Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950 to 2000

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Editorial Review

Feeding our hunger for history
By Lonnae O’Neal Parker
Sunday, November 25, 2012

The fact that “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000,” at the National Museum of American History makes visitors want to talk, not eat, is just the first of many of the exhibit’s contradictions.

The Smithsonian’s first major look at the production, processing, and changes in how and what we eat is called “Food,” but it could easily be called memory or habit. Arguably, no other human activity so indelibly animates our lives and ritualizes our days as the need to find, enjoy and gather around sustenance. And patented coffee cup lids, crockpots and a highway sign for the Robert Mondavi vineyard are just some of the ways that need has shown up in the culture since WWII.

Dueling strands of post-modern American food culture are present from the beginning of the 3,800-square-foot exhibition, which is organized into four sections. One side features the kitchen from legendary cookbook author Julia Child’s Cambridge home. The kitchen, which has been on display almost continuously since 2002, features knives and shears, a Thermador oven, and the iconic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” cookbook from 1961. Child was television’s first culinary star and “introduced a new way of thinking about food -- French food -- but also caring about ingredients,” says curator Paula Johnson.

Child’s rise in popularity came about at the same time major changes in food production, distribution, preparation and consumption were revolutionizing meal times. The “New and Improved!” section of the exhibit, featuring a 1960 lettuce ad “Wrapped in cellophane, sealed in goodness,” deals with the rise of centralized lettuce production, the growth in manufactured “convenience” foods, supermarkets and innovations in food preparation, including the microwave. It shows the plight of farm workers, serves up TV dinners, and chronicles the rise of “The Frito Kid.”

So while Child urged us to take time to savor food and share with friends and family, advances in technology promised we could speed our food up and eliminate the kitchen drudgery that had such a starring role in our momma’s lives. It’s emblematic “of all these diverse strands of change,” Johnson says. “That’s what real life is and that’s what history is about, all these competing facts that coexist.”

Sweeteners, coloring, preservatives and other additives changed the consistency of food and gave it longer shelf life. One ad suggests a microwave oven will free mothers “to take the children for an outing or attend the garden club.” Twenty years later, fast-food chains, which came of age in the 1970s California car culture, were preaching convenience to single-parent households shuttling kids to after-school activities.

So much of food is tied up in memory and you can’t walk up to a “Veg-O-Matic” display without murmuring yes, yes it slices, it dices. And a menu board from the Jack in the Box fast food restaurant can seem synonymous with the commercial featuring a preschool Rodney Allen Rippy, all brown eyes and Afro, trying to get his mouth around a sandwich, a soundtrack that urged us to “take life a little easier,” and the promise of racial harmony if we could all just drive up and have a cheeseburger.

“Resetting the Table” focuses on 70 years of Latino food history, including the rise of “Tex-Mex” and other immigrant influences. It details the counter-culture’s emphasis on natural, local and homemade foods and the “Good Food” movement toward gourmet ingredients, espresso makers and retailers like Williams-Sonoma. It also pays special attention to the backyard cookout, which created a new food and recreation space for American families, “a special role for men in meal preparation.”

“Wine for the Table,” focuses on the growth of the wine industry in Napa Valley and the new technologies that aided fermentation and storage.

The roots of our present day cultural contradictions -- of vast swaths of preservatives and food deserts, and first lady Michelle Obama as a champion of the homegrown vegetable garden -- are found in the exhibition which, in some ways, boils down to Food: We want it good. We want it now. (Or perhaps we have more appetite than money.)

Whole tribes of food-eating Americans fall into one or the other camps, but for most of us, it’s a porous border. We dream of Saturday night haute cuisine with a bottle of chardonnay while in the drive-through at Taco Bell on Wednesday night on our way to pick up kids from piano.

The center of the gallery features an 18-seat custom made “oakish” looking table for visitors to pull up a chair, remember and recount their best, worst and most evocative food moments. That people are so ready to sit at a table and decidedly not eat speaks to the centrality of food rituals and all the ways they’ve evolved in our daily lives. And to their contradictions.