A Big Slice of Americana: Uncle Sam's Cleaning Out Your Fridge

June 21, 2011


Last month, the USDA replaced its longtime food pyramid with a graphic of a plate divided into what-you-should-eat-daily sections. The heavy-on-fruits-and-veggies illustration (Myplate.gov) was just the latest volley in a centuries-long attempt by the Feds to influence what’s on your fork.

The National Archives’ new exhibit “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? showcases more than two centuries’ worth of documents, photos and artifacts related to government efforts to make citizens eat more veggies, to keep them from being poisoned by tainted meat and to urge them to plant “victory gardens” to help with WWII rationing.

“Given our current fascination with food safety and nutrition, I thought it would be interesting to look at the government’s role in affecting what we eat,” says exhibit curator Alice Kamps.


By dipping into multiple aspects of culinary culture — farming, production, home cooking — the exhibit shows how everything from public safety to what’s in your cart at Whole Foods may be rooted in federal programs.

One black-and-white photo depicts early agricultural explorer Frank N. Meyer out in the field in the early 20th century. Aided by the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction, this intrepid foodie traveled around the globe to gather hundreds of plants — including now-familiar Meyer lemons and apricots — and replant them on U.S. soil.

The FDA labeling and meat recalls of today trace their roots to reforms that started in the late 19th century. The exhibit documents this, sometimes to shocking effect, with items such as a tiny notebook from the late 1890s in which a chemist documented his findings on tainted sweets. “The candy killed a little girl, and two others got sick,” Kamps says. “It made me realize how personal this investigation must have become for these people.” After outbreaks like this, the Pure Food and Drugs Act and Meat Inspection Act of 1906 was created, which helped protect consumers from fatal foods.

Conflicts abroad used to mean government food rationing, illustrated by World War I-era posters urging Americans to “Eat More Cottage Cheese” to conserve meat or asking “Little Americans” to choose corn and rice to “Save the Wheat for our Soldiers.”

For gastronomically inclined political junkies, there are plenty of yummy artifacts pulled from the presidential archives, including Lady Bird Johnson’s Pedernales River chili recipe — spiced up with comino seed (cumin), chili powder and “2-6 generous dashes of liquid hot sauce” plus her husband’s “Hail to the Chef” barbecue apron.

There are menus for state dinners, too, including one the Kennedys hosted for Sudan’s President Abboud in 1961, where the guests dined on classic French cuisine, including foie gras and bombe glacé coppelia (a spherical dessert made with layers of ice cream). There’s even a memo prompting Richard Nixon to practice his chopstick skills before visiting China for the first time. In fact, this whole scrumptious show is a reminder that no matter who you are, Big Brother is always watching, well, at least what you eat.

Take a Bite of History
In conjunction with the “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” exhibit, the project’s culinary adviser, recent James Beard award winner José Andres, opens the America Eats Tavern (405 8th St. NW; Thinkfoodgroup.com) on the July Fourth weekend in the space formerly occupied by his Café Atlantico. The pop-up restaurant serves continental classics drawn from the exhibit’s official cookbook, “Eating With Uncle Sam” ($23, D Giles Ltd), such as oysters Rockefeller and burgoo (a spicy stew from Kentucky that used whatever meat was on hand). “I wish I could use squirrel, but I can’t,” Andres says. He aims to distill several hundred years of stateside sustenance into a digestible history lesson. “A country is like a delta; things build up and evolve,” he says. “In this information age, everything happens very quickly, and people get lost in the noise. This restaurant and this exhibit are going to cancel out the noises that don’t belong and show off where American cuisine has been.”

Written by Express contributor Nevin Martell
Photo courtesy The National Archives

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Christopher Porter | June 20, 2011