The History of American Food
By Rhonna Hargett, Adult and Teen Services Manager
My memories of my grandmother are full of cooking. She could go into her tiny kitchen and produce meals that still make me hungry remembering them twenty years later. She learned to cook on the farm, so she could take plain food and mix it up to make a variety that wouldn’t get boring over the lean times or through the winter months.
I recently took a reading journey through the history of food in the United States. We don’t often think about why we eat what we do, but there is a long history of cultural and economic forces that affect what we put on our tables.
A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression by Jane Ziegelman takes us back to a time when nutrition education and extreme poverty converged into one of the greatest food challenges our nation has ever faced. People did as much as they could for themselves by learning new ways of cooking and preserving foods. Farmers returned to a bartering system because so few could afford to buy their products. I enjoyed the story of a farm girl who was tired of the egg salad sandwich she took to school every day because her family had no buyers for their eggs. Another girl was tired of peanut butter and jelly because they couldn’t afford eggs or meat. After envying each other, they happily traded sandwiches. Extension taught homemakers how to stretch their food dollars and maximize yields from their gardens. Lessons and necessity produced a shift from food as a satisfying and tasty part of life to the nutritional baseline of food – what is absolutely necessary for survival. Recipes from the time are included, which aren’t necessarily appetizing, but demonstrate clearly how desperate the situation was.
The poverty was too deep and wide-spread for self-sufficiency to solve the problem, however, and the government and charity organizations stepped in with bread lines and food distribution, creating the first versions of food stamps and the school lunch program. Ziegelman also delves into the cultural and political attitudes of the time towards charitable giving and tells how these views affect us even today. This compelling narrative illuminates a period in our history when our ideas about food underwent a huge shift.
In Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, Sarah Lohman examines eight flavors commonly used in the American diet—black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, soy sauce, garlic, monosodium glutamate, and Sriracha – and tells their stories. Lohman’s first job was as part of a family in an historical reenactment village, where she got the opportunity to cook with the ingredients available in Ohio in 1848. Her experience led her to wonder why we use different ingredients now and when those shifts took place. For instance, Americans used to regularly use rose water in their cooking, but now we mostly use vanilla. Vanilla became popular because of a scientific discovery that had nothing to do with food: the simple fact that adding salt to ice lowers the freezing temperature of water. This well-researched and delightful exploration of American flavors includes historic recipes and Lohman’s personal experience with, and opinion of, each flavor.
After examining these books, I can see how American history is displayed regularly on my dinner table when we have gravy like my grandmother used to make, curries, stir fries, and vanilla ice cream for dessert. Economics, science, and culture have affected every dish on our table. These fascinating narratives about the history of our diet will have you looking at your meals–and culture–in an entirely new way.