War, Nutritionism, and the Great Depression

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 32

Hello, Great Courses fans. This audio-podcast has been cooked, removed from the oven, and is being lovingly delivered to a new audio-platform. In its absence, please enjoy the video series that it was based off, streaming now Wondrium. Click here to watch it now.

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

In this podcast we’re going to examine a pivotal shift in food consumption that took place in the early 20th century. First, World War I is going to change, forever, the way civilians eat. We’ll see how corporations dictated the American diet, and we’ll witness the arrival of chain supermarkets. We’re going to examine the advent of junk foods as well as the marketing of food with health claims. Finally, we’ll take a look at the government’s new role in food supply in the wake of the Depression.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• Examining Food Advertising

The early 20th  century has been described as the golden age of advertising. It certainly was the first time mass media was used extensively to sell products; in fact, entirely new products were marketed in ingenious ways. Breakfast cereals are merely one example. Chewing gum is another. Think of a food product that appeared in this era. Search for images of advertisements for this product. What tactics did the ads employ? Who were they targeting, in terms of demographics, gender, and social class? Where did these ads appear, and what was their primary appeal? In other words, was it rational or emotional? Were scare tactics used, or were the ads aspirational, selling a particular lifestyle?

Deconstruct the text and images, and look for subliminal messages. For example, an ad for vitamin-fortified pasta might claim that children need to eat well to grow up healthy, and this brand of pasta is nutritious. The subtext, though, is that friends and neighbors will look at your scrawny children, and you will be ashamed for not feeding them well. This is intended to scare you into buying the product. In the end, what are these ads really selling—food or fantasy? Think how advertising today functions much the same way, playing on our fears and desires.

Suggested Reading:

Bower, Recipes for Reading: Community Cookbooks, Stories, Histories.

Gratzer, Terrors of the Table: The Curious History of Nutrition.

Hartog, Food Technology, Science and Marketing: European Diet in the Twentieth Century.

Helstosky, Garlic and Oil: Food and Politics in Italy.

Kamminga, Science and Culture of Nutrition.

Levenstein, Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat.

Marinetti, The Futurist Cookbook.

Mudry, Measured Meals: Nutrition in America.

Oddy, The Rise of Obesity in Europe: A Twentieth Century Food History.

Pilcher, The Sausage Rebellion: Public Health, Private Enterprise, and Meat in Mexico City, 1890-1917.

Pillsbury, No Foreign Food: The American Diet In Time And Place.

Schwartz, Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat.

Shapiro, Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century.

Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West.

Theophano, Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote.

Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History.

Images courtesy of:

• Trench Warfare: John Warwick Brooke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Hoover: By Elmer Wesley Greene (1907–64) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Victory garden Poster: By U.S. Department of Agriculture (WWI_Fruits_of_Victory), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Child in Victory Gardeni: By UA Archives | Upper Arlington History [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
• Canned corned beef: Rainer Zenz assumed (based on copyright claims).  CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
• The Jungle: Upton Sinclair [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Taft: Anders Zorn [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Taylor: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
• Fletcher: By Bain News Service, publisher [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Bar: Library of Congress
• 21 Club: By David Shankbone (English Wikipedia) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
• Mayflower Club: By dbking (originally posted to Flickr as The Mayflower Club) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
• Dust storm in Texas: NOAA George E. Marsh Album [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Dust storm in South Dakota: By Sloan, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• NYSE after crash: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Soup Kitchen: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• New Deal: By Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Summit Diner: By Jaboyce,  CC BY-SA 3.0,, via Wikimedia Commons