A Culinary History of the United States – The History of American Cuisine

Allen Pietrobon / Trinity Washington University

Over the course of the past century, the United States went from being revered for having one of the best food cultures in the world — a cuisine so deliciously unique that in the early 1900s, wealthy Europeans would travel to America for vacation simply to enjoy the splendid food — to today being (however unfairly) the subject of international ridicule for having a food culture dominated by junk foods, fast foods, and processed frozen meals. String cheese and SPAM anyone?

American Cuisine History

In this presentation, we’ll reserve a table with award-winning professor Allen Pietrobon as we eat our way (intellectually, of course,) through a culinary history of the United States. We’ll sample the world-famous American restaurants of the 1890s, then trudge through the Great Depression to see how it affected American cuisine. We’ll see how World War Two radically changed American eating habits and then we’ll push a wonky-wheeled shopping cart through the 1950s “dark ages” of American cuisine, with its cavernous supermarkets peddling frozen TV dinners and Jell-o salads. We’ll explore the major “innovations” of processed food manufacturers as they introduced new products to dominate the American kitchen table. Ultimately, we’ll see that what Americans were eating over the decades had a major impact on American society, culture, and family time. The saying is “you are what you eat.” Can what we eat teach us about who we are as a nation?

Everything you need to know about the history of American cuisine

This presentation will look at the history of American cuisine since 1945, to examine a few key events that radically changed how and what Americans eat. Over the past 70 years, the country transformed from a relatively wholesome and nourishing food system, to what a critic might call a “Cheez-Whiz food culture,” laden with fats, sugar, and ultra-processed unhealthy foods. Today, six in ten American deaths can be attributed to diet-related causes. Even the Dean of Public Policy at Duke University has said that Americans currently live in a “toxic food environment.”

How did this come to be? And is it really that bad? We’ll explore a few crises — how the race riots of 1967-68, and the economic problems of the early 1970s — led to policies that attempted to help solve these challenges, but instead led to a radical change in what Americans eat. From 1967 to 1999, spending on fast food went from 14.3% of eating out receipts to 35.5% as the government partnered with major food corporations to flood the landscape with cheaper, faster, more highly processed (and unhealthy) foods.

Professor Pietrobon will explore the past 70 years of American food history, as well as the political and public fights over what and how we eat. He’ll examine the unintended consequences of how choices by the government, ad agencies, and major food corporations helped to transform America into what food writer Greg Crister calls “the fattest nation on earth.”

Questions from the history of American cuisine

1)  On one hand, our modern food system feeds billions of people. On the other, it degrades the environment, tortures animals, and produces commodity crops that aren’t necessarily healthy. Where do you fall in this debate?

2)  The U.S. government helped to fund the construction of fast-food restaurants in inner cities. Was that the right decision? What alternatives could there be to meet the dual goals of providing access to food and jobs in underprivileged neighborhoods?

3) Why do you think what we choose to eat has become so politicized in America in recent years?

4) Should the government take more of an active role in regulating “bad” foods? Or do you think it is ultimately up to consumers to make better choices about the food they consume?

5) In your own lifetime (or between your parents’ and your generation) have your food habits changed? How?

Learn More about the History of American cuisine

If you’re looking to broaden your horizon of American cuisine history, make sure to check out our other culinary lectures such as Drive Thru America and The Spice Trade. Access to all recorded online lectures comes standard with our membership, click here to learn more.

Allen Pietrobon

Dr. Allen Pietrobon is an Assistant Professor of Global Affairs at Trinity Washington University. He specializes in 20th-Century American history and U.S. Foreign Policy, focusing on nuclear weapons policies and Cold War diplomacy. Since 2011, he has also served as an Assistant Director of Research at the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University.

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