Food and Cuisines

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FOOD AND CUISINES. If there is a recurring theme in the history of Americans and their food it is abundance. From the earliest days of the new republic, foreign visitors and immigrants remarked on how well endowed Americans were with regard to food. This was reflected in their stature, which is closely linked to diet. During the American Revolution the average American soldier was much taller than his British foe. Even the poorly fed African slaves in the United States seem to have eaten better than most of their counterparts in Spanish, Portuguese, and French America.

Yet the triumph over Britain on the battlefield was not mirrored by independence from British-style cuisine. The British immigrants, like most arrivals from abroad, had tried to import the foods of the homeland to their new abodes in North America. For the most part the environment cooperated, allowing them to reproduce many of the grains, meats, and vegetables that had formed the core of their diets back home. Indeed, at first they had even disdained the Native Americans' maize, which they called Indian corn after the word for staple food in Britain. It was only after maize and the potato, which was native to South America, gained approval back in Britain that they became important parts of the British immigrants' diet as well. For the most part their foods, seasonings, and methods of preparation remained similar to those of the old country throughout the colonial period. Only in the South, where the climate was warmer and African slaves played a major role in food preparation, did significant variations arise, and these were mainly in the form of the seasonings that slaves brought with them from Africa and the West Indies.

The main gustatory problem for most Americans in the first years of the Republic was seasonality. About 90 percent of them lived in rural areas, and during the winter and spring, when the earth produced little, they and poorer city dwellers fell back on monotonous diets based on root vegetables, beans, corn or rye breads, and preserved meats. However, a transportation revolution was already beginning as roads and canals pushed into the hinterland. Increasingly, farms that had been largely self-sufficient could sell products for cash, which farmers used to purchase goods and foods they had previously produced themselves. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 created a cheap water route from the Midwest to the East Coast. Midwestern wheat then poured into the rest of the country (as well as into foreign markets), bringing markedly lower prices for flour. White bread, which only the better-off had been able to afford on a regular basis, now became commonplace. The nation's cities and towns also enjoyed ample supplies of corn-fattened pork, salted and packed in barrels, that were shipped from growing midwestern centers such as Cincinnati, which proudly called itself Porkopolis.

At the same time, cooking over open fires in fireplaces, on spits, or in iron pots was being replaced by cooking on iron stoves. These enabled cooks to have much more control over the amount of heat applied to foods and contributed to the development of more precise and complex methods of cooking. Recipe books that took advantage of these innovations came onto the market, often as part of housekeeping manuals that helped codify middle-class standards of cooking and serving food for insecure women whose husbands' rising incomes were thrusting them into the new middle class.

Class Distinctions

The recipe books were also a sign that, although the transportation and market revolutions did provide many people with previously unaffordable foods, there were still important class differences in cooking and eating. It was mainly the rising middle and upper classes who could afford houses with iron stoves, as well as many of the foods the transportation revolution and new overseas sources were making available. The story was quite different for the poorer classes. Many of them were impoverished immigrants residing in crowded cities or on poor farms who could afford neither housing with stoves nor a variety of foods to cook on them. For much of the year their diets were still based mainly on salted meats, cabbage, potatoes, other root vegetables, and beans. Although adequate in quantity, evidence that the average stature of white Americans declined from about 1800 to 1850 would indicate that their diets lacked much in terms of quality and variety. Most African American slaves, whose diets were based on vitamin-and protein-deficient corn meal, were worse off, even though defenders of slavery claimed that their immunity from the severe food shortages that still plagued parts of rural Europe meant that their lives were better than those of free European peasants.

At the other end of the scale, those in the upper class were beginning to adopt the French style of cooking that was becoming the fashion among the upper classes throughout the Western world. At first, most of the American elite had been reluctant to join in, for French haute cuisine's aristocratic connotations seemed at odds with the values of the egalitarian new Republic. Moreover, like the British, Americans prized plainly prepared meats and were suspicious that French sauces camouflaged either inferior meats or repulsive ingredients, such as the legendary frogs' legs. However, from the 1820s on, increasing numbers of well-off Americans followed in Thomas Jefferson's footsteps and, like him, returned from visits to France enamored with French cuisine. Delmonico's French restaurant, which opened in New York City in 1832, helped further popularize it among that city's elite. By the 1840s and 1850s, the United States ranked high on the list of countries to which French chefs brought their skills. French-style menus were the norm in the grand celebratory public dinners that were popular at that time. Prospectors who struck it rich in the western mining frontiers celebrated by feasting on French food, often at the fine French restaurants that sprang up in mining towns such as Denver, Colorado.

