Dining Through the Decades: 1910’s

This is the second post of the ongoing Food History Dining Through the Decades series.  I hope to make them as factual as possible; sources are given when available.  Food is a fascinating topic when we can appreciate what came before us in many ways that sometimes reflects the origins of our food supply that exist currently. Enjoy!!

During  this decade, the world saw the beginnings of scientific discoveries that  evolved primarily due to dietary deficiencies that could be  cured by the consumption of unknown vitamins and minerals.

The 1910s also saw the beginning of the proliferation of processed foods. In just 10 years, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Oreo cookies, Crisco, Quaker Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice, Marshmallow Fluff Nathan’s hot dogs and Kellogg’s and C.W. Post made an entry into the food culture.

A death knell sounded in January 1919, when the Eighteenth Amendment — otherwise known as Prohibition — was ratified and scheduled to go into effect on January 16, 1920.

Pellagra: A Story from Medical History

In the early 1900’s, mental hospitals in the Southeastern U.S. treated many patients with dementia caused by a disease named pellagra. At that time, it was thought that an infectious agent or toxin caused the disease. Symptoms of a deficiency included skin rash, weakness, and mouth sores. When not treated, pellagra can lead to what is called the 4 D’s: depression, dementia, dermatitis, and death.

The disease was first noticed in Europe around 1720 and coincidentally during that time, corn or maize was beginning to be imported from the Americas to Europe where it was grown in many areas. Some physicians from Spain noticed that the disease may be associated with corn-based diets; others stuck to to the toxin theory and spent many years searching for its origin with no success.

A major epidemic occurred in the early decades of the 1900’s in the Southeast U.S. that prompted the government to begin a series of pellagra studies. By 1928, the epidemic peaked with the number of cases reaching 7,000 deaths. One of the investigators was Dr. Joseph Goldberger who believed that diet played a role.

To show that the disease was not caused by a toxin, Goldberger and 15 others including his wife, voluntarily drank or injected themselves with blood, urine, feces and skin cells from pellagra patients and no illness occurred. They later put these materials in capsules.

It was observed that the disease struck people who ate diets were mainly of corn meal, salt pork, lard and molasses. When given meat, eggs and milk, the disease rates became less prevalent.  Goldberger did just that in an experiment with volunteer prisoners. When most of the prisoners suffered from pellagra on the deficient diet, Goldberger concluded that the diet was the culprit and could be cured by what he called a “P-P factor.” More than 30 years later, an American biochemist, Conrad Elvehjem finally proved that the P-P factor was nicotinic acid, commonly known as the B vitamin,  niacin.

The B vitamins consist of eight distinct vitamins that help cells function optimally. Many Americans, especially the elderly, don’t meet the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for three of them: B6, B12, and folic acid. Years ago, these deficiencies were a common cause of death.

Have you ever wondered why they add B vitamins (niacin, riboflavin, and thiamine) to flour, refined bread and pastas? Not until 1936, did the Council on Foods and Nutrition of the American Medical Association recommended the fortification of food. This led to the voluntary enrichment of flour with the B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin) and iron. This resulted in a decrease in deaths from pellagra of over 3,000 in 1938 to only about 1500 in 1943. Then mandatory enrichment in most states further decreased the death rate to nearly zero by1954.

How quickly we forget how severe a nutritional deficiency disease can become. Other deficiency diseases from B vitamins alone in the early days of refining flour included beriberi from a thiamine deficit and ariboflavinosis from a lack of riboflavin. Thanks to early nutrition research, we now are free at least in developed countries of these highly preventable deficiency diseases.

Source: Smolin and Grosvenor, Nutrition: Science and Applications, Third Edition. Pellagra: Infectious Disease or Dietary Deficiency? p 339.

Park, Y.K., Sampos, C. T., Barton, C.N. et al. Effectiveness of food fortification in the United States. The case of pellagra. Am. J. Public Health 90:727-738, 2000.

Food on The Titanic – The Last Dinner

The ship boasted elegant cafes and opulent dining saloons equal to the finest restaurants in the civilized world. “Its main galley prepared more than 6,000 meals a day.  Its other galleys included a butcher shop; a bakery; vegetable kitchens; specialized rooms for silver and china; rooms for wines, beer and oysters; and huge storage bins for the tons of coal needed to fuel the 19 ovens, cooking tops, ranges and roasters.

First class and second-class passengers were served delicious delicacies in up to 13 courses with different wines that could last four or five hours. The third-class meals featured items such as hearty stews, vegetable soup, roast pork with sage and onions, boiled potatoes, currant buns, biscuits and freshly baked bread with plum pudding and oranges which may also have been appealing, especially for those who worked as employees and staff.”

