‘How did food become a moral issue in the United States?’ That is the question Helen Zoe Veit must have been asking herself when she began working on Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Twentieth Century. Using extensive evidence from the period, she persuasively argues that the first two decades of the 1900s witnessed a dramatic transformation in the American diet and public perception of food and health. In fewer than 200 pages, Veit manages to trace the roots of modern American food culture, including foodieism and body image standards, to the developments and, more importantly, the ideals of the Progressive Era.
For most of history, people have appreciated food as something more than a survival necessity. Humans have learned how to make eating pleasurable, such that ‘cooking’ doesn’t really mean ‘preparing food so it is safe to eat’ so much as it implies ‘making food that tastes good.’ It wasn’t until the late 19th-century, however, that nutrition science began to emerge, informing people about how their diets affected their health and development. This coincided with the advent of Progressivism, which sought to identify and rectify social problems by turning to experts for solutions. The Progressives valued rationality and morality synonymously, meaning that doing something that made logical or practical sense was considered ethically sound and vice versa. Veit shows how this rational-moral mentality led people to scrutinize their own diets as well as those of the people around them in a whole new way. Increasing awareness of how food affected the human body not only led people to strive to make healthier choices but also had social implications, such as that excess body fat – once valued as a sign of wealth – was now considered a sign of irrationality, reflecting ignorance, greed, and/or a lack of self-restraint. An entire chapter of the book is devoted to the development of the modern thinness ideal.
With the onset of the First World War, food also became highly politicized, as the government urged people to cut back on eating certain items so that they could be shipped to European allies. With the Progressive ideals of moral rationality in mind, many Americans were eager to practice self-discipline as a reflection of their intellect. Progressives embraced the food conservation movement because it encouraged self-restraint for the greater good, such that the way a person ate was seen as an indication of his or her patriotism and humanitarianism. Food waste, for instance, was considered an extreme moral transgression of gluttons who dared to endanger the starving Europeans only because they could not control their ‘animal appetites.’ As discussed in one of my previous posts, preventing waste was central to the war effort for practical reasons of conserving supplies; but it, like all things related to food, was also given ethical and, consequently, social connotations. ‘Rational’ pertained to the health of both the individual and greater society, such that ‘rational foods’ included nutrient-rich foods as well as what would have once been considered waste.
I have only touched on the bare bones of the book, which also elaborates on ideas of dietary racism, the emergence of home economics and how it changed transformed views of domesticity and women’s roles, and the incorporation of and fascination with foreign foods in the American diet. Using a variety of historical sources and examples, Veit makes a compelling argument for how people came to understand and obsess over food the way they do nowadays. Far from being a dry historical text, the book is a fascinating exploration of the historical underpinnings of modern food culture.
Keep reading and eating,