After a much-needed break I am easing back into dissertation research with an insightful yet eminently readable book by historian Harvey Levenstein called Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet. I am beginning with this not only because it is a mercifully easy read, but also because it provides part of the socio-historical background I need in order to analyze packaging today.
In this book Levenstein focuses on the period between 1880 and 1930 as a time of great change—waves immigrants arriving in America, the proliferation of factories, fundamental changes in farming technology, uniquely American values and many other factors all contributing to the transformation of our food. From a diet based on the seasonal harvest of local farms supplemented by small amounts of exotic luxury products (such as coffee, chocolate, and sugar) America became a land overflowing with takeaway restaurants, food fads, and a year round abundance of long-haul produce.
This was also an era which gave birth to home economics education and social food reformers, both sprouting in the fertile soil of a paradigm shift in thinking on nutrition. With the discovery of the role of bacteria in spoiling food along with the revelation that food processing was often a filthy business (horrendous descriptions of slaughterhouses and the like) America became a land of germaphobes, obsessed with hygiene and sanitary cooking. Aided by the discovery of the different nutritional roles played by carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, this led to an approach to food Levenstein calls the New Nutrition. Food was seen as fuel, divorced from all social functions, and the key to a healthy and productive working class was to educate them in how to get the balance and quantity of nutrients right. Immigrants in particular came under criticism for spending too much of their meager incomes on expensive cuts of meat and too much time on laborious—and to the reformers morally questionable—foreign dishes.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, social workers busily studied immigrant cuisines in order to learn how to Americanize them. As Levenstein writes:
Many of these ‘Americanizers’ were convinced that the immigrants could never be weaned from their old-country attitudes to work, society, and politics until they abandoned their old-country ways of living and eating. The acrid smells of garlic and onions wafting through the immigrant quarters seemed to provide unpleasant evidence that their inhabitants found American ways unappealing; that they continued to find foreign (and dangerous) ideas as palatable as their foreign food.
To anyone with a heart or an inkling of the importance of food for cultural and individual identities, this is surely a painful thing to read. It is not, however, a dynamic limited to the historical time and place in question.
It strikes me that there is a parallel today, a sad symmetry to this older attempt to Americanize immigrants. Instead of attempting to exterminate their cuisines and cultures in our country, we export our fast food and culture to other countries. Instead of professional home economists studying immigrant cuisines in order to Americanize them, a fast food company now studies Indian or Chinese cuisines in order to inject its products with the precise flavors and external characteristics that will make these generic products palatable to foreign tastes and thus capture more and more markets. While the motives may differ, from social integration (and docility) in the past to corporate profits today, the tools are the same: the manipulation of cuisine by those in power for nefarious, often covert ends.