Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Real Food: A look through the 20th century and how our diets have changed (Part 1)

If you haven't seen it, read my intro post about this new Real Food Series
Click HERE to check out Part 2.

To begin to understand how our eating habits have transitioned over the last century, it makes natural sense to investigate how we used to eat and what our general view of food was, as well as, how our food was grown. Food availability, farming practices and crops, technology, nutrient knowledge have all seen drastic changes and each have impacted how we consume and view food today.

1900 - 1940's

In the late 1900's and into the first part of the 20th century, Americans were obsessed with meat, along with potatoes, cakes and pies.
In all sections of the Nation, beef was recognized as the king. And whether beef, or lamb, or fowl, or pork, it was most often accompanied by roasted, mashed, riced, baked, or fried potatoes. Sauces and condiments might be on the side, and other vegetables and fruits might take up a niche on the table, but meat and potatoes were the basics along with heavy sweet, especially cake or mince, cherry, apple, or berry pies, with large dollops of whipped cream if affordable.
Lillian Russell
Meats and potatoes weren't only lunch and dinner fare, but breakfast too, and to fill out the meal, seafood, biscuits, bread, perhaps some scrambled eggs, and numerous hot cups of coffee were added to the menu. This was a period when having a thick waste line was not only attractive, but considered a sign of good health and wealth. However, there was a growing concern about the working class’ diet and a desire to understand what foods were necessary in the diet for a good days work. It the 1890's a new field of study was developing in New England called “Nutrition”. The new nutritionist focused primarily on understanding protein, fat, carbohydrates and water. “They saw little value in fresh fruits and were actively opposed to greens, which they asserted required more bodily energy to digest than they provided.” (Lowell K. Dyson “American Cuisine in the 20th Century”) These nutritionists believed the working class were spending far too much of their earnings on expensive cuts of meat, especially when cheaper cuts where available, along with other protein sources that were more than satisfactory for a healthy diet.  The American working class on the other hand felt that their expensive cuts of meat were their reward or privilege for all their hard work and weren’t so willing to give them up.

Up until this point, food scientist had believed a high amount of protein was necessary in the diet. However, Horace Fletcher, a man who believed in complete food mastication by chewing each bite silently 100 times, and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a vegetarian and creator of Corn Flakes, a breakfast cereal that transformed American's diet by replacing meat with grains,(Lowell K. Dyson “American Cuisine in the 20th Century”)

“At first, USDA scientists disagreed with proposals to reduce protein in the diet, but by 1910, Russell Chittenden, director of Yale’s Sheffield School of Science, recognized both the economic and health values of protein-reduced diets. This finding proved a slow sell to Americans, but gradually took hold, as the slender ‘Gibson Girl’ replaced Lilian Russell and as hemlines rose. The Nation’s entry into World War I encouraged lighter meals. Then the ultra-thin figure of the 1920’s ‘flapper’ became popular.”
~ American Cuisine in the 20th Century by Lowell K. Dyson

While scientists researched food and health, they began discovering vitamins and minerals. Casimir Funk first discovered B1, a water-soluble nutrient, in 1911 and in 1912 he coined the term “vitamin”. Elmer McCollum and Marguerite Davis found the second nutrient that was fat soluble, which later became known as vitamin A.  These two findings were just the start and many other nutrients were discovered soon after. Scientist began to understand the necessity of minerals and vitamins in the diet and how they could affect a person’s health.
"In 1912, the Polish chemist Casimir Funk was investigating beriberi by soaking brown rice in water and capturing the substance that dissolved. Funk determined that this substance contained an amine group. He went on to posit the existence of a whole range of amine-containing substances that were vital for good health, naming them vitamines. The "e" was dropped later when scientists realized that not all of these substances were amines."

"In 1913, two American chemists, Elmer Verner McCollum and Marguerite Davis, found something in butter and egg yolks that, when removed from the diets of rats, caused night blindness. McCollum and Davis knew that this fat-soluble substance could not be the same one found in brown rice. Lacking the know-how to determine chemical structures, they resorted to an alphabetization scheme, naming the fat-soluble substance vitamin A and the water-soluble substance vitamin B. In 1920, a scurvy-curing substance was isolated and named vitamin C."
~ Vitamins by Chemical & Engineering News
1900 Kitchen,
1920's Kitchen,
As the century continued to progress new advancements and opportunities transformed America.  Transportation and food storage improved making it possible to ship food from one coast to the other without it perishing and fresh produce, among other things, was being imported from countries all over the world. The new abundance and variety was enjoyed by many. By 1920, food processing was the leading manufacturing industry in earnings, passing by iron and steel, automobiles and textiles. Women’s roles and responsibilities in the home were beginning to change too. In 1900 it was estimated 44 hours a week were spent preparing and cleaning-up meals. It was necessary to cut wood or haul coal to keep wood and coal burning stoves going. Indoor plumbing was virtually nonexistent, so water had to be pumped and brought in from outside and virtually all food was made from scratch. By1920 the number of hours a woman spent in the kitchen had dropped to under 30. This was in part because of new technology, like gas and electric being run into the home so that gas stoves could be used and women could run a variety of small appliances. Specialized pots, pans, measuring utensils and so forth were also introduced and men were beginning to join in some of the food preparation.

