Poppy Cannon and The Can Opener Cookbook

“It is quite possible-and it’s fun-to be a ‘chef’ even before you can really cook.”
-Poppy Cannon

Poppy Cannon Ebony Magazine

Poppy Cannon making Baked Alaska in an Ebony article written by Freda DeKnight

Poppy Cannon was a popular yet kind of forgotten culinary fixture of the 1950s. She was a tall and glamorous woman who worked both in advertising and journalism. She was married to NAACP leader Walter White, who was her fourth and last marriage, and hob nobbed with many dignitaries and celebrities. Poppy was a prolific author writing 13 cookbooks and over 2,000 magazine articles while also having a very unlikely friendship with gourmet cookbook author Alice B. Tolkas. I could write so much about Poppy Cannon but I fear for the length of this post. Therefore I am going to concentrate on the cookbook that she was most known for in the mid century The Can-Opener Cookbook which was published in 1952 and a little bit of her early life that influenced the book.

Poppy Cannon was born Lillian Gruskin in Capetown, South Africa in 1905. Four years later her family moved to the United States where she grew up in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately her father walked out on the family when Poppy was just fourteen. Her mother suffered from mental illness which eventually led to being institutionalized. Poppy and her two younger siblings basically raised themselves. Despite her upbringing, Cannon won a scholarship to Vassar. Quick side note that her sister was popular mid century fashion designer Anne Fogarty. If you were wondering how Poppy Cannon came by her name, Poppy was a nickname and Cannon was the last name of her first husband, Carl Cannon, that she had met while attending college.

After college, Cannon moved to New York City. She always wanted to be able to support herself whether single or married and she started working for an advertising firm specializing in food accounts and eventually moved on to journalism. She wrote and was the food editor for the top magazines of the day such as Mademoiselle, Ladies Home Journal, House Beautiful and Town and Country.

Cannon loved having a job and because of that had a view on women working that was different from a lot of her peers of the time. Laura Shaprio in Something from the Oven wrote that “Cannon took it for granted that having a job was as natural and necessary to a woman as it was to a man” and that “domestic life was perfectly manageable alongside a career”. She believed one didn’t mean you have to sacrifice the other especially with the new appliances and convenience foods readily available in the supermarket.

By living in the city, she was part of the food scene as well as traveled to Europe tasting the best cuisine and wines they had to offer. She loved food and had a library of 600 books on the subject that she constantly referenced. The problem was that Poppy Cannon was not a natural cook. But she did not let that hold her back, believing that all you had to do was doctor up canned, boxed and frozen foods to create meals and flavors that are close to the original. An example of this would be that she felt by adding red wine, garlic, parsley, bay leave and “a flicker of mixed herbs” to a can of stew, one could easily create a gourmet meal similar to the French classic stew dish, Le Boeuf en Daube .

This thought process and working women were the inspiration to creating recipes for her cookbooks especially her best known The Can-Opener Cookbook. In the introduction to the book Cannon writes “…today the can opener is fast becoming a magic wand, especially in the hands of those brave young women, nine million of them (give or take a few thousand here and there), who are engaged in frying as well as bringing home the bacon”.

Like Peg Bracken, whose I Hate to Cook Book came out 8 years later and I wrote about here, they both embraced convenience products to get the job done. But unlike Bracken who used the products to minimized the amount of time one actually spent in the kitchen, Poppy Cannon felt you had to take things a step further. She explains in The Can-Opener Cookbook that the difference between just cooking and gourmet cooking is “the difference in the way the food is served”. The cookbook explains how to garnish the meal and what to serve with it so you have contrasting colors, tastes and textures. She also was not above using her favorite technique to add drama: flambé.

Today Cannon is often compared to Sandra Lee who is also a big promoter of the “Semi-Homemade” approach to cooking. And like Lee, Poppy Cannon wasn’t without her critics from the more gourmet sect. Cookbook author and personality James Beard considered Poppy Cannon the poster child of the food industry who promoted canned or boxed shortcuts instead of real cooking techniques. But according to Laura Shaprio, Poppy is worth remembering as she had a “passionate hunger with which she searched for the ultimate recipe-the recipe that would unite women, work and great food in a single manageable dinner.” The the popularity of The Can-Opener Cookbook showed that Cannon had struck a nerve with the readers and remained in print for 25 years.

Collecting Notes: If you are interested in adding this cookbook to your collection, there are three versions of the cookbooks The Can-Opener Cookbook, The New Can-Opener Cookbook and (you guessed it) The New New Can-Opener Cookbook. They are all basically the same cookbook but because of the heavy use of current trends some of the recipes may be tweaked here and there if a new or different convenience product became available. Also because you are dealing with mid century products there are some that might not be available over 60 years later. So there will be some guess work when making the recipes if you plan to use the cookbook.


Sources:

Arndt, Alice. Culinary Biographies. Texas: Yes Press Inc., 2006.

Hughes, Alice. A Woman’s New York. Reading Eagle. December 12, 1964.

Shapiro, Laura. Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. New York: The Penguin Group, 2004.

Smith, Andrew. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America: Volume One. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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