In the decades following the Civil War, new cohorts of nouveaux riches either joined or displaced the older elites as arbiters of style and taste. They built huge mansions in whose vast kitchens French chefs supervised brigades of workers turning out elaborate French haute cuisine for large dinner parties and other food-consuming entertainments. They also flocked to expensive restaurants, such as the still-flourishing Delmonico's and new luxury hotels for nine-or ten-course French dinners where champagne and other fine French wines flowed endlessly.

Normally, in societies of abundance food tastes tend to filter down the class ladder. However, in this case the upper middle class was quite unable to emulate the gustatory feats of those above them. The problem was not so much the expense of the ingredients involved as the unavailability of servants able to carry it off. Because they could afford neither the quantity nor the quality of servants involved in this kind of cooking, the middle classes were forced back on the simpler British American culinary heritage. They now extolled the cooking of New England, home of the Pilgrims and other revered founders of the nation. Cookbooks and cooking schools offered advice on how to cook this straightforward cuisine, which commonly revolved around a main course of meat, poultry, or fish with two boiled or baked vegetables, covered with some kind of white sauce. Visual qualities, particularly ones that bespoke daintiness, often took precedence over taste, especially since strong tastes and seasonings were thought to stimulate a degenerate craving for alcohol.

Immigrants and Cuisine

This kind of cuisine not only marked the middle class off from the class above; it also differentiated it from those below, particularly the immigrants who were flooding into the country in ever-greater numbers. By the 1880s most of these newcomers were headed for the cities rather the farms, and it was there in urban America, with its proliferating department stores, dance halls, saloons, and other entertainments that a new kind of culture—materialistic, hedonistic, and heterogeneous—seemed to be threatening the moral values and gender roles of the older, simpler America. As middle-class Protestants in particular sought ways to protect their traditional value system from this double threat of immigrant and urban cultures, they turned the dining rooms of their substantial new homes into deeply symbolic bastions. There, the entire family would gather, with the father sitting at what was significantly called the head of the table. He would lead in saying grace, carve the meats, and perform other acts that would symbolize the durability of the patriarchal family hierarchy. The religious solemnity of the occasions would be emphasized by filling the dining rooms with furniture of a Gothic, church-like style.

By the end of the century, the nation seemed to be taking an even worse turn as the character of immigrants changed markedly. They now came mainly from southern and eastern, rather than northern and central Europe. Many were short, dark people who dressed differently and had domestic habits that seemed completely at odds with British American ones. They were packed into smelly, overcrowded housing and cooked highly seasoned mé-langes of foods that most middle-class Americans regarded as unpalatable stimulants to drunkenness.

Many native-born Americans clamored for cutting off immigration, but others—fearing this would dry up the supply of unskilled labor—supported the Americanization of the immigrants. By 1910, many social work agencies were actively engaged in trying to teach immigrant women how to cook the American way. Home economics courses for girls in slum public schools were redirected from training cooks and servants for wealthier families to training young immigrant girls how to cook in the approved fashion for their own families.

The American way, of course, meant the British American way, as perfected by such successful cooking schoolteachers as Fanny Farmer, head of the Boston Cooking School. Her emphasis on the exact measurement of ingredients helped give this kind of cooking the kind of scientific and technological aura that impressed early-twentieth-century Americans, who were already struck by the improvements that science and technology were bringing to their lives.


Many of these improvements could be seen on dinner tables. In the 1870s and 1880s, public health authorities concentrated on preventing epidemic disease by cleaning up public places and exposing them to fresh air. In the 1890s the discovery of bacteria changed perceptions of the causes of illness but continued to spur concerns over cleanliness, especially in the food supply. One result was the passage in 1906 of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act, which sought to protect consumers against contaminated foods. Another was to spur the rise of large food-producing companies whose widely advertised brand names instilled consumer confidence in the cleanliness of their products. Neatly packaged Uneeda crackers rapidly replaced the traditional cracker barrel, which was pawed over by countless bacteria-laden hands. Canning companies, which had existed on a relatively small scale since before the Civil War, used efficient new canning techniques to begin turning out large quantities of foods sanitized through the application of high heat. The Heinz Company built an international empire by showcasing its spotless facilities in Pittsburgh, where teams of white-clad young ladies, looking much like nurses, stuffed pickles and other condiments into see-through bottles for bacteria-killing heating. In urban centers, sparkling lunchrooms with white tile walls and counters replaced dingy wooden ones serving the growing clientele of sanitation-conscious office and store workers.

