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.
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.”
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