Diet and Industrialization, Gender and Class

Below are a couple of articles about the shift in diet since the 19th century. Earlier Americans ate a lot of meat, lard, and butter. It’s how everyone ate — women and men, adults and children — as that was what was available and everyone ate meals together. Then there was a decline in consumption of both red meat and lard in the early 20th century (dairy has also seen a decline). The changes created a divergence in who was eating what.

It’s interesting that, as part of moral panic and identity crisis, diets became gendered as part of reinforcing social roles and the social order. It’s strange that industrialization and gendering happened simultaneously, although maybe it’s not so strange. It was largely industrialization in altering society so dramatically that caused the sense of panic and crisis. So, diet also became heavily politicized and used for social engineering, a self-conscious campaign to create a new kind of society of individualism and nuclear family.

This period also saw the rise of the middle class as an ideal, along with increasing class anxiety and class war. This led to the popularity of cookbooks within bourgeois culture, as the foods one ate not only came to define gender identity but also class identity. As grains and sugar were only becoming widely available in the 19th century with improved agriculture and international trade, the first popular cookbooks were focused on desert recipes (Liz Susman Karp, Eliza Leslie: The Most Influential Cookbook Writer of the 19th Century). Before that, deserts had been limited to the rich.

Capitalism was transforming everything. The emerging industrial diet was self-consciously created to not only sell products but to sell an identity and lifestyle. It was an entire vision of what defined the good life. Diet became an indicator of one’s place in society, what one aspired toward or was expected to conform to.

* * *

How Steak Became Manly and Salads Became Feminine
Food didn’t become gendered until the late 19th century.
by Paul Freedman

Before the Civil War, the whole family ate the same things together. The era’s best-selling household manuals and cookbooks never indicated that husbands had special tastes that women should indulge.

Even though “women’s restaurants” – spaces set apart for ladies to dine unaccompanied by men – were commonplace, they nonetheless served the same dishes as the men’s dining room: offal, calf’s heads, turtles and roast meat.

Beginning in the 1870s, shifting social norms – like the entry of women into the workplace – gave women more opportunities to dine without men and in the company of female friends or co-workers.

As more women spent time outside of the home, however, they were still expected to congregate in gender-specific places.

Chain restaurants geared toward women, such as Schrafft’s, proliferated. They created alcohol-free safe spaces for women to lunch without experiencing the rowdiness of workingmen’s cafés or free-lunch bars, where patrons could get a free midday meal as long as they bought a beer (or two or three).

It was during this period that the notion that some foods were more appropriate for women started to emerge. Magazines and newspaper advice columns identified fish and white meat with minimal sauce, as well as new products like packaged cottage cheese, as “female foods.” And of course, there were desserts and sweets, which women, supposedly, couldn’t resist.

How Crisco toppled lard – and made Americans believers in industrial food
by Helen Zoe Veit

For decades, Crisco had only one ingredient, cottonseed oil. But most consumers never knew that. That ignorance was no accident.

A century ago, Crisco’s marketers pioneered revolutionary advertising techniques that encouraged consumers not to worry about ingredients and instead to put their trust in reliable brands. It was a successful strategy that other companies would eventually copy. […]

It was only after a chemist named David Wesson pioneered industrial bleaching and deodorizing techniques in the late 19th century that cottonseed oil became clear, tasteless and neutral-smelling enough to appeal to consumers. Soon, companies were selling cottonseed oil by itself as a liquid or mixing it with animal fats to make cheap, solid shortenings, sold in pails to resemble lard.

Shortening’s main rival was lard. Earlier generations of Americans had produced lard at home after autumn pig slaughters, but by the late 19th century meat processing companies were making lard on an industrial scale. Lard had a noticeable pork taste, but there’s not much evidence that 19th-century Americans objected to it, even in cakes and pies. Instead, its issue was cost. While lard prices stayed relatively high through the early 20th century, cottonseed oil was abundant and cheap. […]

In just five years, Americans were annually buying more than 60 million cans of Crisco, the equivalent of three cans for every family in the country. Within a generation, lard went from being a major part of American diets to an old-fashioned ingredient. […]

In the decades that followed Crisco’s launch, other companies followed its lead, introducing products like Spam, Cheetos and Froot Loops with little or no reference to their ingredients.

Once ingredient labeling was mandated in the U.S. in the late 1960s, the multisyllabic ingredients in many highly processed foods may have mystified consumers. But for the most part, they kept on eating.

So if you don’t find it strange to eat foods whose ingredients you don’t know or understand, you have Crisco partly to thank.

 

2 thoughts on “Diet and Industrialization, Gender and Class

  1. My grandmothers (and theirs before them) cooked with lard, bacon grease and other such leftovers — another of those traditions that stretches into living memory. Their daughters, of course, cooked with Crisco and, as ham was generally too expensive, Spam and pre-processed livermush and sausage. (Ham was reserved for holiday dinners.)

    Trips to Grandma’s and kin’s homes included forays into homemade preserves, e.g. Candy Roaster, and of course, honest-to-God foods, gravies and sauces of various kinds, including (on one hilarious and memorable occasion) a glass of milk straight from the cow. (At least one of them also had an outhouse until the seventies as well.)

    There is also the well-known story of the Betty Crocker cake mix marketing fiasco. Century of the Self, indeed.

    Of course, the American “prewar” diet gets a ton of exposure (and fun poked at it) in apocalyptic literature and gaming universes, such as that of the Fallout series. It’s not hard to match up the “prewar,” prepackaged food names with their real-world counterparts in Fallout. (Of course, spoilsport Coca-Cola, TM, sued over the shape of Nuka-Cola bottles in the Fallout universe, which is why they look so weird and stupid in FO4. I guess some of us just have no self-deprecating sense of humor.)

    What the organic food movement tells me, however, is that this supposed “master plan” didn’t quite “take” as well or for nearly as long as the Bernays’ of the world thought it could or might. Others’ mileage may vary.

    • Shortening mostly replaced lard by the 1920s-1930s. My own grandmothers, born in 1912 and 1917, were children and young adults when Crisco was taking over the market. Neither of them grew up on farms. My older grandmother was always the first in her neighborhood to embrace new things. But back then people used what was available and didn’t waste anything. My maternal grandparents would drizzle the leftover bacon grease onto lettuce to make ‘wilted lettuce’.

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