Abundance, Anxiety, and Amalgamation

One of the most important breakthroughs affecting how people ate came on the heels of the post–Civil War expansion of the railroad network. In the West, vast tracts of land were opened to the production of cattle, whose flesh had always been highly regarded by British American and European diners. Live steers could now be transported to such centers as Chicago and Kansas City to be fattened on midwestern corn before being slaughtered. In the 1870s and 1880s, the introduction of refrigerated railway cars allowed the carcasses of steer to be shipped to the growing cities of the East, where fresh beef soon became affordable to large numbers of people. Chop houses and steak houses proliferated and Americans took pride in the size and quality of their beefsteaks. The railroads also spurred the growth of market gardening and dairy farming in East Coast states such as New York and New Jersey, where agriculture had previously suffered in the face of competition from the Midwest. Trains brought tons of fresh peaches from Georgia, carloads of fresh oysters from Maryland, and piles of Central American bananas from New Orleans to the industrial North. Soon, entrepreneurs were planting oranges for the national market in remote Southern California, beginning a process that would ultimately see the center of gravity of the country's fruit and vegetable production shift dramatically toward the Southwest.

The resulting plethora of affordable foods evoked a variety of responses. Immigrant workers were generally delighted by it, citing the regularity with which they ate beef (and drank coffee) as proof of the wisdom of their move to America. In 1906 the German sociologist Werner Sombart observed that the hopes for socialist revolution in America had been "wrecked on the reefs of roast beef and apple pie." The middle classes also welcomed the new food choices, but new anxieties began to manifest themselves. In the 1890s the discovery that foods were composed of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats and that their energy could be measured in calories added to their worries over the healthfulness of their diets. Nutritional scientists and home economists now warned that people should calibrate the intake of these substances according to the actual needs of the body. Eating more than was necessary was said to be wasteful, while eating less than necessary was dangerous to one's health. This nutritional awareness became widespread during World War I, when the government used it to explain its food conservation program, which revolved around substituting vegetable proteins for animal ones and certain kinds of grains for others.

In the mid-1920s food industries entered a remarkable period of conglomeration as giant enterprises came to dominate the production of such foods as flour, bread, shortening, dairy and pork products, breakfast cereals, canned goods, and citrus fruits. Some of this was the result of their applying the mass production techniques of other industries to the production of food. However, conglomeration was also based on the creation of widely advertised brand names that helped assuage the anxieties that consumers naturally felt as food production grew ever more remote from them. Food producers hired hundreds of home economists to create and distribute millions of copies of recipes, usually of the British American kind, to promote the use of their products. By the end of the decade, their foods and recipes were penetrating the remotest reaches of the nation, causing the first, but by no means the last, warnings that distinctive regional cuisines were being replaced by a homogeneous national one.

The mechanization of food production was matched by the mechanization of housework. Gas and electric stoves with regulated ovens replaced monstrous wood-or coal-burning ones; canning raised hopes—and fears— that much of food preparation would be reduced to using a can opener and a few pots. The middle-class "servant problem" literally disappeared during the war, when most servants left domestic work for jobs, mostly in industry, with better pay and better hours. Also, activities such as movies, dances, spectator sports, and drives in the country by automobile came to compete directly for leisure time with family dinners. As a result, middle-class housewives now aimed at speed and simplicity in food preparation. By the mid-1920s the complaint that would resound among the middle class for the rest of the century—that families no longer ate together—was already commonplace.

Dieting and Food Supplements

A remarkable shift in attitudes toward body image contributed its share of anxiety to the mix. Before the war, a man's ample stomach was generally regarded as a sign of prosperity and stability and the reigning female beauties were decidedly hefty, particularly by later standards. The stage star Lillian Russell, the turn-of-the-century American Beauty, stood just a little more than five feet tall and is said to have weighed close to two hundred pounds. By 1920, however, ideals of attractiveness in both men and women were undergoing a sea change, as slimness became the ideal. In the movies, slim males such as Rudolph Valentino and petite females such as Mary Pickford became superstars. For women the "flapper" look, which reduced skirt lengths and did away with the old-style corsets and undergarments, made it very difficult to hide fleshy parts of the body. The result was the first wave of dieting for weight loss as the middle class began counting calories and buying bathroom scales.

In the wealthiest classes, the turn toward simplicity in eating was also spurred by Prohibition, which banned the sale of alcoholic beverages from January 1920 until it was repealed in 1933. It put an end to most luxury restaurants by depriving them of the profit margins from alcohol sales that underwrote the expenses of running a fine restaurant. Changing fashions in upper-class leisure activities also led the wealthy to reorient their social lives away from spectacular dinner parties and downsize their kitchen staffs.

