I've been writing about food for 50 years, yet it took the COVID-19 crisis to show me just how much I didn't know. Facing empty supermarket shelves for the first time in my life, I reached out to the people who keep us fed. As I spoke with farmers, fishermen, ranchers, chefs and cheese makers, I finally began to understand how our food system really works.
Here's the thing: We are all aware that our food tastes have changed. We know that Americans now eat more salsa than ketchup and that ramen is as familiar as Campbell's tomato soup. Still, when it comes to the basics, we tend to believe that we're eating pretty much the same food that our grandparents did.
Consider Thanksgiving dinner. Since 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, Americans everywhere have been sitting down to roast turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes. “This tastes just like my grandmother's,” my husband says every year, as we revel in the fact that we are literally eating history.
His memory is playing tricks on him. The food on my table — and yours — does not resemble in any way what our ancestors once ate. A turkey hatched 50 years ago would look with deep suspicion at that bird you're carving, the farmer of the past would barely recognize the potatoes on your plate, and the wheat in the bread we use for stuffing is nothing like the amber grains on the plains of the past. American food is being transformed at such a rapid pace that a few years from now, it's entirely possible our turkeys will no longer even be hatched from eggs.
Although I may not remember how Grandma's food tasted, I certainly remember her complaining about its cost. Little wonder, as almost a third of her household budget went to feed the family. Since then, food prices have come down so dramatically that average Americans spend a mere 7 percent of their budget on it — less than people spend in any other nation on earth. That seems like progress, but just look at us! Three-quarters of us are overweight, and 6 out of 10 of us suffer from chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma and hepatitis. Does our cheap food have anything to do with that? Looking for answers, I turned back the clock.
When I was growing up in Connecticut, my mother bought corn, poultry and tomatoes from the farm next door. Our milk came from the Loudon Dairy, down the road. The farm is long gone, and the dairy is now a golf course, but I never gave much thought to why they disappeared. It was not, it turns out, an accident.
As we entered World War II, almost a quarter of Americans were employed in farming. After the war ended and the Cold War began, our government decided that growing bigger, better and substantially more food than the Soviets did would be a great way to spread democracy. They began by converting into fertilizer the enormous stockpile of ammonium nitrate left over from the explosives program.
The new nitrate-rich fertilizer dramatically increased productivity. Meanwhile, new laborsaving machines replaced inefficient horses, and progressive plant breeding improved yields. Scientific advances such as the use of antibiotics to make animals grow faster were also introduced.
By 1960, our farms had become so efficient that fewer farmers were able to grow significantly more food, and farmers dwindled to 9 percent of the population. Small farms were gobbled up by bigger ones, and in suburban America, farms began to vanish. Urban dwellers barely noticed, but we were starting to lose touch with the way our food was grown. Things got so bad that, 10 years ago, when I handed a cucumber to a New York City kid, he looked at it with wonder. “What's that?” he asked.
But we weren't losing just farms. My family used to pile into Dad's old woody station wagon every summer, stopping to eat at local restaurants as we drove across the country. I remember my first taste of Rhode Island stuffies and the thrill of Iowa loose-meat sandwiches, and, as we drove to South Carolina, I repeated the words “Frogmore stew, Frogmore stew,” over and over, wondering what that regional specialty would taste like.
Those trips ended in the ‘60s: Restaurants that served those dishes began to close, and road trips were a lot less fun when the only dining places left served fast food. Americans had chosen consistency over tradition, yet we lost more than regional flavors: We lost some of the glue that held rural America together.
Efficiency also invaded our homes. In the early ‘50s, Poppy Cannon's The Can-Opener Cook Book charged onto the best-seller list with its suggestions for fast, easy family meals. When Mom became a fan, Dad and I began to dread dinner. I recently looked up the recipe for one of her favorite dishes: Casserole à la King. It turns out to be canned macaroni and cheese mixed with canned Chicken à la King and topped with grated cheese, bread crumbs and butter. Did Mom really think it was palatable? Did anyone? I expect that much of Poppy's success was due to her promoting her specious theories on America's favorite new medium, television.
But she was just a sign of the times. By the mid ‘50s, most American kitchens were equipped with refrigerators, and housewives filled their new freezers with three iconic foods of that moment: TV dinners, fish sticks and Tater Tots. Frankly, after Poppy Cannon's concoctions, they were a thrill; those chicken TV dinners, with their peas and mashed potatoes, were some of the best meals Mom ever made.
"What we want is to make life more easy for our housewives,” Vice President Richard Nixon told Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in the famous “kitchen debates” of 1959. My mother and legions of other women held Nixon to his word. For them, even TV dinners took too much time.
"Instant” became my mother's favorite word as she happily embraced an entirely new group of foods designed to get her out of the kitchen quickly. Instant mashed potatoes, freeze-dried instant coffee, Pop-Tarts, Tang and, of course, Carnation Instant Breakfast began to line our cupboard shelves. Mom bragged she could get dinner on the table in 15 minutes flat.