The Evolution of the American Diet

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Lloyd Harrison, "Corn: The Food of the Nation," 1918. This Food Administration propaganda poster advertised some of the many uses of corn, one of the most prominent of the substitute foods administrators promoted.
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"Modern Food, Moral Food" by Helen Zoe Veit, weaves together cultural history and the history of science to bring readers into the strange and complex world of the American Progressive Era that left a profound mark on the American diet.

The American diet changed dramatically in the 20th century. As food production became more industrialized, nutritionists and home economists were all pointing Americans toward a newly scientific approach to diet. In Modern Food, Moral Food (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), Helen Zoe Veit argues that the food revolution was fueled by a powerful conviction that Americans had a moral obligation to use self-discipline and reason, rather than taste and tradition, in choosing what to eat. The following excerpt is from the introduction, “Victory Over Ourselves.”

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American Diet in the Era of the Great War

Now is the hour of our testing. Let us make it the hour of our victory—victory over ourselves.
United States Food Administration slogan, 1918

In the 1890s, when a poor African American sharecropper in Mississippi ate a plate of beans, greens, gravy, and corn bread, her dinner seemed a world removed from a Gilded Age restaurant meal of steak, asparagus, Béarnaise sauce, and white rolls. Just two decades later, however, by the 1910s, chemical analyses of these foods would reveal disconcerting similarities in their nutritive content. In fact, the poor southern meal—lower in fat and higher in vitamins—would increasingly look like the healthier of the two. By breaking food down into units like vitamins, calories, proteins, and carbohydrates, nutritionists by the 1910s were able to argue convincingly that foods that had long seemed completely different could in fact be nutritionally equivalent. In so doing, they exposed striking similarities in foods from different classes and cultures and regions. It seems commonsensical in hindsight, but at the time this way of thinking about food was revolutionary.

Nutrition science sparked the modernization of American diets, but it was really only the beginning: the ways Americans bought, produced, ate, and thought about their food and their bodies all changed dramatically. And the most radical changes happened during the first two decades of the twentieth century, an extraordinarily short period of time. During these years, modern food science, Progressive impulses, and U.S. involvement in World War I all came together to fundamentally change American thinking on food. The war was particularly crucial. Immediately after entering the war in 1917, the government created a powerful wartime agency called the United States Food Administration, which aimed to ship food supplies to western European allies and neutrals, where supplies in some places ran desperately low. For almost two years, the war provided a laboratory on the American home front in which the state managed food on a national scale, making food and its management patriotic projects and extending the state’s reach into the home, onto dinner plates, and into kitchen cabinets. The Food Administration and the voluntary conservation campaigns that surrounded it marked the high point of a revolution in the ways Americans at all levels of society understood food.

The way we think about food now has its origins in this moment. Today, popular interest in food has never been higher, and Americans are newly vocal about the diverse pleasures of cooking, eating, and thinking about food, as well as the dire results of not thinking about it enough. Movies, magazines, websites, and television shows focusing on food have gained a firm place in mainstream media, while middle-class “foodies” unembarrassedly describe cooking and eating as central to their lives. Grocery stores offering a dizzying array of products, almost unimaginable a generation earlier, have flourished around the country. Meanwhile, driven by concerns ranging from food safety to food quality to environmental degradation to exploitative labor practices, Americans in growing numbers have become invested in knowing where their food comes from and how it is produced. As a result, interest in home food production has seen an unprecedented revival, from home baking, home canning, home brewing, and home cheese making to vegetable gardening to domestic livestock husbandry. At the same time, participation in farm shares and farmers’ markets has grown rapidly, while demand for organic and local products in even conventional supermarkets has boomed. Commitment to local, seasonal, and sustainable eating has been fueled by a new genre of books and documentary films that decry the production methods of industrial food systems. Americans’ food choices are regularly pointed to as vital factors in public health, social justice, national security, climate change, and even geopolitics. On a scale unrivaled since the Progressive Era, food choices have again become moral choices.

To understand food now, it is crucial to understand the origins of modern eating. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Americans were also living through a time when food had taken on urgent new importance. In the long term, many believed, national strength depended on a stable and abundant food supply, and public health depended upon a population that was literate in nutrition science. Rationalizing food production, distribution, and consumption promised to make U.S. society wealthier and more efficient, with stronger and more productive citizens. To many Americans, indeed, a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. food offered answers to a host of social questions, including physical health, wage strife, women’s roles, racial fitness, Americanization, international welfare, and world peace. European food shortages during World War I clarified that world power in the new century would hinge on the ability to marshal and coordinate food resources, both within and without national borders. Whether the goal was global power or individual health, some said there was simply “no question more important” than food.

