Food is a socio-economic problem. The more wealthy you are in the United States, the more likely that you will eat nutrient dense food. Poor nutrient quality food, excessive sugars and overly processed fats are omnipresent in the diet of low-income Americans. That is not to say that every person of meager means is eating a crappy diet of cola and fast food hamburgers. So no need to write me any letters scathing me for being elitist. But being low income increases the likelihood that you will be eating lousy food, simply for financial reasons.
I have been interested in how we got here. If you read Fast Food Nation then you know the story about McDonald's being started in Southern California by the McDonald's brothers. They had a restaurant or two, were making a good living flipping burgers. And they ordered a ton of ice cream mixers made for milkshakes. The mixer salesman was so intrigued by the large mixer orders that he went down to check the place out and he discovered a gem. Ray Kroc was the mixer salesman and shortly after meeting the McDonald brothers he bought them out. Now I wrote that from memory, and I read the book 6 years ago, so please correct me if I am wrong. But I tell the story because how does something grow from a fun diner you hang out with your friends to becoming the nations largerest purchaser of beef and potatoes? How did they go from being a charming burger stand to a national pariah sickening hundreds of thousands with their low quality fare?
My honest opinion? It wasn't their fault. I cannot blame McDonald's for being McDonald's. And in my mind it isn't even them that is the problem. They are part of the problem, one finger of a national body of problems that is our sickened food culture. But I repeat, how did we get here? How did we go from homemade healthful food to soda and fake food in a mere 100 years? Baby steps, baby steps.
I have been reading an interesting book recently: Something for the Oven by Laura Shapiro. The book examines food in the 1950's, largely from the perspective of the women cooking it, but also with a fair amount of company insight. I admit, when I began reading I had some preconceived notions about how processed food evolved. I thought (as I bet 90% of you guys do) that processed foods like TV Dinners and cake mixes began when our environment began to modernize and consumers began to demand faster products. But Shapiro corrects me. That wasn't exactly how it happened, that is just what the food marketers want you to believe.
In the beginning of the 20th century the average homecook was spending virtually all her food dollar on food that she prepared from scratch. If she lived in the country, she was shopping locally, gardening and canning much of what she grew. She was doing alot of work, defeathering chickens, fileting her own meats, trimming and washing all her vegetables, etc. Major advances in freezing (I'll write about that later) and canning created companies that had vision for America. Food companies realized the potential for their time savers: frozen spinach that was washed and chopped and ready to use, canned macaroni and cheese, complete dinners prepared and frozen solid? Many manufacturers assumed that this would be something that the average housewife could not resist! More leisure time? Yes, please!
But the average housewife did not care for the first processed foods. However in a sea of canned hamburgers and frozen tasteless peas, there were certain stand out favorites. TV Dinners eventually took off, but the average family reported using them for a meal fix. For example she might buy them for the children to be eaten on a night that husband and wife were going out rather than far Sunday dinner or when you had company coming over. Other products also took off, frozen orange juice concentrate, cakes mixes, etc. After reading the book what stands out to me is that the products that took off were products that tasted reasonably good and replaced very time consuming things that most women really hated doing, like juicing oranges and baking cakes. If you think about it, these products are largely unnecessary, yet making them is difficult. I like having dessert at a meal, but if I am too busy I simply will omit it. For a food company, making dessert easy makes it more likely that someone will prepare it (or buy it) at all.
It steamed the early food companies that women looked down upon ready made food like a second class citizen. If you really wanted to show your love for your family, you made a from scratch dinner. You didn't open up a can and just throw it onto a plate. Most women liked cooking above other household duties, and early processed foods took away their most pleasurable chore. And if it didn't taste good why on earth would you accept that? Not to mention that many women experienced guilt in serving food that was so easy to prepare. The food companies knew that these issues were inhibiting sales. So they worked hard on their marketing.
Glamorizing was the tool that food companies latched onto that really helped sales. Glamorizing is what takes time saving into the socio-economic realm. Glamorizing is the art of taking a simple box of cake mix and dressing it up with homemade frosting and fresh fruit, for example. A woman could buy canned soup and add a little cream and voila! A homemade delicacy that required real creative ingenuity! This is where processed foods finally found their niche and acceptance. For the homemaker, the guilt was removed, because she was contributing to the final product. Now a cake mix could be used for company, because the cake could be adorned with coconut, or pecans or whatever! Food companies heavily marketed glamorizing to low and middle income women, because it allowed them access to the other food trends of the 1950's, cooking with wine and cognac or more difficult french recipies, all that were time consuming and challenging. Shapiro states "Glamorizing sounded expensive, but it was utterly democratic".
Once the door had been opened for packaged and processed foods, their rise to the top could finally begin. "As the concept of easy haute cuisine spread from kitchen to kitchen, often via pantry shelf items, it banished the dowdy image of packaged foods and gave them a powerful boost toward the ranks of company cooking", Shapiro states. I have mentioned before that the journey forward then becomes generational. Children of the Fifties remember the special occasions that they ate TV Dinners and they readily served them to their children. Their children of the Seventies and Eighties ate and loved processed foods, however they were expensive. But by the time they had children in the new century, that had changed and now delicious packaged fare was cheap. Not to mention that our lives are now filled with new activities like talking on cell phones and texting and Facebook! Who has time to cook anymore?
And by the time we got to this new century, there were few home cooks left to teach kids how to cook from scratch. My own mother "cooked from scratch" with canned vegetables. She is turning over in her grave right now because I have just told the world that she didn't cook from scratch. But truthfully, while my mother did cook from scratch to the best of her ability, she bought such fine ingredients as Velveeta Cheese and Tater Tots and Crisco Vegetable Shortening. I always had a hot (and usually homemade) dinner on the table every night, but we ate the same way as other middle-class Americans did. With no Internet, we didn't have the knowledge that certain groups of people were starting to see that this fake food was hurting us.
Food is a socio-sconomic problem. It always has been, since the days when being poor meant being hungry, to today where being poor means that you are more likely to be diabetic. Our culture needs to be examined. We seriously need to look at our taste buds, our food policies and our defense of all things drive through and fastfastfast! This is a bigger problem than just McDonald's and soda. It is a cultural issue.