The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 1 (Spring 2015)

Birth of the Foodie

Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century

Helen Zoe Veit

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.1 (Spring 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 1)

When did Americans become so self-righteous about the food they eat, not to mention so high-minded and hectoring about what others consume? In a useful if somewhat preachy book, Michigan State University history professor Helen Zoe Veit helps to explain the rise of the modern American foodie.

Veit traces the origins of our fraught relationship with food back to the early 1900s, when American culture was being shaped by rising levels of immigration, changing views of gender and race, greater access to public education, and the socially and politically disruptive effects of World War I. Even before the United States sent the doughboys to Europe, the US Food Administration, under Herbert Hoover, instituted several programs aimed at conserving food at home so more could be sent “over there” to help nourish the civilians and armed forces of the Allied nations. Some fourteen million Americans, mostly women, joined the effort, signing nonbinding pledge cards and proudly proclaiming their commitment to conserving food for the sake of the war effort. But as Veit points out, Hoover’s agency did more than simply change Americans’ eating habits: “The food conservation campaign of World War I contributed to new and complex beliefs about American food, especially that increasingly central idea that ‘the secret in eating is to become master of yourself.’”

Hoover, who ran the Food Administration without a salary, had already demonstrated his leadership by organizing relief efforts in London for American travelers fleeing the Continent in 1914, in the early weeks of World War I. He established the Commission for Relief in Belgium later that same year and worked with American and Belgian volunteers in what presidential historian David Feith has called “an organized rescue of an entire nation from starvation.” The scale of Hoover’s relief efforts, in cooperation with various government and private groups, produced some thirty-four metric tons of food aid between 1914 and 1923, a staggering amount that would be worth more than $60 billion in today’s dollars. Yet while grateful Europeans called Hoover the “Napoleon of Mercy,” some Americans, irked by the ever-expanding food conservation program, referred to him as “Supreme Food Dictator” and “The Autocrat of the Dinner Table.”

The Food Administration succeeded because of widespread voluntarism and an earnest belief that “food would win the war.” Its methods—encouraging participation through membership and pledge cards, urging snoops to report the noncompliant, and deploying media and religious leaders to spread the word—would seem to us today heavy-handed at best and invasive at worst. But it is what the food conservation movement implied about America that Veit finds most problematic. In her view, American efforts to supply food aid were nothing less than a form of food imperialism. Before the United States entered the war, most Americans felt that the events in Europe did not touch their lives and could be safely ignored. Yet after President Woodrow Wilson declared war, in April 1917, civilians who did without wheat and beef discovered a “sense of global interconnectedness that gave meaning and urgency to food conservation.” But, Veit says, along with American benevolence came a desire to secure Europe’s goodwill and the hope that European children fed with American food would “grow up thinking fondly of America.”

Veit contends that by focusing on children, US food propagandists hoped to show that Europeans were disorganized and vulnerable and in need of guidance from efficient, mature Americans. In fact, the use of children in advertisements was not unique to the Food Administration. Since the late nineteenth century, it had become increasingly common for advertisers to use children’s qualities of innocence and vulnerability to sell products related to the family and the body, not the least of which was food.

Focusing on children and positioning America as the benevolent guardian may have been savvy marketing on the part of the food administrators, but Veit sees more insidious motives at work. For example, the caption for a reproduction from the 1920 book Food and Life showing American soldiers feeding French children includes a creepy speculation that “it is possible that the supervisory female figure in the background was drawn in after the fact to defuse worries about the little girl’s place on the soldier’s lap.” Food and Life was a book designed for use in home economics instruction to teach children about food and intelligent eating habits. By insinuating more prurient motivations, Veit loses a chance to reinforce more relevant points about American claims to moral righteousness, the exploitation of hunger as a weapon, American virtue contrasted with Europeans’ supposed decadence, and the “civilizing” influence of American generosity.

Concerns about food imperialism return in Veit’s treatment of the success of “immigrant cuisines” on the American food landscape. Americans in the first decades of the twentieth century were timid eaters, preferring unseasoned foods of the simplest meat-and-potatoes variety. Dishes such as hamburger casserole, chicken noodle soup, and chili were considered unappetizing because of their mixed and spicy ingredients and slippery textures. Gradually, however, Americans came to like many dishes imported by immigrants, a shift that was exploited by the Food Administration, according to Veit, especially through its efforts to enlist these newcomers in food conservation. By promoting foreign cuisine, Veit notes, the Food Administration subtly transformed food conservation into a “project of Americanization,” one designed to facilitate assimilation and convince immigrants of the superiority of American culture.

For women, participating in food conservation allowed them to fight, in a sense, on the frontlines. Celebrated by the Food Administration as an “Amazon Army of Food Conservers,” American wives and mothers became ingenious at preparing meals without meat, butter, sugar, or wheat. But culinary innovation was only one aspect of the change taking place in American society around this time. Just as more women sought opportunities for education and work outside the home, the war effort encouraged them to study home economics and find enrichment inside the home, framing housewifery as a prestigious and venerable profession. Veit sharply examines these conflicting cultural shifts, which also collided with the aims of suffragists, many of whom refused to participate in food conservation until women were enfranchised.

In her discussion of diet and race, Veit rightly heaps opprobrium on theories about food and racial fitness, but her indignation over one racially insensitive Food Administration effort seems excessive. Dressed as a plantation mammy and affecting a Southern accent, “Aunt” Portia Smiley, a black teacher from Boston, traveled around the Northeast showing people how to cook with cornmeal using recipes from “Befo’ the War.” The scandal, Veit says, “was that the thousands of people for whom Smiley performed did not recognize her clothes as the costume they were.” Certainly, the loaded symbol of the black mammy has remained rooted for too long in the American imagination, but to assert that Smiley’s audiences failed to recognize the performance as a caricature seems ungenerous, to say the least. Smiley’s thinly disguised minstrelsy may not have been one of the Food Administration’s finer moments, but since the role was not forced on her, we can assume that Smiley accepted the job as part of her patriotic duty.

Veit’s research reveals many of the surprising ways in which changing food practices influenced the broader culture. New food-related words and concepts affected American speech and even views of personal identity. As Americans became more familiar with nutrition science, they joked about applying a scientific word like calorie to eating. Was it a new breakfast cereal or a new weapon discovered by the War Department? The use of relatively new words like underweight and overweight spread notions of ideal weight and “normal” personal appearance. The association of thinness first with self-righteousness and then, after the war, with youth and beauty, was reinforced in the movies and magazine advertising. However, being thin indicated more than fealty to fashion, Veit observes: “The thin ideal arose from bedrock intellectual and moral convictions at the dead center of Progressive ideas about social order, especially the increasingly steadfast conviction that physical self-control indicated a capacity for moral and political self-government.”

Full of fascinating history (Chef Boyardee, it turns out, was a real person), Veit’s book strains when it advances the author’s political agenda. By depicting the food conservationists as jingoists whose food imperialism was imposed not only on starving Belgians but also on Americans at home, the author too often sounds like a tendentious scold. She also becomes sidetracked by futile speculations. Were criticisms of Martha Van Rensselaer, the founder of Cornell University’s home economics department, “antifeminist and antilesbian”? Who knows, and who can say for sure? This kind of pointless conjecturing, along with a certain repetitiveness, gives the book a padded feeling. Such weaknesses are an unfortunate distraction. We are all foodies now, and Veit is at her best when she simply tells how we became so.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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