November 23rd, 2012
03:15 PM ET
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Have you ever considered the architecture of a coffee cup lid? Or the aerodynamics involved in a Pringles can? Did you know that microwaves were invented using technology developed during World War II?

We don’t often stop and think about the stories behind these items we see every day. A new exhibit at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, FOOD: Transforming the American Table, aims to illuminate America’s relationship with food by taking a look back at food history from 1950-2000.

The exhibit includes sections on how American diets have been affected by technological innovation, immigration, countercultures, and local wine production. TV chef Julia Child’s kitchen from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts is on display. A long “open table” in the center of the room is dedicated to encouraging visitors’ dialogue on changing ideas of healthy eating.

There’s no doubt that the way we eat has changed over the past 60 years, but many of the food items that are emblematic of this transformation (diet soda, tortillas, even goat cheese) have backstories unknown to the people consuming them.

Engineering an ideal snack

If you walked into a grocery store today, you wouldn't be surprised to see a variety of Pringles cans and flavors spread out along an aisle. But this routine item was the result of work in a laboratory to overcome a scientific problem, said Cory Bernat, one of the co-curators of the exhibit.

Bernat described how normal potato chips, due to their high oil content, become rancid quickly. But in the mid-1960s the first Pringles chips, made out of compressed potato flakes and chemical preservatives, were created. With a much longer shelf life and a specially designed Pringles can, the “newfangled chips” went on to be sold all over the world.

Cultivating a more global palate

Technology has also played a role in how Americans have embraced food culture from all over the world. Today it's normal to walk into a grocery store and see boxes of Middle Eastern couscous, Thai curry, Japanese udon noodles and Indian naan bread. We don’t often think about the technology that allows these products to be mass-produced all over the world.

Co-curator Steve Velasquez explained that in the 1940s and 1950s, about 2 million Mexican guest workers came over during World War II to harvest crops. They created small communities where their local foods were eaten and sold. Over time, mass production of Latino products spread this cultural imprint across the country.

Today, taco shells, tortilla chips and frozen burritos are staples of the American diet, not to mention salsa, which rivals ketchup when it comes to condiment supremacy in America. However there are drawbacks to the rise in technology as well.

“Once food becomes popular it gets homogenized, it gets processed and then you get a reaction to that,” said Velasquez.

Flavors falling in and out of favor

The exhibit overall illustrates the rise and fall of different food trends and the cyclical nature of American diets.

“There’s an ebb and a flow. Some of them are fads but some of them take hold and become a real part of the mainstream,” said co-curator Rayna Green, referring the different strands of American food history on display.

The emergence of the “Good Food” movement in the 1960s and 1970s is a testament to how political and economic factors play into personal decisions about food as well, said Green. Urban dwellers moved out to farms and communes, dedicating themselves to locally sourced artisanal products and regional food systems in a rejection of mainstream processed foods.

Green explained that the movement was a precursor to the recent embrace of farmers markets and local products that has taken root in the United States.

Seeing all of the eye-catching designs, packaging and efficiency of American food products on display behind glass does raise questions about the line between being hungry and being manipulated. However, co-curator Bernat warned against seeing the United States’ food system in too narrow a light.

For Bernat, “processed” and “organic” don’t necessarily have to be at odds. She said she hopes the exhibit will help people to see these trends “as arms of the same food system.”

“Consider the fuzzy definition of processed food. Because a bag of lettuce is a very industrially produced process item but a much healthier alternative to other foods that come in bags,” said Bernat.

Bernat also encourages visitors not to over-intellectualize food. Novel items like cheese whiz and TV dinners still hold some fun. Bernat says, in the end, American diners are just “trying to hang onto a little bit of pleasure.”

Previously - In Julia Child's kitchen

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Filed under: Business and Farming News • Culture • Food History • Food Science • News • Nostalgia • Supermarkets

soundoff (13 Responses)


    +local officials are NOT authorized to FORCE MEMBERS TO SHOULDER OTHER CRIMES!

    December 27, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  2. Jayme Silva

    We at Robert Biale Vineyards are pleased and proud to be a part of the Smithsonian exhibition on FOOD. Although not covered in this post, we are part of the WINE section. Rayna, Nancy, Paula, and Steve did an excellent job with this presentation.

    November 28, 2012 at 5:21 pm |


      +local officials are NOT authorized to FORCE MEMBERS TO SHOULDER OTHER CRIMES!

      December 27, 2012 at 8:53 am |
  3. goatsandgreens

    I was just down in DC, I hope I can get back down there again in the near future to see this exhibit. At any rate, it is very interesting how food preferences have changed overall, and continue to change. A century or so ago, when they were off slaughtering the buffalo (technically, bison), the only part of the animal that was shipped back east (besides the skins, for garments) was the tongue. Yes, the tongue. It was a delicacy.

    I find it fascinating how foodways change. I'm glad to see a lot of it turning around to less factory-processed stuff. While you can still have your pop-tarts, the range of fresh veggies in my supermarket is almost overwhelming.

    November 27, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • goatsandgreens

      I just checked out the Smithsonian web pages about this exhibit. The arrival of so many cuisines from all over the world here to the US was something I grew up with my family celebrating. Nothing was too outrageous for my father to bring home and try. I do think this to be one of the best trends of the past fifty years. (We grew up with the dictum of "try everything once" - although I did get squeamish about the smoked silkworm cocoons my uncle once brought over...) Anyhow, I do want to see this exhibit. A recommended book about bygone foodways is Mark Kurlansky's "The Food of a Younger Land", compiled from research done during the Great Depression and (mostly) not published because WWII intervened.

      November 27, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  4. Required

    Oh. ?

    November 23, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
  5. Hungry_Lad_who_wants_some_MacNCheese

    some thoughts:

    In the near future,we will be eating in tablet form

    McDonalds' chicken sandqitches are DEL:ICIOUS!!!

    what about cereal?They have come a long way??????

    The Food Pyrmaid was a complete JOKE!! growing up in the 90's,I rmeber the food pyrmaid all to well.THe idea behind it was that you were supposed to eat a tremdous amount of food varieties at every meal.Like,just sit home fopr the rest of your life eating everything,every day.Sheesh......

    November 23, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
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