We have come a long way from using canning jars and harvesting gardens to stock up kitchen pantries. In the past, farmers and ranchers had no food “luxuries” as we know of today. They did have a close relationship to their land, though, and used local resources efficiently to supply their food needs. This was a way of life that depended on being resourceful.
Food is readily available to us today. At our fingertips, we have limitless choices of prepared products. The once important part of a day often becomes a mindless moment for instant gratification. There is no planning as we press “start” on a microwave or drive to the take-out window.
These conveniences have had a hidden price, and quietly we have been giving up our most valuable asset, our health. The Houdinis in the food industry are true masterminds for disguising cheap, processed food as real food. When did we began to eat this way, or was this a gradual shift we followed like a herd of sheep? How did fast food get so popular and food quality become less important?
It began with the stealth of hand in marketing. Here, images were created for consumers to relate to, and this became more influential than the product itself. As far back as the 1910s, advertisers began to look at marketing to a new class of housewife and the potential profits to be made. Books were being published with titles such as “Selling Mrs. Consumer” (still available on Amazon). The author wrote about numerous ways to keep sales up and women buying more products, even suggesting that food manufacturers should consider giving their products a shorter shelf life so they could sell more. Food production was becoming more than simply filling needs; it was on the edge of turning into a fast-growing and powerful industry.
An example of this was during the 1920s, when “Betty Crocker” was born. In 1921, the Washburn Crosby Co., which evolved into what we now know as General Mills, had started on a new marketing plan. It thought that if it added a person’s signature at the bottom of its responses to baking questions, it would impart a flavor of wholesomeness.
It combined the last name of a retired company executive, William Crocker, with the warm and friendly name of Betty. The actual signature itself had come from a secretary who won a company-sponsored contest. By 1930, Betty Crocker was complete with a portrait the company had created from a composite made from dozens of women working there.
In 1949, General Mills added more to the marketing plans by hiring an actress, Adelaide Hawley Cumming, to perform on the now-popular television cooking demonstrations. These shows continued with great success until her death in 1964. The Betty Crocker persona campaign was unique, and many loyal customers believed her to be an actual person. Her legacy continues on, selling General Mills products today. Other marketing campaigns were ambitious, as well, and by the mid-1960s, Campbell’s Soup and hundreds of other prepared foods had found their place in our kitchens.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the do-it-yourself culture took the kitchen back briefly to the nostalgia of gardening, canning and sustainability. For those with disposable incomes, the 1980s had elaborate kitchens being built with all the conveniences that could turn a chef green with envy. Did we learn how to cook from scratch again? Most likely not, other than maybe a few lessons for entertaining but not for healthy daily needs.
Today in 2014, we are now fascinated with Technicolor and exotic vegetables that our grandmothers would not recognize. Quinoa, kale chips, brocoflower and Greek yogurt would be equally suspect as most all other grocery items. We are still experimenting with food creations and not using what we originally had: pure, simple food.
Becoming self-reliant with food, from sourcing to preparation, is a valuable skill. The notion that it has to cost more to eat well is not true, although there are many businesses that would prefer this to be the belief. Once a few cooking skills are learned again, we will have the right tools to make up our own products inexpensively. Relying on others to serve up unhealthy food is where the true expense is.
Joni Keefe currently works for a commercial airline while continuing to write about agriculture and food. Follow Farms Finest on Twitter, on Facebook and in The Aspen Times on Sundays.