World War II and the Advent of Fast Food

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 33

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

During WWII, a whole host of new food technologies were developed to aid the war effort. In this podcast we’re going to explore how these technologies became the template for American eating in the postwar era. We’ll see how freeze-dried and convenience foods, TV dinners, and chain restaurants shaped food culture. Then we’ll take a look at the phenomenon of fast food and the McDonald’s business model that became a global phenomenon.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• Experiment: Is Fast Food Really So Fast? A Hamburger Race

Find a partner to challenge in this race. Each of you should have 10 dollars and your own separate cars. Start the timer. Competitor one will go to the closest fast-food outlet and come back with as many hamburgers as can be bought with 10 dollars. Competitor two will go to the nearest grocery store and will purchase ground beef, buns, ketchup, lettuce, and pickles. Then, come home and cook hamburgers as quickly as possible, either inside in a pan or outdoors on a grill. This is partly a competition to see which is faster, but also compare how many hamburgers you could get for 10 dollars.

Compare the taste of the hamburgers, too. Which was the better option? Which involved more time, labor, and forethought? Which ultimately “cost” more, not merely in terms of money, but also in expenditure of labor? If the competition was fairly close, why do people rely so much on fast food? Is it merely good advertising and the idea of convenience?

Suggested Reading:

Belasco and Scranton, Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies.

Bentley, Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity.

Bobrow-Strain, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.

Collingham, The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food.

Counihan, Food in the USA: A Reader.

de la Peña, Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda.

de Silva, In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin.

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

McFeeley, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?

Mendelson, Stand Facing the Stove: The Story of the Women Who Gave America The Joy of Cooking.

Rosenblum, Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit.

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

Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Food and War in Twentieth Century Europe.

Images courtesy of:

• K-Ration Breakfast: By US Army, Signal Corps [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
• K-Ration Dinner: By US Army, Signal Corps [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
• C-Rations: By US Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Recommended Daily Allowances Chart: By USDA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Freeze dryer: By USDA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Cake mix: Thinkstock
• Food in tupperware: Thinkstock
• TV Dinner: Smile Lee at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
• Eating Fast Food: Thinkstock
• Styrofoam: Thinkstock
• Russet Burbanks: Thinkstock