July 27, 2011
When Thomas Jefferson visited Lombardy, Italy in 1787, exporting rice in the husk was illegal on pain of death. Such trivialities didn’t keep this founding father from secreting illicit grains in his pockets and taking them back to America. “The greatest service which can be rendered to any country,” he later wrote, “is to add a useful plant to its culture.” (Indeed, he considered his introduction of European rice and olive trees to the Americas as one of his greatest life accomplishments alongside writing the Declaration of Independence.) That attitude was adopted and maintained by the United States government, and a show on view at the National Archives explores how Uncle Sam affects how we eat. Through paper ephemera, sound recordings, posters, the show illustrates how the government influenced food on the farm, in the factories, in our homes and in the overall American diet.
I think most of us are at least somewhat aware of the ways in which the government guides how we eat. If you went to public school, you were probably exposed to the federally subsidized lunch program (for better or for worse). You may have noticed the recent unveiling of the plate-shaped infographic designed to help Americans plan balanced meals. And then there are FDA food recalls. Those facets are certainly represented here. But this show is a revelation (at least for me) for exhibiting the breadth of Uncle Sam’s involvement in our food. Beginning in the 1830s, the USDA started a seed distribution program in which they gave free seeds to farmers in an attempt to figure out which plants would fare well in a variety of soils and climates. And when food production became industrialized—with factories and canneries cranking out prefab products—the USDA had to step in to set quality guidelines when Americans were getting sick from ill-prepared foodstuffs. It got to the point where a “poison squad” was appointed to test suspect additives and preservatives to determine which ones were actually safe for human consumption.
Steady readers know of my love of food-related crime, so it was fascinating—if not slightly bizarre—to see mug shots of men who did time for violating the oleomargarine act by selling margarine that was colored to look like butter. Another display—attractively housed in a doughnut-shaped frame—talks about how World War II-era studies showed that B1 promoted energy. Since the nation was mobilizing for war, one food manufacturer responded with vitamin doughnuts. The poster on display hawking the product promises plenty of “pep and vigor” as evidenced by the pair of grinning, rosy-cheeked children who are noshing on vitamin B1-fortified pastry. The government stepped in saying that this and similar products could be marketed only as enriched flour doughnuts. I also loved seeing sample recipes for federally subsidized school lunches from circa 1946. Liver loaf, ham shortcake and creamed vegetables seem a far cry from the sentimental favorites from when I was buying school lunch. Any other fans of the chicken fillet on bun out there?
In the show, stereoscopic viewers let you take a look at vintage 3-D photographs, mocked-up radios allow viewers to “tune in” to food-related radio programming, and there’s a hearty helping of snippets of government-produced movies—everything from short silent movies promoting the nutritive merits of milk to informational films featuring flustered housewives who need some words of wisdom to put a healthful meal on the table. My favorite was the clip from the Mulligan Stew informational films from the 1970s, a trippy series in which the kid stars not only dispense dietary advice but also have a rock band. (I was also quite taken by the themed wainscoting, with carvings of corn stalks in the farming gallery, canned goods in the factory gallery and so on. Even the paint on the walls made the show a vibrant and fun experience. Were photography allowed, I’d go back with the Sherwin Williams app on my iPod to get some digital paint swatches. But I digress.)
The show covers a wonderfully wide swath of territory, and I heartily recommend that you make a point of visiting the National Archives, where “What’s Cooking Uncle Sam” will be on display until January 3, 2012.
June 22, 2011
I can picture it now: two oblong ground beef patties taking a gravy bath, neatly sequestered in their aluminum compartment to prevent the sauce from bleeding onto the tater tots, pea-and-carrot medley or, most importantly, the apple dessert. A meal for a Hungry Man—or a child of the 1970s with an unsophisticated palate. (I considered TV dinners a treat when I was a kid, especially the ones with built-in dessert.)
The phrase “Salisbury steak” no longer sets off my salivary glands—quite the opposite—but it’s a lot more appetizing than how Dr. James Henry Salisbury described the dish before it was named after him: “muscle pulp of beef.”
And that may be the least nauseating bit in his scatalogically dense 1888 book, The Relation of Alimentation and Disease. Dr. Salisbury, like many people before and since, believed that food was the key to health and that certain foods could cure illness, especially of the intestinal variety. He tested his theories during the Civil War, treating chronic diarrhea among Union soldiers with a diet of chopped-up meat and little else. After 30 years of research he finally published his ideas, setting off one of the earliest American fad diets.
“Healthy alimentation, or feeding upon such foods as the system can well digest and assimilate, is always promotive of good health. Unhealthy alimentation always acts as a cause of disease,” he wrote. Most modern physicians would agree with the sentiment to at least some degree, if not as to what constitutes healthy or unhealthy alimentation (more commonly known as “food” nowadays).
For Salisbury, minced beef patties were health food. The enemies, believe it or not, were fresh fruit and vegetables. When overconsumed “at the expense of more substantial aliments,” he wrote, these led to “summer complaints” in children.
As for the ill soldiers, the problem was an “amylaceous [starchy], army biscuit diet,” with not enough variety or nutrients. His prescription:
The first step is to wash out the sour stomach and bowels [by drinking hot water], and to change the food. The food selected should be such as is least liable to ferment with alcohol and acid yeasts. This is muscle pulp of beef, prepared as heretofore described, when it affords the maximum of nourishment with the minimum of effort to the digestive organs. Nothing else but this food, except an occasional change to broiled mutton.
In the preface, Salisbury described the research that led him to his conclusion:
In 1854 the idea came to me, in one of my solitary hours, to try the effects of living exclusively upon one food at a time. This experiment I began upon myself alone at first…. I opened this line of experiments with baked beans. I had not lived upon this food over three days before light began to break. I became very flatulent and constipated, head dizzy, ears ringing, limbs prickly, and was wholly unfitted for mental work. The microscopic examination of passages showed that the bean food did not digest.
Did the intrepid scientist stop there? Of course not! In 1858 he enlisted six other schlemiels to come live with him and eat nothing but baked beans. He did not mention whether he had a wife who had to put up with seven flatulent, dizzy mopes in her home; my guess is no. Later he and four other guys subsisted solely on oatmeal porridge for 30 days. Other single-food experiments followed, leading him to the conclusion that lean beef, minced to break down any connective tissue and fully cooked, was the best and most easily digested food. By the time the Civil War started, in 1861, he was ready to test his theories on suffering soldiers.
When Salisbury’s book was published, two decades after the end of the war, his ideas caused a sensation. An Englishwoman named Elma Stuart extolled the healing virtues of the Salisbury diet in a book described by one observer as being “written in a popular and racy style,” helping to publicize the mincemeat regimen. For about two decades the diet—not that different, when you think of it, from extreme versions of the low-carb diets of recent years—was all the rage.
Not for another half-century would the Salisbury steak’s future TV dinner companions, tater tots, be invented. By then, Salisbury had been dead for almost 50 years, too late to object to such “unhealthy alimentation.”
May 12, 2011
Traditionally, the United States is portrayed as a land of plenty, yet many people live in areas without ready access to fruits, vegetables, whole grains and the other foods that compose a healthy, well-balanced diet. These areas are known as food deserts, and living in one can have serious ramifications on one’s health; it’s a risk factor for obesity and cardiovascular disease induced by junk food-heavy diets. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is a close correlation between income level and ethnic background and the likelihood of living in a food desert, with poor, non-white populations being at a higher risk.
In 2008, 2009, as a part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, the USDA’s Economic Research Service began gathering data about areas of the United States with limited access to healthy food, resulting in the Food Desert Locator, which launched last week. Here, food deserts are defined as census tracts with a high poverty rate that are more than one mile away (in an urban setting) or 10 miles away (in a rural setting) from a supermarket or large grocery store. You can also look at other statistics such as how many people within a census tract do not have a car. (If you own a car, making a mile-long trip to the store isn’t so bad; but if you can’t afford one, hoofing a mile carrying bags full of groceries is task most people would just as soon avoid.) This tool allows users to search a map of the United States to look at food desert statistics for a given area—and there are a lot of red patches on the map. Approximately 23.5 13.5 million Americans are living in food deserts, most of whom live in urban areas. With major supermarket chains keeping away from low income urban areas, the price of healthy options such as fresh produce are beyond people’s means since corner convenience store-type establishments sell those items at much higher prices.
The tool might spur local efforts to eradicate food deserts with solutions such as urban farming or Detroit’s Green Grocer Project, which provides grocers with funding to establish a sustainable, successful business.
May 5, 2011
Cinco de Mayo has become the Mexican-themed equivalent of St. Patrick’s Day, when Americans of all ethnicities celebrate with margaritas and tacos. Most probably don’t know, or care, that the holiday commemorates the Mexican army’s underdog victory against the French at the Battle of Puebla, any more than your average March 17th reveler gives a hoot about the patron saint of Ireland.
In my opinion, the growing popularity of Mexican food—one of the world’s great cuisines—is reason enough to celebrate. But here’s some comida for thought: There’s an excellent chance that no matter what you eat today, a Mexican immigrant (documented and otherwise) or Mexican-American had something to do with bringing it to your table—often literally. From picking vegetables, packing eggs and processing meat to preparing, cooking and serving meals in restaurants at every price range and of every kind of cuisine, Hispanics are a major presence in the American food system—and the largest Hispanic group in the country is of Mexican origin.
More than 40 percent of the entire farming, fishing and forestry sector’s labor force is Hispanic, according to 2010 numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than a third of all cooks, and nearly 40 percent of all dishwashers are Hispanic. In major cities in the Southwest and East, the percentages are probably higher.
The statistics don’t note the immigration or citizenship status of Hispanic workers, but it’s likely that a large number of them are undocumented (if they show up in the statistics at all). The outspoken TV personality, author and former chef Anthony Bourdain told a Houston reporter in 2007: “The bald fact is that the entire restaurant industry in America would close down overnight, would never recover, if current immigration laws were enforced quickly and thoroughly across the board. Everyone in the industry knows this. It is undeniable. Illegal labor is the backbone of the service and hospitality industry—Mexican, Salvadoran and Ecuadoran in particular. …I know very few chefs who’ve even heard of a U.S.-born citizen coming in the door to ask for a dishwasher, night clean-up or kitchen prep job. Until that happens—let’s at least try to be honest when discussing this issue.”
There’s one more sign of an increasing Latino presence in the American food industry: The National Restaurant Association reports that the number of Hispanic-owned restaurants increased by 30 percent in the past five years. Sadly, none of them are within an hour drive of where I live, or that’s where I’d be eating tonight.
Here is the breakdown of the percentage of Hispanics in various occupations, from a 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics report:
Food preparation and serving related occupations total: 22.2
Chefs and head cooks: 17.9
First line supervisors: 14.9
Food preparation workers: 23.7
Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food: 16.6
Counter attendants, cafeteria, food concession, and coffee shop: 18.5
Waiters and waitresses: 16.6
Food servers, nonrestaurant: 16.3
Hosts and hostesses, restaurant, lounge and coffee shop: 14.3
Farming, fishing and forestry occupations total: 41.8
Graders and sorters, agricultural products: 50.3
Miscellaneous agricultural workers: 47.9
April 29, 2011
Judging by my Twitter feed this morning, the only people not enthralled by a certain extravagant British wedding were protesters in Uganda and Syria, people across the South affected by yesterday’s terrible and deadly tornadoes and me. If you were hoping for an in-depth report on royal canapés, sorry to disappoint. You’ll have to look elsewhere—or read Abigail Tucker’s fascinating history of wedding cakes.
The tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters that have been punctuating news reports between birth conspiracy theories and nuptial to-dos in recent months are a good reminder that it’s wise to keep an emergency supply of food and water on hand. Even if you don’t live in earthquake or tornado country, floods, snowstorms, power outages or space alien invasions could disrupt supplies or leave you stranded. OK, probably not that last one—although, now that SETI suspended its search for alien signals, who knows if we’ll be caught unawares?
So, what should be in this emergency cache, and how much of it? At the very least you should have about three days’ supply of water and food per person in your household, recommends the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These should be kept in a “grab and go” container—one for home, work and car—in case you need to evacuate quickly. Each kit should contain at least a half-gallon of water per person per day. You might also consider buying water purification tablets or another water sterilizer from a camping goods store (you can also boil water to purify it, but it’s good to have a back-up in case you don’t have power or a gas stove).
FEMA also suggests keeping a two-week supply of food and water at home for “sheltering needs.” These foods should, obviously, be nonperishable: canned goods, dry mixes, cereals. Try to avoid foods that will make you thirsty or that require a lot of water or special preparation. Don’t forget a manual can opener. If the power is out and your appliances are electric, you may be able to cook on a camp stove, barbecue, fireplace or solar oven, but consider storing foods that don’t require cooking.
Even nonperishable foods need to be replenished periodically. According to a FEMA chart, dried fruit, crackers and powdered milk will last about six months. Most canned foods, peanut butter, jelly, cereals, hard candy and vitamins will keep for a year (but check expiration dates on packaging). Stored properly, wheat, dried corn, rice, dry pasta, vegetable oils, baking soda, salt, instant coffee or tea, and bouillon will keep indefinitely.
Finally, don’t forget your pets. Fido and Mr. Bojangles need food and water, too!