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Revolution At The Table

May 2024
1min read

The Transformation of the American Diet

By Harvey A. Leuenstein; Oxford University Press; 320 pages.

Early visitors to America were astonished at the abundance of food that regularly appeared on American tables and equally astonished at our indifference to this bounty. The national motto, one observer said, was “Gobble, gulp, and go.” This enjoyable, informative book traces the steps by which we moved from disregard of what we ate to our present intense concern with food and nutrition.

There have always been some gourmets among the gluttons. Thomas Jefferson grew to love French food during his years as American minister to France and introduced French cooking into the White House when he was President. By 1880 French chefs were firmly ensconced in the nation’s wealthiest houses and finest restaurants.

By the turn of the century Americans were becoming conscious of nutrition as well as taste. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 exposé of foul conditions in slaughterhouses launched a wave of concern about the purity of what we ate, and simultaneously a burst of food faddism hit the country. As the different components of foodstuffs were discovered, various nutrition gurus came forth with theories about them: it was necessary to chew tirelessly (the Great Masticator, Horace Fletcher); we must avoid meat and masturbation (”consumption of the former encouraged the latter,” according to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg); anything spicy was detestable (Sylvester Graham, promoter of graham-flour products).

There were also social scientists—the new nutritionists—who worried about the diets of the poor. Immigrants flooding into the country brought with them their food preferences, most of which were rejected by those already here. The first ethnic food to gain wide acceptance, in the 1920s, was pasta with tomato sauce—cheap, meatless, rich in carbohydrates, and chock-full of that newly appreciated ingredient: vitamins.

Anyone reading this lively history of the misinformation and hype embedded in the complicated quest for good nutrition in America can’t help looking a bit more skeptically at the strictures pouring forth as gospel from today’s food experts.

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