On April 10, 1912, RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton, England, on its maiden voyage, headed for New York City. Four days into the journey, at about 11:40 p.m. on April 14, Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. The force of the impact ruptured the hull, filling the ship’s interior with some 39,000 tons of icy seawater before it plunged under the surface. The ship sank in less than three hours at 2:20 a.m., April 15th. The Carpathia picked up the last of the 711 survivors by 8:00 p.m.; 1490 people died. “All the kitchen staff died except for a 17-year-old cook. He was helping a woman carry a child and was swept overboard when the ship went under. Later, he was picked up by a lifeboat.” (

So what did Titanic’s passengers eat hours before their “unsinkable” ship met its tragic end? From a recovered evening menu for the first-class passenger dated April 14, 1912:

Raw Oysters and assorted hors d’oeuvres

Consommé Olga (veal stock soup flavored with sturgeon marrow) or Cream of Barley soup

Poached Atlantic Salmon with Mousseline Sauce

A choice of:

Filet Mignon Lili or Saute of Chicken Lyonnaise

A choice of:

Lamb with Mint Sauce or Roast Duckling with Applesauce or Sirloin of Beef with Chateau Potatoes

A choice of:

Roast Duckling with Applesauce or Sirloin of Beef with Chateau Potatoes.

Side dishes included creamed carrots, boiled rice and green peas, and boiled new potatoes.

Midway through this epic meal, a palate cleanser known as “punch romaine” was served, made with wine, rum and champagne.

The sumptuous array then resumed with roast squab with cress, cold asparagus vinaigrette and pâté de foie gras.

Dessert choices included peaches in chartreuse jelly, chocolate and vanilla éclairs, Waldorf pudding and French ice cream. Next, an assortment of fruits, nuts and cheeses was presented, followed by coffee, port, cigars and cordials.

The first-class passengers, then congregated in the smoking room or in the elegant, horseshoe-shaped reception room, where the ship’s orchestra played a selection of light classical and popular music until 11 p.m. According to accounts – on the night of the tragedy, the band played on until the survivors had embarked on life boats.

Source:    Suzanne Evans – History Channel

Source:  Linda Civetllo Cuisine and Culture, 2nd Edition, p 291

World War 1, Rationing and Liberty Dogs

World War I had an interesting effect on American food. The United States joined World War 1 in 1917. The war wasn’t popular (what war is) and was a problem for immigrants. The war was complicated. According to food historian, Linda Civitello, “The Irish hated the British and the Jews objected to Russia, both allies of America. America had a large population of German-speaking citizens and those of German descent and Germany was the enemy, so Americans turned against hot dogs and sauerkraut but they would eat “Liberty hotdogs,” and Liberty cabbage. They bought Liberty bonds, and Liberty gardens. Italian immigrants were not favored either until Italy switched sides midway during the war. Then, Italian food became a popular food of an ally.”

Source: Linda Civitello, Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People, Second Edition, p. 293.

President Herbert Hoover encouraged voluntary cuts on beef and wheat needed by the U.S. and allied troops in Europe. Initially, there was no organized rationing at first, except for wholesale purchases of sugar. Rationing started in January 1918 and affected sugar, meat and butter.

Vegetable gardens encouraged home canning and drying, home baking; cooks used molasses instead of sugar. A new product called Crisco became a substitute for lard and peanut butter was used as a protein substitute for meat.

American began to learn about calories, proteins, carbohydrates and the importance of using fruits and vegetables. They were persuaded to eat less if it did not harm their health. Perhaps that is a lesson we should learn today.

Americans got their first taste of meatless meals and got used to bean loaf instead of meat loaf. Meatless days became the norm but as expected, this sometimes led to inflation, panic, hoarding and black-market sales.

“On November 11, 1918, World War I ended in an armistice. “Hunger does not breed reform; it breeds madness,” said President Wilson in his Armistice Day address to Congress. All food regulations were suspended in the United States but remained in effect in Britain and Europe for several months thereafter.”

Source: The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Oxford University Press, Edited by Andrew F. Smith. 2007.

The Supermarket

Self-serve supermarkets were introduced in 1912 in California. Instead of having to give a list to a grocery clerk who then proceeded to gather the items from the back of the store, customers could shop the aisles themselves. Stores such as A&P had a thousand items (now we have at least 30,000). The Alpha Beta Food Market and Ward’s Groceteria were soon followed by Mercantile’s Humpty Dumpty Stores. The A&P had at its base 500 stores and will open a new store every 3 days for the next 3 years as it stops providing charge accounts and free delivery and bases its growth on one-man “economy” stores that operate on a cash-and -carry basis.