None of this would have happened in the same way if it had not happened in the Progressive Era. Progressives were first and foremost confident problem solvers, people who identified social problems and set about systematically trying to solve them, whether in groups or as individuals, through private or state initiatives. Classic Progressive methodology relied upon expert authority to generate solutions to social problems and upon bureaucracies to carry out those solutions. An extraordinarily broad array of Americans worked to reform food in the early twentieth century, and not all of them would have described themselves as “Progressives.” In fact, most of them probably would not have known exactly what that term meant. But Progressive Era confidence in expertise, social-scientific knowledge, centralized administration, and the possibility of positive social change itself profoundly influenced the many diverse attempts to change American eating during these years.

A major reason that ambitious food reform seemed possible in the first place was that so much about food had recently changed. Food practices in the United States had never been static, but major changes in previous decades had unfastened a whole generation of Americans from habitual ways of dealing with and thinking about food. Since the late nineteenth century, Americans had witnessed the rise of industrialized food production and distribution, a revolution in nutrition science, the institutionalization of home economics within U.S. public schools and universities, the shrinking presence of servants in middle-class homes, repeated attempts by reformers to Americanize the diets of immigrants and improve the diets of the poor, the beginnings of both commercial and domestic refrigeration, and a dramatic spike in food prices. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was becoming more normal to eat food that wasn’t produced at home, whether it came from a restaurant or a can. By the mid-1910s, the food crisis afflicting western Europe — and the notion that “famine” had struck even “the white race,” as one U.S. food administrator put it — made clear that global systems were pitifully vulnerable to disruptions when left to the vagaries of weather and war. High food prices at home and food shortages abroad confirmed the moral mandate to rethink the rules by which Americans ate.

More to the purpose, in fact, they confirmed the mandate to create rules for eating where there had seemingly been none before. The great theme of Progressive food reform was the urgent need to make everything about food more rational, and given the stakes, reformers imbued their quest for rational food with a profound sense of morality. Indeed, for many Americans in the Progressive Era the concepts of rationality and morality were virtually inseparable. That was their point. When it came to food, it was especially important to think about it rationally because it was so beguilingly easy to think about it irrationally. Emotions, traditions, and the pleasures of eating were powerful forces pushing Americans to make poor food choices. Eating the wrong things would make Americans less productive — malnourished or even “overweight,” a recently coined term for a growing problem. And eating the wrong things in time of war meant that U.S. allies and U.S. soldiers themselves might go hungry.

Downplaying the pleasure of eating — and even renouncing pleasure altogether in some cases — seemed to make it easier to make rational food choices. Doing so, of course, demanded enormous self-discipline, and a growing number of Americans expressed the idea that self-discipline around food was a moral virtue. And it was a virtue not only in its own right but also because it bespoke a general ability to forego immediate gratification and to control animal impulses in the interest of what people knew, intellectually, to be good and right. During a war that the U.S. government styled as an epic contest between democracy and autocracy, Americans described the internal self-control of individuals in a democracy as vastly superior to a dictatorship’s external demands. Indeed, they said with growing confidence that individual self-control was the very foundation of a healthy, productive, and democratic society. Thus an astonishingly broad group of Americans in this era held up ascetic self-control as a virtue and as the enlightened pathway to mature citizenship. The Food Administration’s “victory over ourselves” slogan emphasized the moral imperative of self-control around food. At the same time, of course, the slogan also acknowledged how difficult such self-control really was.

The food crisis of World War I politicized food, and the book’s first chapter describes how that politicization heralded a new attitude toward eating for a new century. As food administrators worked to send high-calorie, highly transportable commodities like beef, pork, white flour, butter, and sugar to war-torn Europe, they called upon Americans to voluntarily eat less of those foods, daily staples for many, in the name of a greater good. The administration’s head, a young Herbert Hoover, had the power to impose a nationwide food rationing system, but instead he relied almost completely on voluntarism and propaganda, and a great many Americans ultimately welcomed the opportunities voluntary food conservation offered to exercise self-discipline. The sensual pleasures of eating went out of fashion in wartime America amid claims from both the government and from ordinary people that overeating and waste threatened moral life. In contrast, Americans who deprioritized pleasure when deciding what to eat supposedly demonstrated the depth of their self-control and, thus, their intellectual and political maturity. In Progressive debates about both food and democracy, self-control became the defining feature of those white American adults, male or female, who were worthy of full political participation.

