Food Literacy: A Brief American History

This blog originally appeared on Tilth.org and is reposted here with permission. 

Two hundred years ago, most Americans had a profoundly different way of knowing their foods. They knew it well. With 95 percent of the population living in rural areas, eating local was the norm. Food knowledge—firsthand and personal—lay just out the backdoor.

Consider a circa 1790 dinner: the meat at the center of the meal came from an animal raised in nearby pastures and was slaughtered by a family member out back. The green peas were grown from saved seeds in the bucket-watered garden by the creek. Eggs came from clucking hens in the barnyard. Huckleberries ripened atop a sunny knoll and stained the hands of their pickers. Mother baked bread with wheat grown by her sons. Cooks and eaters around a table could tell a story for nearly every bite taken.

Photo courtesy of The Smithsonian

How we know foods changed drastically in the late 19th century as cities grew and our food systems rapidly expanded to meet urban appetites. Newly built railroads, feedlots and industrial abattoirs made it possible for faceless food companies to supply anonymous meat from a thousand miles away. While historic cookbooks had urged cooks to know about the age, sex and diet of the animals that became their meats, this traditional food knowledge soon became obsolete, if not repugnant. Likewise, the shiny new technology of tin cans pushed former limits of perishability, giving us year-round access to fruits and vegetables though making it impossible for homemakers to use traditional sensory cues to know if the food inside was ripe and wholesome.

As distance between farms and kitchens grew, so too did food fraud. Homemakers encountered flours bulked up with sawdust, underweight packages and fake jams made with hayseeds and dyes. A federal study in 1890 found that one in six “manufactured foods” were not what was claimed. Educators became alarmed that kids growing up in cities would be the first generation to not know where their foods came from, leaving them ill-prepared to discern what was genuine.

In response, Progressive-era activists started some of our nation’s first food-literacy initiatives. They pressed Congress to enact the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required food labeling for the first time. They also started school gardens, giving tens of thousands of city kids the experience of growing vegetables.

Meanwhile, to address persistent skepticism about distant steaks and enigmatic cans, food companies cultivated the new medium of advertising to ease Americans into new ways of knowing about packaged foods. Ads redirected homemakers’ attentions from the places and particulars of foods’ provenance, posited new meanings for “fresh” and “natural,” and persuaded us that modern and factory-made was better than homemade. By the 1920s, food companies had convinced most homemakers to leave the complexities of food preparation to professionals and to instead embrace a new role as “consumers.”

Brand names became the most important element of food knowledge, abetted by more ethereal notions of how products make us feel–savvy, fit, loving, loved. Along the way, manufactured foods even became associated with fictional characters such as Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima, conveying trustworthiness to allay anxieties that homemakers felt about the intrusion of industry into their homes.

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