Original Piggly Wiggly Store, Memphis, TN
With the introduction of the self-serve supermarket, like Piggly Wiggly which opened its doors in 1916, the way women shopped for food would never be the same. No longer did they have to head to the general store or small family grocer for their dried goods, the butcher for their meat, the local dairy for their milk (unless it was delivered to their home) and either grow their own fruits and vegetables or head to the farmers market. The supermarket, along with the new kitchen technologies, added a level of time saving convenience allowing woman to do other things. Like have more social time for themselves or more importantly head into the workforce and begin earning their own income.
While the time spent in the kitchen was decreasing, convenience foods were seeing an increase. Mealtime was changing as people headed away from large sit down meat and potato meals, to instead quick, lighter fair, in particularly at breakfast and lunch.
"The trend toward lighter and simpler foods accelerated in the 1920's, spurred b the wartime drive for leaner eating and the newly popular slim ideal for women. Just as store-bought cereals had replaced cooked breakfasts [in the late 1900's] for many Americans, so sandwiches and other light fare replaced hot lunches. This was especially true for working people, who patronized the growing variety of lunch counters and other quick-service eateries. An array of new convenience foods was carried in grocery stores -- packaged desserts, pancake mixes, bouillon cubes, and others. Commercially canned goods also multiplied. Almost any fruit or vegetable and even some main courses, such as spaghetti, could be bought canned in the 1920's." 
With new knowledge about vitamins and minerals, food products began boasting their vitamin and mineral content on packaging to encourage its’ purchase. People were quick to jump on the new nutrition band wagon and fell prey to all sorts of outrageous advertising, all in the hopes that the vitamin and minerals in food would be cure-alls to any number of different health issues, like stomach problems, boils and even acne . However, advertisers were not quick to point out that the way food was being processed was actually destroying much of its’ nutritional benefits.
“The negative effects of increased processing of food, such as loss of vitamins and minerals, were not mentioned by advertisers. And when such leading nutritionists as Elmer McCollum of Johns Hopkins and Lafayette Mendel of Yale appeared on a Betty Crocker ‘Radio special’ in 1934 to defend the nutritional value of white bread, critics charged that the food industry had co-opted the educational and scientific establishments.“  
While middle class, urban America was enjoying the new food advancements, rural America’s landscape was seeing changes of its own. Small, independent family run farm had at one time dotted the countryside from coast to coast. They were unlike the breed of crop farms we see in today's society. Farmers of the first part of the 20th century and before, incorporated land rotation into their growing technique, allowing fields a rest time every couple of years so that the soil could regain it’s fertility. Crops and livestock were an integrated part of farm life, as hay or meadows were also rotated into the farming cycle. “Crop residues and hay were fed to livestock and manure redistributed on the land.” These small farms provided Americans with the food they needed and wanted, however times were changing.  New technologies were making an appearance on farms, just as they did in the homes. Tractors and other mechanization began to enter the farm scene as early as the 1850’s, and by the beginning of the 20th century their accessibility was increasing.  Farmers were able to increase their work productivity, farm yields and quality of product.

Yet many people lost their jobs because of farm advancements. The new tractors and machines replaced the necessity of man and animal power. In the end there was not enough alternative jobs to provide the necessary income to survive in rural America.  

As families either chose or were forced to move for financial reasons, the farm landscape evolved from homes dispersed every mile or two in the country to being able to drive miles upon miles without ever seeing any signs of life besides the crops swaying gently in the breeze. The exodus from the rural countryside affected government as well:

“The 1920 Census results were nationally significant in two ways. They were the first to show the country with more than 100 million people, and the first to report an urban majority of 51 percent. The realization that Americans were no longer predominantly rural appears to have been a bit of a shock, even though it was foreseeable, and even though ‘urban’ was liberally defined. The feeling was epitomized by the action (or, more accurately, inaction) of the House of Representatives after the census results were announced. Members from rural States whose growth had been so limited during the 1910-20 decade that the States faced a loss of seats, and there was little sentiment to avoid the loss of rural seats by making the House larger.”

“In floor debates, some members revealed a distinct fear for the future of the country, with explicit distrust of an urban-dominated House, in part because of anxiety about the newer eastern and southern European immigrants who comprised an increasing proportion of big-city populations. Others said it was unfair to punish rural States for what they viewed as the patriotic movement of country people to the cities during World War I to work in defense industries. ‘Just as certain as God reigns,’ one Texas member declared, ‘in the economical readjustment of this country they must go back to the farms.’ A total stalemate resulted. And although apportionment is the constitutional purpose of the Census, the House did not reapportion. The unprecedented result was that House seats continued to be based on the 1910 Census until the election of 1932. But the migration to the cities proved permanent.”

