Life Was Good? The American Plate 1950 – 1959

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Author: Sally J. Feltner, M.S.,PhD

An Attack on Gastronomy

The 1950’s brought a renewed hope for the country after two decades of Depression and War. However, food historians deplore the state of the cuisine during this period – it mainly consisted of processed foods which many blame for this anti-gastronomic desert. In addition, the rise of the fast food industry, i.e. hamburger chains that sprouted up along side the newly build national highway system did not offer any better fare. Freeing Mom from the kitchen seemed to be the dominant theme as appliances and prepared foods became the ‘norm”.

TV Dinners

After WWII, America’s economy boomed, women entered the workforce as never before and food got a little strange. Housewives spent less time in the kitchen, so food companies came to the rescue with a buffet of processed foods. Foods were purchased in a can, package or pouch. Soups were available as liquids or in dry form. Tang landed on supermarket shelves and frozen dinners laid on trays in front of TV sets. TV dinners were introduced in 1953 by Swanson and with a flick of a wrist you could turn back the foil to display turkey in gravy, dressing, sweet potatoes and peas ready in about 30 minutes – all with no dishes to wash.

tv_dinner01

Better Living Through Chemistry

“Better Living through Chemistry” was the slogan of the times along with “I like Ike” referring to the popular Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 5-star general from WWII winning the U.S presidency from 1953 to 1961.
This change in processing came from the demand of the Army during WWII to provide needed ready-to-eat meals. The food industry responded by ramping up new technologies in canning and freeze-drying to feed the troops. The marketing of these foods presented a challenge, however. At first, many of them were less than palatable, so food companies hired home economists to develop fancy recipes and flooded magazines, newspapers and TV with ads to broadcast their virtues. Actually the first cake mix was available in 1931, but was met with disdain due to the use of dehydrated eggs, e.g. Women later would respond more favorably if they could crack their own eggs into the batter so they would feel like they were doing something positive in the kitchen.

June Cleaver

People rushed to buy appliances, houses, cars, dishwashers, washing machines, dryers and backyard barbecue grills and new home freezers.  They also bought television sets in record numbers and watched shows that represented their new idealized lives like Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver. Beaver’s mother, June Cleaver was depicted as a housewife freed from household chores and often was serene and perfectly dressed with pearls and high heels pushing a vacuum cleaner and putting meals on the family table, all before solving the family problems.

Fast Food Nation

The birth rate soared and created what is known as the Baby Boomer Generation. Fifty million babies were born from 1945 to 1960. Food marketing shifted to kids with Tony the Tiger and fish sticks leading the campaign. Fast food had its beginnings strengthened in 1955 when Ray Kroc bought a hamburger stand from the McDonald’s brothers in San Bernadino, California. Disneyland opened in 1955 and was so popular they ran out of food on the first day.

mcdonalds-burger1

The Seven Countries Study

In 1958, the American scientist, Ancel Keys started a study called the Seven Countries Study, which attempted to establish the association between diet and cardiovascular disease in different countries. The study results indicated that in the countries where fat consumption was the highest also had the most heart disease. This suggested the idea that dietary fat caused heart disease. He initially studied 22 countries, but reported on only seven: Finland, Greece, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, United States, and Yugoslavia.

The problem was that he left out:

  • Countries where people eat a lot of fat but have little heart disease, such as Holland and Norway and France.
  • Countries where fat consumption is low but the rate of heart disease is high, such as Chile.

Basically, he only used data from the countries that supported his theory.
This flawed observational study gained massive media attention and had a major influence on the dietary guidelines of the next few decades, i.e. cut the fat out of our diets.

 

sevencountries

The First Artificial Sweetener

In the diet world, Saccharin was manufactured in granules and became a popular sugar substitute for dieters. It was first produced in 1878 by a chemist at Johns Hopkins University, but became popular after sugar shortages in WWI and WWII. In the United States, saccharin is often found in restaurants in pink packets as “Sweet’n Low”. It was banned later but it remains on the market today. The basis for the proposed ban was a study that documented an increase in cancer in rats being fed saccharin. The “Delaney clause” of the Food Additive Amendments to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act states that no substance can be deemed safe if it causes cancer in humans or animals. In suspending the proposed saccharin ban, Congress ordered that products containing the popular sweetener must carry a warning about its potential to cause cancer. The FDA formally lifted its proposal to ban the sweetener in 1991 based on new studies, and the requirement for a label warning was eliminated by the Saccharin Notice Repeal Act in 1996.

TIMELINE: 

1951 I Love Lucy debuts on CBS.

1952 The Lipton food company rolls out its dehydrated onion soup that will earn it fame as a base for onion soup mix: 2 envelopes of mix plus 1 cup of sour cream. Lipton eventually prints the recipe, “California Dip” on the package.

1953 Eggo Frozen Waffles are introduced.

1954 Employee Gerry Thomas from the C.A. Swanson Co,  has an idea (although fellow workers nearly laughed him out of the Omaha  plant): package the left-over turkey, along with some dressing, gravy, cornbread, peas and sweet potatoes into a partitioned metal tray, sell it frozen, and consumers could heat it up for dinner. His name for the leftover meal: TV Dinner.

1954 The first Burger King  opens in Miami. A burger is 18 cents, as is a milkshake. The Whopper is introduced in 1957 and sells for 37 cents.

1955 Milkshake-machine salesman, Roy Kroc tries to persuade Dick and Mac McDonald (owner of the original McDonalds in California) to franchise their concept.  They aren’t interested but  tell Kroc to go ahead and try his hand. Kroc opens his first restaurant in Des Plains, ILL., and eventually buys out the McDonalds.

1956 Jif Peanut Butter is introduced.

1956 More than 80 percent of U.S. households have refrigerators. By contrast, only 8 percent of British households have refrigerators.

1957 Better Homes and Gardens prints its first microwave-cooking article.

1957 Margarine sales take the lead over butter.

1958 Eighteen- year-old Frank Carney sees a story in the Saturday Evening Post about the pizza fad among teenagers and college students. With $600 borrowed from his mother, he and his fellow Wichita State classmate, opens the first Pizza Hut in Wichita, KS.

 

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