These foods tell America's story
Green bean casserole, Jell-O, and oranges are some of the foods and dishes that represent different chapters in U.S. history.
The invention of Jell-O is rooted in America’s industrial history and home economics.
Oranges connect the Great Depression, U.S. agricultural labor moments, and the discovery of vitamins.
Food essentially tells America’s story.
And the study of food is Anna Zeide’s bread and butter, literally.
For nearly a decade, the associate professor of history and director of the Food Studies program at Virginia Tech has used food as her platform for research and teaching.
Through her work, she found 15 foods —from spaghetti to green bean casserole — that tell America’s story.
Timed with the Fourth of July holiday, Zeide discussed her findings, which are published in her book “U.S. History in 15 Foods.”
How did you come up with the idea for this research?
Zeide: We all eat, we all have food cultures, and we all can think of food stories. I have always loved the way that talking about food quickly leads into conversations about the many aspects of our society that food connects to, such as consumer culture, business, class, race, gender, ethnicity, identity, and more.
When teaching food history, my students were often very surprised to hear, for example, that as many people died from hunger during World War II as on the battlefield. Food just is not a topic that is covered very often in history classes. I also found myself, when teaching about food history, having to re-teach my students many of the basic details of U.S. history in order to give them the necessary context to understand fundamental topics like colonization, revolution, slavery and emancipation, the World Wars, Depression, the Cold War, and so on.
I found myself wanting a book that could do all of this at once — offer an overview of U.S. history and integrate the pivotal role of food throughout each of the stages of our nation's development, making a case that food matters everywhere.
What are some of the foods highlighted in your book?
Zeide: The foods range from familiar single foods, like corn and oranges, to composed dishes, like spaghetti and green bean casserole. There are also branded products, like Jell-O and Spam and Big Mac, and less familiar foods, like pemmican and potlikker and Graham bread. There's even a drink in there — whiskey.
I wanted to exhibit a range of different kinds of foods to help expand our notion of what a food is and pique readers' curiosity about what these scattered and not always iconic foods can tell us about the nation's history. I chose the foods less for being classic American foods than for illuminating some key elements of each chapter in U.S. history.
Q. Of all of the foods that you highlighted, which has the most interesting story?
Zeide: One that I often come back to is the Jell-O chapter, which tells the story of industrialization around the turn of the 20th century, in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. When I've asked casually about what era people associate Jell-O with, most people say the 1950s. And although that's indeed the moment when it hit the big-time, a perfect companion of the 1950s era housewife amid a Golden Age of processed food, it really began its start a half-century earlier.
Jell-O's pretty weird if you think about it. This fruit-flavored meat byproduct that somehow turns gelatin into a dessert. The reason that Jell-O was even possible was that the meatpacking industry grew dramatically in this period, generating a lot of byproducts from slaughter, like gelatin. That answers the production question — where did this food come from? And then the consumption question was aided by this moment in American history when industrialization, advertising, consumerism, home economics, and new expectations around women's domestic duties came together to develop a new market for the brightly-colored jiggly dessert.
Q. Which food connections surprised you in your research?
Zeide: One food that surprised me was Graham Bread, the food I use to narrate the early 19th century. I had heard of the bread's namesake, Sylvester Graham.
In writing about him and Graham bread, though, I came to have a much deeper appreciation for what he had been doing, and for how food fit into the broader moral reform movement of the early 19th century. This was a period when many Americans were unhappy with the direction that the still relatively new nation was taking, and began to push for political and religious reforms, such as abolition, women's suffrage, religious revival, and temperance.
But right in there, tied up with all of these more well-known reforms, was Graham's dietary reform. He argued that abstaining from alcohol, meat, and refined white bread (in favor of Graham bread, made from unbolted whole wheat flour) would improve not only one's physical health, but also moral health. This link between diet and moral or political change comes up again and again throughout history as Americans have periodically turned to food reform as a way of addressing broader societal ills. We're certainly seeing this today with movements for local or plant-based or fair trade foods.
Q. Why is food an important part of a country’s history?
Zeide: Food is the critical link among all aspects of American history, among disparate groups of people, among the connections that remind us of our shared humanity. Food is both fundamentally personal and also embedded in systems far beyond the individual. It links the act of eating with all the steps that came before to bring food to our tables.
It also links many different aspects of history and society that are often studied separately, such as culture, economics, politics, and race and ethnicity.
This book is a history of American food, but, really, it’s a history of the many forces that shape our daily lives and the broader context in which we all live. This is why food history matters. It has the ability to unite and illuminate that which we too often artificially divide.