Yet many Americans still did not have the luxury of picking and choosing what they ate. In depressed rural areas in particular, food supplies remained tied to the seasons and variety remained a problem. In large parts of the rural South, for example, poor people tied to cotton growing subsisted for much of the year on a diet based on little more than corn meal and salted pork. As a result, many suffered the scourge of pellagra, a debilitating, often deadly disease brought about by a deficiency of vitamin B.

Consciousness of the importance of vitamins increased quite slowly from the discovery of the first one in 1911. The understanding of their importance was spurred in the early 1920s, however, when newspapers and magazines carried striking photos of vitamin-deprived white mice that had lost their furry coats and gone blind. Food marketers seized on this to emphasize the importance of the vitamins in their products, particularly for children's health. By the mid-1930s producers of many foodstuffs, including yeast cakes, cocoa, and chewing gum, were taking advantage of the still-vague knowledge of the functions of vitamins and of the human need for them to promote unwarranted fears of vitamin deficiencies among consumers.

The Great Depression brought to the fore once again the idea that America was the land of food abundance, but now it was in the form of outrage that mountains of unsold grain were in the countryside while long lines of people waited in breadlines and went to soup kitchens. Despite the uncertainty over the actual human requirements for vitamins and minerals, government dietary surveys aroused concern over widespread malnutrition, not just among the poor, but of "hidden malnutrition" among the apparently well-fed middle class as well. Still, dieting for weight loss continued to be popular, particularly among middle-class women, who followed such fads as the grapefruit diet. Pulling them in yet another direction, however, was a renewed emphasis in the media on the importance, in the crisis time of the 1930s, of women preparing the ample, wholesome, British American–style family meal.

The Decline of Immigrant Food

The continuing hegemony of this kind of cooking was reinforced by the Americanization of immigrants' eating habits. The virtual cutoff of immigration from much of Europe and the Americas in the 1920s had deprived immigrant communities of new infusions of demand for old country foods. The children of immigrants attended public schools dominated by American-born teachers and administrators whose disapproval of their families' eating habits was manifest. Other students ridiculed them, reinforcing the lesson that their food was held in contempt in the wider community. As a result, children threw away their homemade ethnic lunches and demanded that their mothers prepare sandwiches made of Wonder Bread or allow them to eat in school cafeterias. Home economics classes, which taught British American cooking, reinforced this lesson for girls. These messages were often capped by marriage to someone of a different background. All of these factors ultimately led to the relegation of the immigrant food of the parents to nostalgic occasions. Of the major immigrant groups only Italian Americans, for whom food was extraordinarily important in family life, were able to resist these pressures. This was in part because they were able to adapt their cooking to American products and tastes and produce a distinctive Italian American cuisine whose signature dish, pasta and tomato sauce, become accepted into the American culinary pantheon.

War Rationing and Postwar Prosperity

The advent of World War II brought full employment, handsome paychecks, and the appropriation of a large portion of the food supply to the armed forces. The question of how to share equitably the rest of the food became paramount. The government's answer was to control food prices and use rationing to limit purchases of a number of foods that were in short supply, including sugar and meat. Although compliance with rationing was high, many Americans remained unconvinced that food shortages could exist in the land of abundance. There were recurring rumors that abundant supplies of the rationed foods existed, but that either government bungling or farmers' greed had caused the food to be destroyed or withheld from the market.

Still, rationing brought about a certain democratization of food consumption, since it enabled those at the bottom to eat better and put social pressure on those at the top to eat less luxuriously. This tendency of food to become more classless continued after the war as abundance again became the watchword. American farmers ratcheted up production as government subsidies financed mechanization, irrigation, and fertilization. The results were seen in more affordable foodstuffs. Beef prices declined and thick steaks sizzling on the backyard barbecues in the growing suburbs symbolized the achievement of the American Dream by large numbers of people. New poultry-raising techniques turned chicken from a special Sunday dish into an everyday one. Government officials and food industry leaders now boasted that Americans were the best-fed people on earth.

Government and industry officials also took pride in the great industrial strides that seemed to be making food preparation easier. Electric refrigerators, stoves, toasters, mixers, and other small appliances were hailed as easing the housewife's labors. Processed foods such as frozen vegetables and orange juice, TV dinners, processed cheeses, new kinds of canned goods, dried foods, and instant coffee were regarded as symbolizing the superiority of the American way of life. When Vice President Richard Nixon engaged the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in a much-publicized debate over the merits of their respective systems during Nixon's 1959 visit to Moscow, the vice president chose the model kitchen at an American exhibition as its venue.