While small family farms were disappearing farmland was not. There was still the same and greater demand for food as the U.S. population continued to grow. Instead farmers became more focused on growing one of several cash crops, most specifically corn, wheat and soybeans which were growing in popularity because of their use by the increasing food industry. With the help of modern day tractors and mechanics, they could also farm much larger quantities of land.

As people moved into the cities they lost much of their food independence. Families became reliant on the food industry to provide them with what they needed. Even farmers moved away from growing their own food and home food production as they began to focus on growing cash crops. While demand for commercially processed foods increased and accessibility to food in general also increased, obesity and other health problems began to be an issue despite the transformation of meals from the meat and potato standard to the lighter fair of the mid 20's and 30's. Breakfast now consisted of citrus fruit, cereal and milk or perhaps eggs and toast. Lunches were also lighter with salad, soups and sandwiches. Even at dinner, while the meal stayed much the same, portions were smaller. Casseroles and similar style dishes became popular. If there wasn't time for dishes like these then out came the canned mushroom or tomato soup for a quick meal or when there was a real food emergency, one would pull out a cup of light cream and mix in three tablespoons of catsup to make make tomato soup.

The Great Depression and World War I affected people's eating habits differently. While many of the poor struggled to afford food for their children and often in the process having to go hungry themselves, those in the middle class who did not loose their jobs, did fine and sometimes even better as they were able to take advantage of decreased food prices. More meat was consumed during this period of time, although this may be partially "from distribution of relief goods, including canned meat, and hamburgers sales as low as 5 cents a 
pound." (American Cuisine in the 20th Century by Lowell K. Dyson)

In 1933 Swiss chemist, Tadeus Reichstein, offered the drug company Roche the "four-step process for making vitamin C that used both microbial oxidation and chemical synthesis." (Vitamins by Chemical & Engineering News) Thus making vitamin C the first synthetic vitamin to be produced.
"Vitamins were a boon to food companies seeking ways to differentiate their products from those of competitors. Cereals, bread, milk, and other products all claimed to be vitamin enriched (with liquids or powders) and until the laboratory synthesis of vitamins permitted their incorporation in pills in the late 1930's, enriched food was the only way to get extra vitamins. Vitamin enrichment by food producers was, however, also a tacit admission that their food needed enriching because it had lost vitamins during processing, but by this time, many nutritionists and home economists worked either directly or indirectly for food companies and did not call attention to these fact." 

Those living during World War II saw the development of a food rationing program. With fear and rumors spreading about, panic purchasing would issue resulting in ration books. 
“In the United States, nationwide food rationing was instituted in the spring of 1942, and each member of the family was issued ration books by the Office of Price Administration (OPA). These books contained stamps and gave precise details of the amounts of certain types of food that you were allowed. Rationing insured that each person could get their fair share of the items that were in short supply due to the war effort and import reductions. By the end of the war, over a hundred million of each ration book were printed.”
 ~Genealogy Today: WWII War Ration Books 

Food shortages lead to the government encouraging the short lived “Victory Gardens". People began growing their own food in their backyards, community plots and even on rooftops. Approximately 40% of vegetables in the US were grown at home by 1943.  However, as the war came to an end, the government stopped encouraging home gardens and many people didn’t bother with the effort by spring of 1946. (

The 1940’s also saw more women entering the workforce. By the mid 40’s 35% of women and 25% of married women were working, although female employment did drop as men came home from the war and the Baby Boom era got underway. While women were also beginning to go to college, there was strong encouragement for them to learn how to manage a household for the days when they would be married. “The ideal wife, according to popular magazines, was intelligent and well-educated, could cook delicious meals, did housework efficiently, and spent lots of time nurturing her children.” (Cooking Trends Echo Changing Roles of Women by Douglas E. Bowers)

 To be continued in Part 2.
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  1. This was an excellent and very informative article. Thanks for posting it -- I look forward to part two.

  2. Therese, this is great! I'm going to sit through and really read it this evening! I'm definitely sharing :D

  3. Goodness...I'm bookmarking this page for future reference. What a great post you have is such a fascinating topic, and it deserves more examination on my part. We need to know how our food culture developed! Thank you for sharing this with me tonight. I hope that tomorrow is full of happy moments, joyful conversation and plates of satisfying food!

  4. Thanks Monet! It was a very eye-opening post to research and write.

  5. Wow, great comprehensive post! Looking forward to part 2!

  6. Absolutely amazing! Thanks for all the work you did on this!

  7. Hello,
    I just came upon this by researching soaking walnuts! One blog lead to another and then I came across this brilliant, brilliant article.

    The thought provoking and detailed description had me wanting more!
    I also am so excited to read the continuation.

    Have I soaked walnuts yet, no, but I have learned and discovered.
    What a treasure you are.


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