Jack LaLanne and the Fifties Housewife: How the California Fitness Craze Changed Home Cooking

"Most housewives have no idea what to serve in place of meat, potatoes, gravy, pie and coffee." -- Jack LaLanne, "Your Health Cookbook," 1954

The cooking of the 1950s can be described in one word. Heavy. The ideal waist of the 1950s can be described in one word, too. Tiny. Women were expected to cook three "square meals" a day for their hungry husbands and growing children using the heavily processed foods that were glamourized as marvels of convenience and modernity. Overcooked fatty meats, canned fruits and vegetables, and refined sugar and flour were the staples in most middle class homes. No surprise then, that health problems often cropped up and, perhaps most importantly in this image conscious age, mid-sections rapidly expanded.

Many women were homebound, caring for young children, and unable, unwilling or forbidden to publicly exercise. In Santa Monica, thousands flocked annually to the world-famous original "Muscle Beach" right next to the Santa Monica Pier, where men and women like Pudgy Stockton and Relna Brewer performed acrobatic routines in the brazen sun. This was the showplace of the California born "physical culture" movement which had formed symbiotically all over the state in the 1930s. Although many women visited and took pictures, gawking at the strength before them, few knew how to achieve such sparkling good health, or even where to start.

Enter a handsome, charismatic, little bodybuilder of French descent, only 5'6 in height, from Northern California. He would often come down to Muscle Beach for the weekend and perform routines, sell his pictures and promote his trailblazing gyms, the first of which he opened in Oakland in 1936. His name was Jack LaLanne, and in the 1950s he would become the life coach for thousands of fatigued women, using the exercise and eating habits of his bodybuilding brethren as his template.

Jack LaLanne was born in Bakersfield in 1914. An emotionally unstable and unhealthy kid who grew up addicted to "ghost foods" with no nutritional value, his life was changed at 14 when his mother encouraged him to go see a lecture by nutrition expert Paul Bragg. He quickly began eating right and working out, and was strutting everywhere he could in custom made tight clothes "in a constant state of flex." He was forever energetic and evangelical. "Someone told me recently they had a conversation with Jack," a Muscle Beach friend recalled. "I said, 'Oh really? Because I've known Jack for more than 50 years. And in all that time, I've never had a conversation with him. He talks, and you listen."

It was only natural that this born self-promoter would enter the new medium of television. In 1953, The Jack LaLanne Show started broadcasting regionally from San Francisco. The show was picked up nationally in 1959, and the operation moved down to Hollywood. Aiming for stay-at home women ( or "girls" as he called them), he taught modified, repetitive workouts that look a lot like modern Pilates, using common household appliances like chairs, books, towels and broomsticks. He would speak directly at the women, sometime even encouraging children who may be flipping channels to "Go get Mom!" He also taught the science of eating right, explaining things as basic as a calorie.

LaLanne soon expanded into supplements and popular cookbooks, believing that the overall key to health was not exercise but eating "vitalized, live-cell foods." "You are what you eat" was a repeated mantra as was, "Do you eat to live? Do you live to eat?" He also used the values of the day to speak to women. His cookbooks and his vitamin supplements started flying off the shelves.

"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!" -- "Your Health Cookbook"

To encourage women to eat more varied raw vegetables he asked "Aren't you fascinated when you step into the great air-conditioned supermarket and see the lavish displays of many fine foods?" He asserted that your "real beauty parlor is in your kitchen." Attempting to enlist women in this thoroughly modern age, he constantly stressed the science behind his theories explaining vitamins ("Vitamin A: The Glamour vitamin!"), and their importance in different aspects of overall health. Sounding much like a raw enthusiast today he prodded, "What do animals live on? RAW, UNCOOKED, NATURAL FOODS."

His prescription for a healthy, balanced diet holds up quite well. He advocated lots of lean protein (he was a big fan of lamb, fish and beef- brains, heart and liver included), 2 raw, colorful salads every day, whole grains, fresh veggie and fruit juice, no white foods (the "staff of death") including refined sugar or flour, no fried foods and at least one egg a day. He discouraged the use of salt, suggesting kelp powder or vegetable salt instead, and boullion and the unappetizingly named alfalfa mint tea instead of coffee. He thought the amount of time housewives took making desserts like pies and cakes was a crime when so much good raw fruit could be eaten instead. Strongly against store-bought soups and dressings he included his own dressing, made with 3 egg yolks, 1 cup of peanut oil, 1 lemon and a tablespoon of powdered kelp.

His Atkins-esque diet plans ("Meat's the magic that does it!") make you feel hungry just looking at them. LaLanne did not believe in continuous dieting, considering it an unfair stress on the body. His diets were severe. A peek at his various 7-day "reducing" menus for weight loss and one quickly sees how cottage cheese and grapefruit became pigeonholed as unappetizing "female" foods. In the pamphlet "Your Figure" from 1953, a Wednesday menu included:

Breakfast: 2 eggs, grapefruit, coffee
Lunch: 2 or 3 eggs, spinach, grapefruit, coffee
Dinner: Steak, tomatoes, lettuce, celery and....grapefruit!

LaLanne was a realist, as you can see from the coffee inclusion above. In cookbooks he included many recipes that could not sound more of the era, like canned lobster and mushrooms, sour cream salad, brains with herbs, frosty salad, fish cakes and coconut custard. Then there were the recipes straight out of the health food stores of my childhood, with names like health pancakes, soy nut bread, prune whip, lentil loaf, vegetable loaf and vitamin broth. Canned items were frequently listed as ingredients, pimentos often being suggested as flavor-booster for otherwise flat meals.

For women, LaLanne's TV show, cookbooks and the set of gyms he leant his name to gave them the agency to take control of their families' health. As the housewives of the 50s grew older, they attempted to keep up with Jack, their loyalty keeping him on the air until 1985. In later years LaLanne was best known for his annual birthday feats of strength, which included swimming from Alcatraz to the San Francisco mainland handcuffed, and his advocacy of juicing. Many in my generation no doubt remember best his endless infomercials hawking his hugely popular juicers with his wife, Elaine. With the new juicing craze now sweeping Southern California, one has little doubt that if LaLanne hadn't finally passed at age 96 in 2011, he'd be happily encouraging us to drink even more.

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About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, actress and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. Her debut novel "Absolutely" is now available on Amazon.
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