I am really fascinated by the history of food. American food has a really striking history in that it has changed more quickly than any other culture in the world. Before the invention of fridge/freezers and refrigerated shipping containers and trucks in the late 1940’s, Americans bought food nearly every day. There was no supermarket where one could buy all that one needed in one stop. One might visit the baker, butcher, and greengrocer nearly every day. One may have had an ice box to keep food cold, but not for more than a day or two. Of course, this meant that people ate locally grown food in season. They preserved and canned in-season produce for the cold months. Seasonal and local are such buzzwords now, even canning and home preserving has become a la mode. We are trying to reduce our carbon footprint and be healthier and live more sustainably, all good things. So what changed? When did Americans start to prefer processed, boxed, canned, and frozen food?
In the early 1950’s a few large companies spent a fortune on modernization. They modernized their factories so they could make more products with fewer workers. They modernized their shipping methods with refrigeration so that products could be shipped father and farther away. To pay for all this modernization they began an advertising campaign that literally changed the way Americans eat. The first thing was to advertise processed food made in factories as “more sanitary, safer, and more hygienic”. These ads were rampant in women’s magazines. The ads convinced American housewives that their home-canned applesauce might not be safe for baby, so “buy our sanitized brand instead”. The other game-changer was the T.V. dinner. Swanson’s wasn’t the first to invent a frozen meal, but they were the first to advertize them on T.V. in 1953. Appealing to housewives, Swanson’s convinced moms that T.V. dinners were a way to keep the whole family together and giver her a break. “How To Catch The Early Early Show With an Easy Easy Dinner”, “Now Mom Is In On The T.V. Fun At The Start”, “No Work, No Dishes” all of these are quotes from early ads. Convenience became the craze. “Why spend all day stirring when our pudding mix works in just minutes?”
So why am I talking about this now? Many of the Thanksgiving recipes that we serve in America, that have become traditional, that most American families wouldn’t think of changing or omitting from their Thanksgiving table were first conceived during the 1950’s when mixes, cans, and boxes reigned supreme. The creamy flavor in that green bean casserole comes from a can of cream of mushroom soup. Green Bean Casserole was invented by Campbell’s Soup in 1955 as a way to sell their product. It’s not a recipe handed down by generations that has cultural significance to anyone, and yet, who doesn’t make it every year for Thanksgiving? Candied yams with marshmallows actually go back a little farther to 1917 when the Angelus Marshmallow Company developed the recipe in order to sell the first mass-produced marshmallows. In other countries the culture of food hasn’t changed all that much in hundreds of years. In America it seems that advertising has actually dictated our tastes.
This year I urge you to develop some new traditions for your Thanksgiving table. I am challenging myself this year to make nothing for the holiday with a can, box, or mix. Think about what is seasonal and local in your area and make something truly delicious, not because it’s what you’ve always done, but because anything worth doing is worth doing well.
Here are some past recipes and ideas for Thanksgiving