A couple weeks ago, now, I finished Harvey Levenstein’s Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet. It’s about how about how food and eating evolved in America between around 1880 and 1930. It was not what I had hoped it would be, and it was a bit boring to boot.
To be fair, it did contain some interesting material. Apparently, Americans have always taken pride in the amount of food (and specifically beef) that they eat, even dating back to the early ninteenth century. Similarly, America has had a sweet tooth since the mechanization of sugar production at some point in the mid ninteenth century, a point I had hoped would get more attention in this book. I was surprised at how much WWI and specifically Herbert Hoover’s propaganda was able to affect American’s eating habits, especially compared to all of the other failed nutrition campaigns. I also found the invention of home economics and its ability to insinuate American ideals of cooking into immigrant homes interesting.
I was expecting a different book, though. The book that I imagined would have talked more about the industrialization of food in terms of the farming, manufacture, distribution, and retail industries. In opposition to these industries would have been the USDA and the FDA, which were suddenly introduced into the book without much in the way of explanation. It also would have talked more about the evolution of America’s sweet tooth and its penchant for large meals. Other issues not explored in much depth include the evolution of the restaurant, the standardization of American’s eating habits in the 1920s, and the increase in American’s statures during the same decade.
The book did get me thinking a bit about the role of scientists in industry. In the early part of the twentieth century food science was a hot field, but all of the jobs were in the food companies. Scientists were thus paid to find results that show their companies in a positive light, not to find the truth. Of course, every scientist has results she would like to see or hunches she would like to validate, but that can’t get in the way of results. My impression of the food industry, especially of that era, is that it would use ridiculous and blatantly false claims to convince people to eat particular brands of breakfast cereal. There is obviously a difference between looking in a particular direction for experiments to run and burying experiments that don’t turn out the way you had hoped.