The American Plate 1980 – 1989

More Low Fat

In the 1980’s American Baby Boomers hit thirty. To alleviate their panic, they drank designer water, joined health clubs, bought herbal and vitamins to help alleviate some of the problems after being raised on fast foods. As the low-fat obsession grew, a new way of eating was introduced by Nathan Pritikin from the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Monica, California. In 1983, The Pritikin Promise: 28 Days to Longer Life became a New York Times Bestseller. The plan allowed no fat, sugar, or oil.


Italian Food Comeback

New immigration continued to augment the rise of ethnic restaurants. The Hispanic migration was so massive that many of these cultures lived in parallel cultures without assimilation as previous immigrants had done. There were Islamic halal butchers, Mexican panaderias (bakeries), sushi bars, Hong Kong-style seafood restaurants, bagel stores, Argentine empanadas, Thai takeout and Iranian restaurants.  In the 1980’s, America discovered Italian food all over again but this time it was Northern Italian food which is essentially tomato-less. It comes primarily from Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna and Genoa. Pasta sauces were mainly cream and Parmesan cheese based, like Alfredo. Rice in risotto and corn in polenta replaced wheat as the starch in pasta. Tiramisu became a popular dessert but of course loaded with calories.

Gourmet and Gadgets

We began to collect more gourmet foods and gadgets. Our cabinets contained $65 bottles of extra virgin olive oils and 50 year old balsamic vinegars. We were enthralled by stand mixers, bread bakers and food processors. We visited Williams-Sonoma collecting all kinds of culinary gizmos from garlic presses to food mills.


Comfort Foods

In October, 1987 the stock market once again plummeted 508 points. Spending stopped, high-end restaurants lost customers and more down-home eateries began to be more popular. Simple comfort foods like chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, meat loaf (again), pot pies, pasta and chili became appealing to many.

Obesity Epidemic

One problem: All that comforting foods was taking its toll on the extra pounds were were accumulating. The number of obese Americans soared during the 1980s and 1990s, doubling among adults in the U.S. and tripling among children. The fact that obesity statistics have never been higher has raised a substantial amount of awareness and concern in regards to this issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just over one-third of U.S. adults, about 97 million, are obese. This number is expected to rise to 42 percent by the year 2030; however, some forecasters have predicted the number could easily be over 50 percent. Uh Oh. Update: The obesity rate is now (2020) about 40.0% for both men and women.

Diet issues and fads continue to dominate the culture. In 1981, the Beverly Hills Diet is introduced which recommended eating nothing but fruit for the first 10 days. Aspartame, another sugar substitute is introduced as NutraSweet in the same year. In 1982, liposuction is performed in the U.S. for the first time, and later became a popular cosmetic procedure with over 100,000 operations performed (still counting). In the same year, Jane Fonda’s Workout becomes a top selling exercise video. In 1983, Jenny Craig is formed which sells its own line of food and offers advice and counseling to people wanting to lose weight. Miller Brewers came out with “Miller Lite.” Cooking Light magazine led magazine sales.

The American Medical Association dampened the good spirits of the time with its recommendations that blood serum cholesterol levels should not exceed 200 milligrams. Eggs were bad, fried foods were bad, caffeine was bad, beef was bad, butter was bad. Supermarkets nationwide ran out of oat bran when consumers were told that the soluble fiber in oatmeal was flushing cholesterol from their arteries. Margarines appeared with names like “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”.

Slow Food

After three decades of enduring a fast food culture, some people rebelled against this trend; therefore, the Slow Food Movement was founded. Slow Food is an international movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986. Promoted as an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming of plants, seeds and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem.

An Excerpt from the Official Slow Food Manifesto states:
“We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods… A firm defense of quiet material pleasure is the only way to oppose the universal folly of Fast Life… May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency. Our defense should begin at the table with Slow Food. Let us rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food.


Trivia Timeline

1980: McDonald’s tests Chicken McNuggets in Knoxville, Tennessee., and gets such a huge response that suppliers can’t keep up with demand.

1980: more than half of all women work outside the home. 32% of white women and 25% of black women are employed as clerical workers. The numbers for Asian and Hispanic women fall somewhere in between. This prompted the food industry to provide even more ultra-processed foods to supermarkets, so that marketing concentrated on the lure of these already prepared dinners, some in a box, some in plastic containers and bags. None of them helped our health nor the environment.

1980: Whole Food Market opens in Austin, Texas., with a staff of 19. By the end of the century, through growth and acquisition, the chain is the number one natural food grocer in the US.

1980: 7-11, the world’s largest convenience store operation, introduces the 32 ounce Big gulp that is so popular that in 1987 the company brings out the Super Big Gulp, 44 ounces of sipping pleasure . And to further prove that bigger is better in America, in 1992 the chain introduces the 64-ounce Double Gulp. By comparison, the 1960 Coke bottle held 6.5 ounces. By the way, 1 Big Gulp has 186 grams of sugar or 46 tsp. It also provides 744 calories.

1981: President Reagan stocks the White House with his favorite treat — Jelly beans.

1982: Chosen by astronauts, M&M’s become the first chocolate candies in space.

1982: Wolfgang Puck, 31, opens Sago Restaurant in Los Angeles. He popularizes gourmet pizza and by 1990 is grossing $6,000,000 a year.

1982: Jenny Craig Inc., a weight loss program is founded by San Diego entrepreneur, Sid Craig and his wife, Jenny.

1986: McDonald’s and Burger King stop frying their food in beef tallow high in saturated fat and start releasing nutritional and ingredients information about their food.

1987: Microwave oven sales reach a record 12.6 million. Kenmore is the largest selling brand.

1988: American manufacturers introduce 972 new microwaveable products.

1989:  ConAgra CEO Charles Harper introduces the Healthy Choice line of frozen, low fat, low cholesterol, low sodium foods his company developed after he had a heart attack.