiescence, he steps away before throwing a dismissive “Be a dear, pull something together.”

Many of the post-war notions of family life were still very much in place in 1962, especially the idea that married women were supposed to mind the home, so much so that choosing to work was an act of selfishness on her part. When Lacy comes home one evening, announcing that the family will be going to Disneyland in several weeks, Sylvie is nonplussed. When she informs him that taking a vacation this soon after starting her job would be next to impossible, Lacy casually responds, “Quit. With money like this, there’s no reason for you to keep working at all.” When she tells him that she loves her work, he brushes her off by promising a later discussion, which he clearly doesn’t mean to have.

As time goes by, more historians are challenging the idea that cooking programs and other domestic prescriptions were created solely to keep women ‘in line.’ Even when looking through the lens of nuclear family demands on women in the post-war era, it’s not a far leap to imagine that some of these instructional programs and materials were created with the idea of aiding women, many of whom were married straight out of high school and went straight from living in the family home to having to run one themselves. While one can never underestimate the influence of capitalism, it’s difficult to argue that using frozen orange juice, as opposed to squeezing by hand, doesn’t make a busy housewife’s life easier.

Thankfully, Sylvie is able to push back against these external forces and climb up in the ranks. While the film does complicate things later by having Sylvie make concessions affecting her position as a producer, it does demonstrate that it’s not unusual for people to find themselves facing complicated life decisions influenced by the love of another person.

“You know what I realize? Is that life is too short to waste time doing things you don’t absolutely love,” Sylvie sagely says, having grown wiser over the years. Whether your idea of fulfillment lies in mastering that holiday croquembouche or subsisting only on takeout, devoting your days to caring for a family, or climbing the work ladder (or, hey, doing both at the same time), follow her lead and make sure that no matter what it is you’re doing, it’s what you love.

Sylvie’s Love is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Further reading:

Much of the research in this piece is courtesy of a wonderful book, Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows, by Kathleen Collins. It’s a delightful and thorough journey through the history of cooking shows and food fads in the U.S. It’s available at most major book sellers (your local ones would also be more than happy to order it) and libraries.

For you food historians out there, check out Michigan State University Library’s online collection of digitized cookbooks going back to the 19th century.

Kaleena Rivera is a librarian and tv/film writer. When she’s not wishing she can slow dance in the street like Sylvie and Robert, you can find her on Twitter here.

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