From the days of the Revolutionary War, the government has been regulating and encouraging the food choices of Americans.
And to no one’s surprise the National Archives has kept records of this involvement through its massive collections of all government records. But surprisingly no one can remember the Archives creating an exhibition that used original records, menus, nutrition guidelines, war posters and seed packets to discuss the government and food.
Beginning Friday the public can view this American story, entitled: “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet.”
“The time seemed right,” said Alice D. Kamps, the exhibit curator, pointing out the show has 100 original records. “We wanted to add to the conversation the country is having about food.”
It does seem the cable television world has a cooking show nearly every hour with a celebrity chef or a wanna-be top cook. And it seems nearly every week there are warnings about what foods will lessen your life. The government has been a critical engine in those messages.
So if you want to learn about the Margarine Act of 1886 when dairy farmers wanted protection against the import of the “oily imposter,” the Archives is the place.
The government efforts covered war and peace time, reaching right to the kitchen table with recipes and dogmatic warnings. In 1926 the U.S. Department of Agriculture started radio broadcasts about weather and crop forecasts.
“Grow more sugar beets,” urged an official poster in 1945, “Meet wartime need for sugar.
Aside from culling its own vast paper pantry, the Archives highlight the work of several strong personalities who were behind the government’s regulations. Harvey W. Wiley, a government crusader, at the Bureau of Chemistry, conducted experiments on volunteer coworkers to test poisons in the food supply. Their work resulted in the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, which made it illegal to put toxic chemicals into food products. The congressional law is shown in its original huge red binder.
Frank N. Meyer, the plant explorer, kept a journal about his agriculture expeditions and efforts to bring lemon and apricots back to the states. Herbert Hoover, once head of the U.S. Food Administration, advocated “Wheatless Wednesdays” and “Meatless Mondays.”
Not all the campaigns had converts in America’s kitchens. Americans pursued what eating habits they wanted until the wartime rationing forced eaters to cut back. And then the availability of instant products and fast food occurred. Roland Mesnier, former executive pastry chef at the White House, spoke about the trends of fresh foods Tuesday at a media preview. “Everybody deserves earthy food but the earthy food that is available is expensive,” Mesnier said. He rallied against restaurant chefs who piled the plates high, prompting the need for a “stepladder to eat your food.”
The division of the exhibition’s materials into farm, factory, kitchen and table, ends with tastes of the White House occupants. Jelly beans for Ronald Reagan, fish chowder for John F. Kennedy---many First Families publicly displayed their preferences.
The Tuesday preview included a tasting of recipes, adapted by prize winning chef, Jose Andres -- Mamie Eisenhower’s Deep Dish Apple Pie, President Johnson’s Pedernales River Chili and Lady Bird Johnson’s Spoon Bread.
And what goes around, comes around in the food world.
On one wall is a giant reproduction of a 1917 poster--”Uncle Sam says Garden to Cut Food Costs.” Right next to it is a small photograph of Michelle Obama supervising school children in the White House vegetable garden in March 2009.
“Uncle Sam” continues until January 3.