Big Business and the Homogenization of Food

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 29

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The following episode transcript and images will remain for posterity. Enjoy!

In today’s episode we’re going into the underbelly of food production. We’ll investigate the process by which late 19th-century food production became a vast industry. And we’ll see how technological developments such as freezing, canning, and pasteurization gave large companies increasing amounts of control over food production.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• Replacing Industrial Products with Fresh Ingredients

Think of the ways new mass-manufactured products have been used in recipes, sometimes in the end becoming classics like green bean casserole and Rice Krispies treats. We now take for granted that cans and boxes will have recipes on them or that manufacturers will produce their own recipe booklets. In this exercise, think of a brand-name, industrially manufactured product. See how quickly you can find a recipe online that incorporates that product. Simply type in the product name and the word recipe. How and why did food manufacturers get in the business of writing recipes? How and why did these become traditional? Think of as many brand-name products as you can that are used in now-classic recipes. Chocolate-chip cookies are a good example. Now choose one of these classics and try to cook it using entirely fresh ingredients.

For example, the recipe for a green bean casserole might be as follows. Trim the ends off two pounds of string beans, cut them in half lengthwise, and blanch them in boiling water for 30 seconds. Then, immediately plunge them into cold water. Meanwhile, sauté sliced mushrooms in butter with a little salt and a tablespoon of flour, and stir. Then, add milk and chicken stock, and continue stirring until slightly thickened. Drain the string beans, put them in a casserole dish, pour the mushroom mixture on top, and stir well to coat the string beans. Then, thinly slice two onions, and toss lightly with seasoned flour. Fill a pan halfway with oil, and heat to about 350 degrees. Fry the onion slices in small batches, and place on top of the casserole. Then, bake it for 40 minutes in a 325-degree oven. Serve.

Suggested Reading:

Burnett, Liquid Pleasures: A Social History of Drinks in Modern Britain.

Burnett, Plenty and Want: A Social History of Food in England from 1815 to the Present Day.

Laszlo, Citrus: A History.

Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America.

Murray, Moveable Feasts: From Ancient Rome to the 21st Century, the Incredible Journeys of the Food We Eat.

Wilson, Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee.

Woloson, Refined Tastes: Sugar, Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America.

Images courtesy of:

• Thomas Edison: By Louis Bachrach, Bachrach Studios, restored by Michel Vuijlsteke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Edison bulb: By Uploaded at enwp by User:Alkivar [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
• Dishwasher: By Keith’s Magazine (Keith’s magazine on home building) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Josephine Cochrane: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Tropical fruit: Thinkstock
• Icebox: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Santa Rosa plum: By English: Arnold, Mary Daisy, ca. 1873-1955 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Tomato in pot: By Museu Valencià d’Etnologia from València, España (Objectes de la Sala Horta i Marjal) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
• Louis Pasteur: Nadar [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• processed cheese: Thinkstock
• Artisan chees: Shutterstock
• Knives: Shutterstock
• pans: Shutterstock
• stainless steel kitchen: Shutterstock
• George Washington Carver: By not listed; restored by Adam Cuerden (Tuskegee University Archives/Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Natural Peanut Butter: Shutterstock
• Processed Peanut Butter: Thinkstock
• Planters nut advert in Saturday Evening Post: By Planters Nut & Chocolate Compnay [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Saccharin: Shutterstock
• Margarine : Shutterstock
• Robert Chesebrough: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons