Farms Finest: Smithsonian exhibit provides invaluable perspective on American food
Special to The Aspen Times
Ever wonder how we survived before microwaves and coffee makers? Or questioned who came up with the idea for such products as Fritos, Saran Wrap or frozen apple pie? What is now commonplace in the kitchen had not been thought of prior to 1940. The greatest catalysis for changing food to what is available today was World War II.
The post-war years were considered “rich” with a newfound abundance in consumer goods, including food. This was the time when the kitchen left the iron skillets and chicken coops behind and hungered for variety and convenience. It is astounding what became available in food and related products from the 1940s to today.
To gain a perspective for this time period, you only have to visit an exhibit called “Food: Transforming the American Table” on the first floor of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Here is one of our country’s greatest stories historically woven into a timeline format. From 1945 to today, the exhibit visually unfolds an unbiased display of American food history. Old photos of drive-ins and fruit-packing rooms are combined with kitchen tools and historical facts, all sequentially arranged in a way any generation would find fascinating. Magazine and newspaper advertisements show “newfound” inventions in food products and the growing line of new kitchen innovations such as CorningWare and Teflon.
When World War II ended, military sciences and technology needed another marketplace and the once-busy factories sought new products to create. Meanwhile, a fast-growing baby boom was demanding more food supplies. The empty wartime factories offered a ready-made infrastructure, and baby boomers provided nearly endless market opportunities and workers.
Chemical technology operations, once used in the military, switched direction and began working on engineering products for food production. New ways were introduced to use chemicals in the fields to control weeds, eradicate insects and disease, and increase production. Factories that once produced ammunition and jeeps switched to seed planters, tractors and combines. Their doors quickly reopened, and new jobs were created for idle veterans and their growing offspring.
America had discovered a new industry and replaced its food reliance from small farming operations to the methods of industrial production. Products could now be created more cheaply and in huge volume. Railroads that once transported wooden crates of iced lettuce gave way to field-packed cardboard boxes, superhighways and refrigerated trucks. Village grocers closed as supermarkets sprang up everywhere, stocking the newest food and providing more choices and conveniences.
Eventually the marketplace became increasingly competitive. Selling products that offered so many choices created a need for creative advertising. Over time, holding market share and profit took greater priority over the quality of the food itself. New marketing campaigns were developed to build and maintain consumer loyalty. Tony the Tiger, Betty Crocker and Jimmy Dean soon became household names and grocery store superstars. A captive audience was being raised on a growing supply of new and “improved” food products with brand identities implying they offered the best value.
Around 1955, people started to question these changes and controversy grew over whether “bigger really was better.” The push for mass production and lower prices raised concerns for the livelihoods of small farmers, our health, environment, worker safety and animal welfare. These issues were rising slowly to the surface. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring“ brought things to the boiling point with her outcry about DDT being used on farmlands. Her concern and passion triggered revolutionary changes in the laws affecting our environment. Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid concerts and Julia Child’s culinary encouragements for good food are all reflected in this historical Smithsonian display.
These questions continue to be raised by consumers, environmentalists and scientists because having the ability to raise our own food in America is essential to everyone and our country. This Smithsonian exhibit shows more than 70 years of change, which provides a broad perspective of how we think and have thought about food.
I left the exhibit feeling that we should take a second look at what worked in the past and modify it to today’s needs. Maybe parts of the Costco food-club concept and a co-ops’ business model combined could offer a healthier way to source food. By creating a method larger than “local,” but not as controlled by a few food giants, might offer a more accountable food system — a modified version that is sustainable economically while remaining healthy for consumers, the environment and livestock. Perhaps the co-op and food-club concepts have not fully evolved and a new version will create the next change in our food history.
Whatever your motivation and interest, if in Washington, D.C., do visit this entertaining and educational exhibit. You will leave with an invaluable perspective and a deeper understanding about our current food system.
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.
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