Rebekah E. Pite: A Televised Cooking Segment as Historical Source: Dona Petrona’s Pan Dulce de Navidad
We welcome a guest post from Rebekah E. Pite, author of Creating a Common Table in Twentieth-Century in Argentina: Doña Petrona, Women, and Food. Doña Petrona C. de Gandulfo (c. 1896-1992) reigned as Argentina’s preeminent domestic and culinary expert from the 1930s through the 1980s. An enduring culinary icon thanks to her magazine columns, radio programs, and television shows, she was likely second only to Eva Perón in terms of the fame she enjoyed and the adulation she received. Her cookbook garnered tremendous popularity, becoming one of the three best-selling books in Argentina. Doña Petrona capitalized on and contributed to the growing appreciation for women’s domestic roles as the Argentine economy expanded and fell into periodic crises.
In this post, Pite discusses a favorite Argentinian holiday treat, Pan Dulce de Navidad, and how Doña Petrona helped teach her viewers how to make this challenging dish.
Around the world, people have long celebrated holidays with special foods. In Argentina, the Christmas season is marked by the regular sharing of Pan Dulce de Navidad (or Sweet Christmas Bread) with friends and family. Made to resemble an Italian-style pannetone, the ubiquity of this holiday bread speaks to the profound mark that large-scale Italian immigration and the Catholic tradition of “breaking bread” has made on Argentina’s culinary landscape. Originally prepared by bakers around the turn of the twentieth century, over the next half-century more women began to prepare this labor-intensive recipe at home.
No one was more successful in encouraging women’s domestic dedication and home cooking than Doña Petrona C. de Gandulfo, Argentina’s leading culinary celebrity during most of the twentieth century. And, indeed, Pan Dulce de Navidad was her most famous recipe. As the holiday season drew close, she would show her fans how to make this sweet bread step by step on television, as we can see in these two videos from the mid 1960s (watch Part 1 and Part 2 on YouTube). Such footage may not at first glance appear to be a valuable historical source, but it provides us rare insight into how changing gender expectations, economic dynamics, and food-related practices were shaping Argentines’ daily lives.
By the mid-twentieth century, Pan Dulce had found an honored and standardized place on most Argentine Christmas tables. Yet during the 1960s this costly and time-intensive recipe did not necessarily appear to be something that many Argentines would make at home. The economy continued to fall in and out of crisis mode, and an increasing number of young middle-class women chose to study longer and pursue extra-domestic careers. Nonetheless, in Argentina as elsewhere, during this decade both women who worked outside of the home and those who worked inside of it were expected to take primary responsibility for cooking and caretaking—an expectation that was only heightened during the holidays.
On this episode, which aired in November, Doña Petrona enjoined her female viewers to practice this recipe before the holidays. Such practice was indeed important, as her recipes at once celebrated modern precision, and maintained more traditional instructions. For example, she told her fans to heat exactly 150 grams of milk and 80 grams of brewer’s yeast on the stove, but then provided the more experiential instruction that they should mix the ingredients together with their hands until the mixture was “warm but not very warm.” (See my full transcription of entire episode in Spanish [pdf], and translation into English [pdf].)
Doña Petrona was not the only one who took this recipe so seriously. Throughout her long career, women across Argentina wrote her letters filled with queries about Pan Dulce. Committed to maintaining a personal relationship with her fans despite the growing depersonalization of the mass media, Doña Petrona and her secretary answered all letters promptly. And many viewers in Buenos Aires took up on her offer to call her home with “urgent and quick questions.” Her granddaughter, Marcela Massut, recalled that her grandmother fielded more calls around Christmastime. She would even accept calls on Christmas Eve. Marcela explained that her grandmother believed that she had the obligation to talk to these unknown callers because they “had spent [their] money and also because [they] had tried to make one of her recipes.”
The young female host of Buenas Tardes, Mucho Gusto, Anna María Muchnick, closed this segment by explaining to Doña Petrona and the viewers at home, “Watching you work, it looks so easy. I think that all the married ladies are going to make a Pan Dulce this year.” Of course, not all Argentine women would make Doña Petrona’s Pan Dulce, given its complexity and the greater ease of buying it at a bakery. Indeed, both Doña Petrona and her legendary assistant, Juanita Bordoy, were busy throughout the entire episode and had done significant preparatory work in advance.
Nevertheless, the letters and phone calls Doña Petrona received at the time, together with my subsequent oral histories, suggest that many women were interested in learning to make this recipe at home. This trend would persist even if women had to practice, used less expensive ingredients, and ultimately became less interested in cooking like Doña Petrona on a daily basis during the second half of the twentieth century. In Argentina, as elsewhere, holidays have remained a time when such domestic dedication was—and is—at its most intense.
Rebekah Pite is assistant professor of history at Lafayette College. Her book Creating a Common Table in Twentieth-Century in Argentina: Doña Petrona, Women, and Food is now available.
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