To continue last week’s theme of education, my zest for learning recently brought me to the National Archives, to see the exhibit “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” (The barrage of advertisements on the Metro a few months ago also probably helped.) The exhibit, which chronicled the federal government’s influence on food throughout U.S. History as seen through the Archive’s vast collection, was simultaneously insightful and incomplete. While the exhibit illustrated how the Federal government has had an unquestionable positive influence on food in America, it completely failed to acknowledge any of the highly problematic government interventions.
Reflecting our tendency to unnaturally separate out the different areas of our food system, the exhibit was split into four sections – Farm, Factory, Kitchen, and Table.
The Farm section started from the very beginning – at least from America’s beginning. Having been to Mount Vernon and Monticello, I was already aware of our early leaders’ affinities for agricultural experimentation. (Unfortunately, said experimentation was often on the backs of slaves.) What I didn’t realize was how this attitude was nationally influential. While Jefferson personally smuggled rice out of Italy – a crime punishable by death, apparently – the U.S. Government continued this practice. Through the early 1900s, the government sent federal workers to foreign countries to gather various types of produce. Although this idea seems appealing enough to me as a lover of cuisine from other countries, I wonder what kind of negative effects it had on the native people. Sadly, they barely touched on the program beyond a “isn’t that neat!” sort of way.
In contrast, the next program I learned about sounded out-and-out fantastic – the Congressional seed distribution program. At its height, they distributed more than 1.1 billion packet of seeds! Although the federal government distributed them only to farmers and cut the program in 1924 under pressure from the seed companies, I think it would be fabulous to restart it. Although folks on SNAP benefits (food stamps) can use them to purchase seeds or seedlings, it would be great if the government distributed seeds to all gardeners.
Unfortunately, the exhibit only touched on farming subsidies, those remnants of the Depression that still have huge implications for Americans’ health, economy, and environment today. The corn subsidies began in 1933 as the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which paid farmers to not grow corn because overproduction was driving down prices. While low food prices were good for city-dwellers, it was wrecking havoc on farms. In the 1970s, the government flipped this policy on its head when inflation was driving up food prices. There’s a darkly amusing letter in the exhibit from a Boy Scout writing to his senator 1974 complaining that “This is the worst problem I can think of. You cannot buy much candy for a nickel now.” In response, Nixon started paying farmers, allowing them to dump the corn onto the market no matter what the price. Even after the prices went down, the subsidies continued on due to pressure from agri-business. This led to a glut of corn on the market, which in turn resulted in the creation of high-fructose corn syrup and the incredible amount of processed corn products on the market. (This older article by Michael Pollen has a good overview of the subsidies). Unfortunately, the exhibit completely ignored the large majority of this history in favor of a few photos/items with overly brief text explanations.
The next section focused on an unalloyed good of the federal government – regulating food safety. Beginning with letters from Upton Sinclair to FDR, the exhibit walked through how horrible food was before regulations. Candy frequently sickened kids, ketchup exploded from being made from rotten tomatoes, formaldehyde was used as a preservative, and a foodstuff described as “bred spread” was made of pectin, coal tar, and grass seed. Bleck. Any member of Congress who thinks they should cut the FDA’s budget needs to have a personal tour of this exhibit. And perhaps an authentic meal afterwards!
The third section talked about how the federal government has attempted to influence what Americans choose to put in their mouths. The most entertaining bit was a poster labeled “Eat the Carp!” It had such hilariously stated “facts” as “The carp discovered America in 1877. He found the land to his liking” and “Somebody ate those 43,000,000 pounds of carp. Therefore the carp must be good to eat.” It turns out that we imported carp and like many imported species, it took over and we had far, far too much of it. If it wasn’t obvious from the non-persuasive language of the poster, the lack of carp on most restaurant menus today speaks to the failure of this campaign. Other topics in this section included the many versions of the food guide (one of which had butter as its own food group!) and the use of food stamps in WWII.
The last section, Table, was an odd mix – like the rest of the exhibit, it was a vaguely silly take on rather significant concepts. It had a large section on the food the White House served, from the Kennedy’s fine dining to Nixon’s last meal as President. Although Lyndon Johnson’s “vegetable soup” recipe was actually beef and barley, I did give them credit for having a lovely, large photo of Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden. Recipes dominated this section more than an actual discussion of American household cooking though. More importantly, but less covered, was the role of school lunches in the U.S. Unfortunately, current lunches don’t seem to have improved much on flavor or nutrition on 1946’s Ham Shortcake.
As a fellow federal employee (especially in communications), I know how often the federal government is unfairly attacked and how good it is to talk about our positive accomplishments. The exhibit did a great job of that in a fun, engaging manner. Nevertheless, it’s our historians’ responsibility to take credit for both the good and the bad. Instead, this exhibit turned a serious issue – how the government has interacted with Americans’ food system – into a bit of fluff. I wish there was more honesty on display, both in our exhibit and in our national conversation on food in general.
This exhibit actually closed the day after I visited. Some of the photos and captions are available on the National Archive’s webpage, but it’s lacking most of the textual context.