Produce ads in the 1910s highlighted point of origin (California figs, Florida oranges, Jersey tomatoes, Baltimore beans, Maine Sugar Corn, Ceylon Tea). Today we hardly know where they come from. The processed food industry continued to greatly expand with Hellman’s mayonnaise, Oreo cookies, Crisco, Quaker Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice, Marshmallow Fluff and Nathan’s hot dogs.

Source: The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, Oxford University Press. Edited by Andrew Smith, 2007.

Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America, Michael Ruhlman, Abrams Press, 2017

The Century in Food: America’s Fads and Favorites/Beverly Bundy

 

Expanding Waistlines/The First Diet Book

In spite of food rationing later in the decade, a new trend was beginning – expanded waistlines. Over-indulgence that began in the first part of the decade continued with the upper-class menus still abundant in meats, shellfish, pȃte and mousses. It was readily accepted that plumpness was chic before World War I. Even the president of that time, William H. Taft was a hefty 300 pounds. There was no doubt that his favorite meal, Lobster Newburg contributed to his waistline.

Needless to say, the first diet book was published in 1918, written by Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters entitled Diet and Health with a Key to the Calorie. Dr. Peters recommended that we all should count calories our entire life. Coincidentally, the Continental Scale Company produces the first bathroom scale name the “Health-O-Meter” in 1919. 

 

Mr. Peanut

George Washington Carver, born a slave right before the start of the Civil War was an American agricultural scientist and inventor. He actively promoted alternative crops to cotton and methods to prevent soil depletion. He was the most prominent black scientist of the early 20th century.

While a professor at Tuskegee Institute in 1915, Carver developed techniques to improve soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton. He wanted poor farmers to grow alternative crops such as as a source of their own food and to improve their quality of life. The most popular of his 44 practical bulletins for farmers contained 105 food recipes using peanuts. Although he spent years developing and promoting numerous products made from peanuts, none became commercially successful. He received numerous honors for his work, including the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP. In an era of high racial polarization, his fame reached beyond the black community. He was widely recognized and praised in the white community for his many achievements and talents. In 1941, Time magazine dubbed Carver a “Black Leonardo”. Wikipedia.

Tidbits and Trivia Timeline

Mazola salad and cooking oil – the first corn oil available for home consumption-is introduced by the Corn Products Refining Co. This will open the door for the many vegetable oils we have today that dominate the market with promises of health benefits, i.e. reduced heart disease rates. 1911

Crisco introduced by Proctor and Gamble is the first solid hydrogenated shortening. The marketing described their product as a “Scientific Discovery Which Will Affect Every Kitchen in America.” What was not known was that this process could have far-reaching  anti-health effects that could affect every American’s health. 1911

Large-scale pasta production begins in the United States by an Italian-American pasta maker, Vincent La Rosa in Brooklyn, NY. Until then most pasta had been imported from Naples but ceased with the onset of World War I. 1914

70% of Americans are using lard for cooking and baking. Butter consumption is still high; and the mortality rate from heart disease is below 10%. 1914

The first electric refrigeration is introduced for commercial use, but it wasn’t until after World War I that they became more available for home use. Lettuce, asparagus, watermelons, cantaloupes, and tomatoes grown in California’s irrigated fields are transported 3,000 miles away in refrigerated rail cars bringing a lot more variety to the consumer. 1914 

Large-scale pasta production begins in the United States by an Italian-American pasta maker, Vincent La Rosa in Brooklyn, NY. Until then most pasta had been imported from Naples but ceased with the onset of World War I. 1914

U.S. per capita consumption of white granulated sugar reaches a level twice what it was in 1880 as Americans give up molasses and brown sugar in favor of white sugar. 1915

A mechanical home refrigerator is marketed for the first time in the U.S., but its $900 price tag discourages buyers, who can buy a good motorcar for the same money. 1916

Yale biochemists Lafayette Benedict Mendel and B. Cohen show that guinea pigs cannot develop vitamin C and fall prey to scurvy even more easily than do humans. 1918

U.S. ice cream sales reach 150 million gallons, up from 30 million in 1909.  1919

E.V. McCollum discovers a substance in cod-liver oil at Johns Hopkins that can cure rickets and xerophthalmia. Xerophthalmia is an abnormal dryness  of the eye membranes and cornea that can lead to blindness. The substance will later be called vitamin D. 1920

Bon Appetit!

 

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