“Most housewives have no idea what to serve in place of meat, potatoes, gravy, pie and coffee.”
-Jack LaLanne, “Your Health Cookbook,” 1954
A New Decade in American Kitchens
The 1950s were a turbulent period for America. Emerging from the refuge of WW2, the growing Superpower was faced with new economic, social and political demands. For the average citizen, this meant new pressures but also new innovations. In the culinary world, Americans were gaining their first exposure of ‘ethnic’ restaurants, TV dinners and new forms of sugary treats.
Cookbooks and magazines from the era were laden with recipes using pre-packaged meals. Advertisements aimed at the housewife convincingly argued that new appliances and convenience foods would help save her time and money and meal plans were adhered to the three square meals a day rule. The food of choice soon became prepackaged foods, fatty cuts of meat, canned fruit and vegetables and of course refined sugar. Whilst brands such as Betty Crocker presented this way of eating as nutritious, others had different ideas, notably a physical culturist by the name of Jack Lalanne.
Jack Lalanne, the smooth talking physical culturist who helped popularise the jumping jack, personal training and juicing (vegetables!). Born in Bakersfield on the eve of the First World War, Jack evolved a boy addicted to “ghost foods” laden with sugars and empty calories, to a nutritional guru after hearing a lecture series by Paul Bragg in the 1920s. By the time Jack was in his early 20s, he was a qualified chiropractor and gym owner.
By the 1950s, Jack’s zeal for selling health resulted in the creation of the Jack Lalanne Show, a show which ran from the 1950s to the 1980s. Utilising the growing popularity of television, Lalanne focused his shows for the housewife (or ‘girls’ as he affectionately called them) and not the aspiring muscle man. Workouts were designed using common household items such as chairs, books and towels. Sometimes Jack would even encourage children to ‘Go get Mom’ so she could see Jack’s latest bit of advice.
Jack Lalanne and the Fifties Housewife
Depending on the show, or Jack’s mood at the time, his advice could be on mental health, physical exercise or healthy eating.
Lalanne’s advice spanned many field
It was on the subject of healthy eating however that Jack excelled. When so many others were pushing new diets during the 1950s (the Hawaiian Diet being a personal favourite), Jack attempted to keep things as simple as possible. It was this that made Jack so popular amongst viewing housewives, something that those around Jack took notice of. Soon enough Lalanne cookbooks and supplements began to emerge.
Midway through the decade, Lalanne followers were being told “you are what you eat.” They were questioned about whether they “eat to live or live to eat?” What’s more, Lalanne tapped into the great American desire in the 1950s of keeping up with the Joneses as evidenced in his 1954 ‘Your Health Cookbook’
“Go Modern! We demand the newest and best in our homes, our cars, our building and household equipment…you can have THIS year’s model body too!”
It was quite an offer.
So what did Old Jack recommend?
Well first and foremost, Jack attempted to get women (and their families) to eat more fruit and vegetables. Jack would ask women
“Aren’t you fascinated when you step into the great air-conditioned supermarket and see the lavish displays of many fine foods?”
Before telling them that the “real beauty parlor is in your kitchen.” In homage to Paul Bragg, Lalanne would explain the science behind his advice and pushed for the intake of vitamins for specific purposes. Apart from being an anti-infection vitamin, Vitamin A was sold as a ‘Glamour Vitamin’ to US housewives. Raw uncooked foods were all the style and Jack made a point of encouraging large raw salads at least once a day.
In general Lalanne’s advice stemmed around lean protein, good portions of fruit and vegetables and little to no processed foods. For the woman who wanted to lose a few lbs, Lalanne would recommended an Atkins style diet consisting of
Breakfast: 2 eggs, grapefruit, coffee
Lunch: 2 or 3 eggs, spinach, grapefruit, coffee
Dinner: Steak, tomatoes, lettuce, celery and….grapefruit!
Now whether or not Lalanne’s advice was steadfastly adhered to is difficult to gauge but judging from the success of his TV series and products during the 1950s, it is safe to say he did have some followers. So next time you see recipes from the 1950s advocating barbecued meats, processed TV dinners or sugar laden deserts, remember that not everyone bought into such a way of eating. Others followed Mr. Jack Lalanne.