The Americanization of Food
I walked into a conversation at work yesterday. I don’t know how it started, but one of the guys was saying that Diet Coke was on sale at a local grocery chain and he really stocked up. Everyone except two of us chimed in about their addictions to soda. It almost turned into bragging, to see who could outdo the other. Then my friend said that she doesn’t drink soda any more and wished that all of the others would have to be on her diet and they’d think differently about what they put in their bodies.She isn’t on a diet to lose weight She’s on a diet to regain her life. She said that all the bad eating she had done in her life had caught up with her. She faces extremely serious health complications because of it. Her doctors put her on a restricted diet designed to slowly purge toxins from her system. It was a painfully slow process, with absolutely nothing appealing about the food she struggled to eat day after day.
The mood quickly grew somber and reflective. Someone observed that it was a shame that all the good food took so much time to make and cost so much. The bad food was inexpensive and easy. Too easy.
Someone else said that it was too bad that we couldn’t be like the societies that still eat a traditional diet. Here in America we are too far removed from that. I commented that what was really a shame was that we were teaching the rest of the world to eat like us, with our fast food chains like McDonald’s cropping up all over the world.
How did we ever come to think that cheap, fast, greasy, starchy and jumbo sized was good? And why, even though we know that food isn’t good for us, why do we still buy it?
My childhood was set in small town America after World War II. We had a large yard and my father grew our own vegetables. It was wildly prolific and every summer we canned jar after jar of vegetables that we ate over the winter. Green beans, corn, tomatoes, onions, peas, carrots, cucumbers that we’d pickle. It was wonderful. I continued to grow a garden and can into my early adult years, but quit a long time ago, unfortunately.
Times were simpler then, of course. We were lucky and had a refrigerator while the ice man still came to some houses in our neighborhood. Sliced bread was a modern marvel, and the bread man would deliver it to our door. The milk man was a familiar sight, and we had our wooden milk box on the front porch. I used to love it when the Fuller Brush man would stop by because he always had little samples and such interesting gadgets in his sample bag. I still love gadgets, although most of mine are electronic these days.
I never learned the love of cooking from my mother. She was a stay at home mom, like most were those days. Being a Catholic family, she ended up raising five children, of which I am the first. We fasted when we were supposed to, abstained from meat on Fridays and gave up things for Lent. I remember having to go to the grocery store with her because we filled up two big shopping carts, and she needed someone to push the other cart. Feeding that many kids takes a lot of groceries, despite all the vegetables we put up every year.
My mother was always reading the women’s magazines of the time, and would try a new recipe every now and then. Her favorite, and the family staple over the years, was Rice Krispie Chicken. For those of you who don’t know the recipe, it involves taking a crispy rice breakfast cereal and crushing it with a rolling pin so that you can use it as a coating for chicken that is then baked in the oven.
My father’s favorite meal was round steak, tenderized with Adolph’s Meat Tenderizer (filled with MSG, mono sodium glutamate) cooked under the oven broiler.
We had turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas, ham for Easter. New Year’s was full of pork roast, potato pancakes and lots and lots of sauerkraut, a legacy of our Bavarian background. The more sauerkraut you ate on New Year’s, the richer you became.
My mother did love Christmas cookies. We had a house overflowing with pastries and cookies. That is something I do miss from my childhood. I’ve never been a baker.
We never had fast food in our little town, but we did get soft serve ice cream, a Tastee Freeze, and that was a huge event. Another modern marvel, drive through ice cream stands. Soft serve cones with a curl on top. I suppose that was the beginning of it all, that and TV dinners. And Tang, the fake breakfast drink created for the astronauts. Then I went off to college and discovered pizza. And soda, something we never had at home except when company was coming at Christmas time. Then we were allowed a bottle. Orange was my favorite.
Did we eat nutritious meals as a child? Probably, but maybe not. The food sources were starting to evolve, and not in a good way. Dangerous pesticide use came into common practice while I was a child. I was ten when Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring”, came out and started the environmental movement in the United States.
The pendulum swing from the rationing years of the Great Depression and World War II into the plenty of the 1950s saw so many changes. Then we were into the Space Race and everything had to be new and modern. Throw out the old. Except for the Mother Earth types who wanted to go back to the days of the pioneers and make their own soap.
After that, mothers had to start working. Everything became too expensive, so two incomes were needed. So it went, until now we have generations who don’t know any other way of life. And we’re teaching it to the rest of the world. Shame on us. Hopefully we’ll also have the vision and courage to say we were wrong and teach the world a better, and healthier way to live in this century. Once we figure it out for ourselves, of course.
Thanks for letting me rant, and reminisce.
Have a healthy eating day!