to The History of Private Life
Food in America
By Steven Mintz
Food is much more than a mere
means of subsistence. It is filled with cultural, psychological,
emotional, and even religious significance. It defines shared
identities and embodies religious and group traditions. In Europe
in the 17th and 18th centuries, food served as a class marker.
A distinctive court tradition of haute cuisine and elaborate table
manners arose, distinguishing the social elite from the hoi polloi.
During the 19th centuries, food became a defining symbol of national
identity. It is a remarkable fact that many dishes that we associate
with particular countries--such as the tomato-based Italian spaghetti
sauce or the American hamburger--are 19th or even 20th century
The European discovery of the
New World represented a momentous turning point in the history
of food. Foods previously unknown in Europe and Africa, such as
tomatoes, potatoes, corn, yams, cassava, manioc, and a vast variety
of beans migrated eastward, while other sources of food, unknown
in the Americas--including pigs, sheep, and cattle--moved westward.
Sugar, coffee, and chocolate grown in the New World became the
basis for the world's first truly multinational consumer-oriented
Until the late 19th century, the
history of food in America was a story of fairly distinct regional
traditions that stemmed largely from England. The country's earliest
English, Scottish, and Irish Protestant migrants tended to cling
strongly to older food traditions. Yet the presence of new ingredients,
and especially contact among diverse ethnic groups, would eventually
encourage experimentation and innovation. Nevertheless, for more
than two centuries, English food traditions dominated American
Before the Civil War, there were
four major food traditions in the United States, each with English
roots. These included a New England tradition that associated
plain cooking with religious piety. Hostile toward fancy or highly
seasoned foods, which they regarded as a form of sensual indulgence,
New Englanders adopted an austere diet stressing boiled and baked
meats, boiled vegetables, and baked breads and pies. A Southern
tradition, with its high seasonings and emphasis on frying and
simmering, was an amalgam of African, English, French, Spanish,
and Indian foodways. In the middle Atlantic areas influenced by
Quakerism, the diet tended to be plain and simple and emphasized
boiling, including boiled puddings and dumplings. In frontier
areas of the backcountry, the diet included many ingredients that
other English used as animal feed, including potatoes, corn, and
various greens. The backcountry diet stressed griddle cakes, grits,
greens, and pork.
One unique feature of the American
diet from an early period was the abundance of meat--and distilled
liquor. Abundant and fertile lands allowed settlers to raise corn
and feed it to livestock as fodder, and convert much of the rest
into whiskey. By the early nineteenth century, adult men were
drinking more than 7 gallons of pure alcohol a year.
One of the first major forces
for dietary change came from German immigrants, whose distinctive
emphasis on beer, marinaded meats, sour flavors, wursts, and pastries
was gradually assimilated into the mainstream American diet in
the form of barbeque, cole slaw, hot dogs, donuts, and hamburger.
The German association of food with celebrations also encouraged
other Americans to make meals the centerpiece of holiday festivities.
An even greater engine of change
came from industrialization. Beginning in the late nineteenth
century, food began to be mass produced, mass marketed, and standardized.
Factories processed, preserved, canned, and packaged a wide variety
of foods. Processed cereals, which were originally promoted as
one of the first health foods, quickly became a defining feature
of the American breakfast. During the 1920s, a new industrial
technique--freezing--emerged, as did some of the earliest cafeterias
and chains of lunch counters and fast food establishments. Increasingly
processed and nationally distributed foods began to dominate the
nation's diet. Nevertheless, distinct regional and ethnic cuisines
During the early twentieth century,
food became a major cultural battleground. The influx of large
numbers of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe Progressive
Era brought new foods to the United States. Settlement house workers,
and food nutritionists, and domestic scientists tried to "Americanize"
immigrant diets and teach immigrant wives and mothers "American"
ways of cooking and shopping. Meanwhile, muckraking journalists
and reformers raised questions about the health, purity, and wholesomeness
of food, leading to the passage of the first federal laws banning
unsafe food additives and mandating meat inspection.
During the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, change in American foodways took place slowly,
despite a steady influx of immigrants. Since World War II, and
especially since the 1970s, shifts in eating patterns have greatly
accelerated. World War II played a key role in making the American
diet more cosmopolitan. Overseas service introduced soldiers to
a variety of foreign cuisines, while population movements at home
exposed to a wider variety of American foodways. The post-war
expansion of international trade also made American diets more
diverse, making fresh fruits and vegetables available year round.
Today, food tends to play a less
distinctive role in defining ethnic or religious identity. Americans,
regardless of religion or region, eat bagels, curry, egg rolls,
and salsa--and a Thanksgiving turkey. Still, food has become--as
it was for European aristocrats--a class marker. For the wealthier
segments of the population, dining often involves fine wines and
artistically prepared foods made up of expensive ingredients.
Expensive dining has been very subject to fads and shifts in taste.
Less likely to eat German or even French cuisine, wealthier Americans
have become more likely to dine on foods influenced by Asian or
Latin American cooking.
Food also has assumed a heightened
political significance. The decision to adopt a vegetarian diet
or to eat only natural foods has become a conscious way to express
resistance to corporate foods. At the same time, the decision
to eat particular foods has become a conscious way to assert one's