As food reformers in the early twentieth century worked to rationalize American diets, hoping to get people to spend both their money and their physical energy more efficiently, they codified a food philosophy that would define the era: rational decision-making based on science trumped pleasure and tradition every time when it came to eating. The wartime food conservation campaign helped popularize nutrition science, and its popularity was speeded, not slowed, by the moralism embedded in it. In their quest to rationalize food, reformers promoted a variety of what they described as rational foods, ranging from cheap sources of protein and calcium, like peanut butter and cottage cheese, to foods previously considered waste products, like brains and intestines, to unfamiliar animal products, including even the meat of cats and dogs. The extremity of some reformers’ dietary suggestions reveal the obsession with use, value and efficiency that continued to underpin U.S. diets throughout the twentieth century, as well as what would ultimately prove to be the limits of rational eating.

Besides increasingly thinking about their food choices in terms of nutrition science, Americans also more and more considered the effects of their food choices on the world. The United States was becoming an ascendant world power during the Great War, in part because recipients of American “aid” paid for it by going into deep debt, cementing the U.S. position as postwar creditor to the empires of Europe. International food aid captured Americans’ imaginations, and it did so because administrators compellingly connected individuals’ food choices to the welfare of people in other countries and to their own country’s evolving international role. They also encouraged all Americans to see themselves as both citizens and benefactors of a hungry world. As a result, a much wider cast of characters was involved in this foreign aid project than historians have usually acknowledged, including housewives, children, poor laborers, immigrants, and African Americans — people who believed the U.S. government when it told them they could be heroic participants in international aid every time they stood up to cook or sat down to eat.

Despite its immediate relevance, however, the longest-lasting forum through which Americans considered the political and social implications of their food choices was not international food aid. Instead, it was the seemingly mundane realm of home economics. A young discipline that was expanding rapidly by the 1910s, home economics was central to Progressivism. Home economists throughout the early twentieth century described housework as a scientific occupation with immediate value for state and society, and modern American women as the expert administrators of family diet and health. This persuasive redefinition of what it meant to be a housewife helped change attitudes as the availability of domestic servants dwindled and as middle-class women who had previously employed servants began to accept full-time housework as a personal duty, and even, to some extent, as a privilege. Women in the Progressive Era self-consciously linked their push for political rights to the politicization of cooking and other domestic work, and gender identities were transformed in tandem with social and political changes. In fact, in the context of debates over woman suffrage and the food conservation campaign itself, some women claimed that their own specialized knowledge of food production and domestic management gave them unique political insights. Home economics, together with the wartime food conservation campaign, popularized the belief that housework was public service in the private home, a labor of love and a form of political labor that was best performed by educated wives and mothers rather than by servants.

Meanwhile, the ersatz science of eugenics was also repositioning itself in response to changing popular beliefs about food’s effects on the body. As nutritionists demonstrated that poor diets hindered both physical and mental development, Americans increasingly expressed the idea that biological parentage was only part of what went into creating healthy, productive adults. If diet could affect individual health and intelligence, it seemed obvious that the dietary habits of a race could steer its course. A new discipline called “euthenics” emerged in this era to tackle the effects of environment on race, complicating eugenicists’ claims that breeding was the engine of racial development. Even while maintaining a lively interest in the genetic aspects of race, both white and black euthenists argued that sanitation, exercise, and especially diet also drove racial change. In the context of changing beliefs about the limits and malleability of biological race, food in the Progressive Era became a crucible for debates about racial progress.

Americanization efforts, and the uneasy incorporation of foreign foods into mainstream American diets throughout the first four decades of the twentieth century. Americanization efforts crested around the time of the Great War, as native-born reformers sought to convince first- and second-generation immigrants to take up nominally “American” habits, including food habits. Yet counterintuitively, at this same time more and more native-born Americans were in fact eagerly sampling what they considered foreign foods, spurred in part by wartime food conservation suggestions to try “foreign” recipes that stretched meat and wheat. Thus in the very midst of Americanization efforts, a number of immigrant dishes actually entered mainstream U.S. cookbooks and diets, especially mixed foods like pasta dishes, stews, and casseroles. The fact that these dishes became utterly commonplace in the decades that followed only points to the depth of this culinary transformation: in the early years of the twentieth century, some Americans had found these foods to be truly disgusting, a disgust sharpened by the conviction that eating gloppy foreign foods had racial consequences. In the end, Americanization efforts had the most drastic effect on the recipes themselves, and blander versions of what had seemed like threateningly exotic recipes emerged as components of a broader U.S. diet that was only strengthened by its limited diversity.

The idealization of thinness was the single most enduring expression of Progressive beliefs in the moral value of asceticism. During the 1910s, Americans made increasingly bold associations between moral righteousness, physical self-discipline, and the unattractiveness of body fat, and these associations directly contributed to the explosion of the thin ideal for both sexes — and especially for women — In the 1920s, 1930s, and beyond. While moderate amounts of excess fat had long seemed like an admirable indication of prosperity, by the late 1910s Americans in large numbers began instead to condemn excess weight as the physical evidence of gluttony and as lack of self-control made manifest. In the midst of international food shortages, Americans described fat as the visible evidence of moral weakness, and that basic idea not only survived the war but thrived in the decades that followed. The idealization of thinness that came to dominate twentieth-century conceptions of beauty grew alongside and gained strength from Progressive ideals of asceticism, moral legibility, and righteous self-discipline.