Food Protest and Fast Food, and Foreign Cuisines

In the 1960s, however, faith in both the American system and American food began to be shaken. Even in the 1950s, questions were raised about the alleged carcinogenic qualities of some of the chemicals that were added to foods to help them survive the various new processes to which they were subjected. Then came fears that crop pesticides, especially DDT, were not only killing wildlife but were also tainting mothers' breast milk. Charges that processing robbed foods of their essential nutrients and that processed foods such as breakfast cereals were devoid of vitamins helped send millions of Americans flocking to vendors of vitamin supplements.

This rising skepticism dovetailed with the impact of the protest movements of the 1960s. By the late 1960s, doubts about the trustworthiness of government and the giant corporations that were thought to exert undue influence upon it were widespread, particularly among the young. The New Left blamed the giant corporations for problems ranging from the Vietnam War to America's "plastic" foods. The adherents of the counterculture, who extolled the natural over the artificial, rejected the products of large agro-industries and processed foods and tried to turn to the unadulterated products of the land for their food. The food industries responded quite adeptly to these challenges by reformulating and repackaging foods to make them seem more "natural," additive-free, and artisanal in origin. Still, although the New Left and the counterculture faded away in the 1970s, their critiques of American food helped make the public receptive to a continuing litany of complaints about the food supply. Charges were made that sugar was dangerous and addictive and that pesticide residues on apples were killers. Most lasting were charges that cholesterol in foods was responsible for Americans' high rates of heart disease, criticisms that vegetable oil and margarine producers ensured were widely publicized. Egg producers, dairy interests, and especially the beef industry reeled as health experts called for limited consumption of their products.

Beef producers emerged relatively unscathed, thanks in large part to the spectacular rise of fast-food restaurant chains, the largest of which sold hamburgers. These enterprises were part of a much broader trend that saw food preparation and consumption move out of the home at perhaps the fastest pace ever. A major reason was the steadily increasing proportion of middle-class mothers who remained in or returned to the workforce after their children were born. With little time for their traditional role of preparing family meals, they relied very much on all kinds of foods prepared outside the home.

The turn from the traditional way of preparing foods was accompanied by a drift away from traditional cuisine itself. In the 1960s food tastes again became significant signs of class and status, as an appreciation for a succession of foreign foods became a sign of distinction within the upper middle class. First, there was a revival of French food, followed by vogues of northern Italian and regional Chinese food. Then, in the late 1960s and the 1970s, the jet age brought a boom in foreign travel that helped make a somewhat adventurous approach to food a sign of distinction among the middle classes. Liberalized immigration laws brought in new waves of non-European people, some of whom were ready to cater to these new tastes. This, plus the continuing globalization of the trade in foods, gave Americans access to an impressive choice of previously exotic cuisines and foods.

The Persistence of Food Anxiety

Yet the abundance of choice did little to quell persisting anxiety over food. Concerns over weight became more extreme than ever as ideal body images became impossible to achieve for all but a very small minority of women. Dangerous eating disorders became common among the young. The cholesterol scare became increasingly confusing and disturbing as Americans were told that there was both "good" and "bad" cholesterol, and that millions of them had been inadvertently eating the bad variety in forms such as margarine that they had previously been told were good. As the population aged, more people became ripe for messages promising that certain foods and diets would head off life-threatening ailments. They consumed more olive oil and red wine and tried to follow a Mediterranean diet not dissimilar to the kind that millions of immigrants had fled at the turn of the century. They tried to follow new government dietary guidelines that called for drastic increases in the consumption of foods thought to promote longevity and reductions in those thought to reduce it. New regulations permitted advertisements for such foods as ketchup to imply they promoted longevity. The English wag who observed that "Americans like to think that death is optional" did not seem far off base.

Anxiety about harmful ingredients contained in food continued, with the most serious concern directed at the most obvious product of abundance: calories. Americans recoiled at ever-more-alarming statistics on rising rates of obesity and their fearful health consequences. The major culprits were said to be the most distinctive of the foods produced by the modern food conglomerates: crispy snack foods, soda pop, and the fare in fast-food restaurants. As they had from the outset, Europeans still looked in wonder at America as the land of abundance, but now it was one of abundant waistlines. Only increasing indications that they themselves might be headed down the same path gave them pause.


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See alsoAgriculture ; Diets and Dieting ; Immigration ; Insecticides and Herbicides ; Kitchens ; Nutrition and Vitamins ; andvol. 9:Conditions in Meatpacking Plants, 1906 .