The modernization of food in the early twentieth century drew upon and contributed to Progressive beliefs about order and self-control, and these beliefs had lasting social, political, and cultural repercussions. Throughout this era, reformers aggressively touted the benefits of making American food more efficient. Far from a peripheral pursuit, they claimed, the quest for rational food could strengthen the economy, enhance public health and racial fitness, clarify women’s roles, speed immigrants’ assimilation, and elevate America’s place in the world. Yet beneath the boosterism, reformers continually acknowledged the profound difficulty of actually extricating food from its messy cultural contexts. Eating rationally meant more than disseminating information about nutrition science, more than getting American consumers to allocate their food budgets more wisely, and more even than submitting agriculture or food processing to industrial methods. On its most basic level, rational food really did call for “victory over ourselves,” a series of battles that people would have to wage and re-wage every day against inclination, against habit, and even against the drive for pleasure. Eating rationally, in other words, demanded what proved to be an unsustainable victory over some of peoples’ most fundamental instincts and powerful desires.

To tell the story of food’s modernization, this book immerses the reader in the complex and sometimes strange world of the American Progressive Era, letting the voices of real people articulate their own changing beliefs about food. Many of those voices come from an extraordinary source base that no historian had thoroughly explored before: the more than 380,000 letters that Americans wrote to the Food Administration in the late 1910s, housed in the U.S. National Archives’ Food Administration collection. These letters provide a truly exceptional window into what ordinary people were thinking about food and eating at a time when food habits were undergoing revolutionary changes. People who wrote to the government were a self-selecting group by definition, but the letters nevertheless reveal that in terms of class, race, age, gender, and geographical location, an astounding diversity of Americans sought to communicate with their government about food. Many wrote either to praise or to denounce federal food policies. Just as often, however, letter writers veered into rich and unpredictable territory. People talked about their food preferences, justifying their likes and dislikes and providing recipes and kitchen tips. Sometimes they inventoried their pantry shelves or listed the kinds of foods growing in their gardens. Occasionally they described their efforts to gain or to lose weight. And over and over they detailed their beliefs about how eating habits could lead alternatively to moral uprightness or to moral corruption. Not only do the letters provide an unparalleled snapshot of Americans’ attitudes about food in this historical moment, but the very fact that they exist in such scope and at such a scale underlines the point that food was a passionate issue. I spent months immersed in these letters, and by the end of my time in the National Archives it was obvious that they contained far more valuable material than could ever fit within the reach of a single project. These letters remain a valuable source base that other historians will wish to explore in the future.

Another great boon to this project was the fact that food administrators engaged press-clipping services from 1917 to 1919 in order to gauge public sentiment across the country. During these years, press-clipping employees combed U.S. newspapers ranging from the immense to the miniscule, cutting out and cataloging any article or blurb that mentioned food, cooking, gardening, diets, or, of course, the wartime food conservation campaign itself. The fruits of their labors are also held in the National Archives’ Food Administration collection. Thus with great dispatch I was able to browse food-related articles, editorials, letters, cartoons, and recipes from hundreds of newspapers, including many from towns so small it is difficult to find them on a map.

Besides the National Archives, the manuscript draws from research performed at more than a dozen other archives in the United States and Europe. Among the collections in which I worked are the archives at Cornell University on cookery, extension work, and home economics; the archives of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University; the holdings of the Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa; the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University; and the extensive culinary collections at Michigan State University. I also made use of European archives: the French National Archives and National Library, archives in northern France from places that were rich agricultural regions before the war and scenes of some of the bloodiest fighting during the war, and the National Library of Spain.

Historical study of food forces us to confront some of our most basic human beliefs about what is normal, what is right, what is disgusting, and what is natural. Because food can seem like an intimately familiar — even a transhistorical — topic, putting food in historical context underlines the fragility of any casual assumptions about the beliefs and motivations of people in the past. I have written this book around the extraordinary primary sources I found, based on the belief that the thoughts of ordinary people are never more immediate or more revealing than when expressed in their own words.

From MODERN FOOD, MORAL FOOD: SELF-CONTROL, SCIENCE, AND THE RISE OF MODERN AMERICAN EATING IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY by Helen Zoe Veit. Copyright © 2013 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. Purchase this book from our store:Modern Food, Moral Food.

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