May 2012

GOOD EATS - Food Glorious Food

Author: Courtney Hampson

In the late 1800s, a lot was happening in our country. Development and commercial production of electric lighting and gasoline-powered automobiles was underway, steel frame construction of skyscrapers was happening for the first time, and Thomas Edison was inventing the first movie in his New Jersey workshop.

Indeed, as the industrial revolution paved way to the Gilded Age and a lifestyle enjoyed like never before, our newfound wealth as a country also yielded newfound power as a world leader in the Progressive Era. But, perhaps more exciting are the innovations that we didn’t read about in our middle school history books. While all of the progressive changes were taking root in America, a silent food revolution was also well underway.

In 1874, concessionaire Robert Green invented the ice cream soda at a fair in Philadelphia. Two years later, Hires Root Beer debuted at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, making way for an even better ice cream soda combination, no doubt. Quick on root beer’s heels, in 1886, the first Coca Cola was sold by pharmacist John Pemberton as a tonic. It also contained a dash of cocaine, so I image the recipe has changed some since then.

In the 1890s, the early origins of peanut butter were in process, thanks to Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s patent for the “Process of Preparing Nut Meal.” Originally developed as a protein source for his vegetarian patients, this nut meal would be refined into the peanut butter we know today, over the next couple of decades. In 1896, two major food innovations, Cracker Jack and Tootsie Roll, stuck.

Fast forward through condensed soup (are we really grateful for this invention?), Chiclets, Pabst Blue Ribbon, cotton candy, Fig Newtons and Hershey’s chocolate, and we hit the 20th century with gusto. In the early 1900s, we saw the introduction of moon pies and marshmallow fluff. Hostess cupcakes and the Good Humor man had both made their mark by 1920. In 1922, Girl Scout cookies debuted, and suddenly the organization had a new mission to honor. Kool Aid, Pez and cheese puffs were on the market by the ’30s with Hawaiian Punch and corn dogs not far behind.

Decades of new food innovations added a little spice to the life of Americans, who with each new food fad had something to talk about. Food was a part of the conversation, made ever more obvious by the mad ad men hawking the products. In the 1950s something changed. As the “golden age” of television took hold, the make-up of family dinners changed, as did the food products that arrived on the scene. Instead of a hot meal on the table and “tell me about your day, dear,” housewives everywhere were rushing to get Swanson TV dinners on tray tables in front of the boob tube lest the family miss an episode of “I Love Lucy” or “This is Your Life.” Around the same time as the TV dinner, we also saw frozen pizzas and frozen piecrust become available. Oh, the horror! No more piecrust from scratch?

What was happening in America? Doo-wop. Rock ’n’ roll. Elvis Presley. The Coasters. The Drifters. Chuck Berry. Johnny Cash. Marilyn Monroe. Elizabeth Taylor. Bridget Bardot. Rita Hayworth. Va va va voom. Women aren’t so interested in being in the kitchen; instead they’re getting in touch with their inner sex kitten.

So, now that we’re swinging our hips and shaking our (ever-expanding) rears, life has changed. Life is fun again. World War II recovery was behind us. Women’s rights are ahead of us and the future is bright.

Fast forward another decade or so and women are entering the workforce en mass, kids are latchkey (a term coined in the 1940s when Peppermint Patties were hitting the spot) and need a snack after school. And, it’s the 1960s, so “the munchies” are likely at an all-time high. So, what are people and potheads eating? Pop tarts, Tang, Spaghetti O’s and Doritos.

The economic challenges of the 1970s forced folks to get creative with their meals. So, why not melt down all of the cheese in the house and dip whatever else fills the fridge into your hot fromage? And, fondue is born!

The’70s also saw Orville Redenbacher make his mark with his Gourmet Popping Corn. Hamburger Helper, Egg McMuffins, Cup O’Noodles, and Miller Lite also launched during this decade. Burger King decides to let you “Have it Your Way,” Denny’s introduces their “Grand Slam Breakfast” and gratefully, Reese’s Pieces are born!

With women now firmly planted in the workforce, Betty Crocker was no slouch and unveiled the “Working Women’s Cookbook” in 1982 with a plethora of “family-style” meal options. Jell-O Pudding Pops, Classic Coke and Oscar Meyer bun length hot dogs were also birthed in the 1980s, as was Olive Garden, a trend I’ll never understand.

In 1993 the Food Network was launched and, frankly, we’ve been gorging goners ever since. Bravo TV and the Travel Channel add new food-related programming every television season, and suddenly what began as a “how to” resource for home cooks has now created a whole new segment of our population tuning in to see just how many super spicy hot wings one host can eat in under 60 minutes. We’re willing people to puke? In a society that used to lump people into categories like white collar, blue collar, yuppies, and hippies, today we find that “foodies” are an audience to be salivated over.

Technology has only heightened the foodie phenomenon. You don’t even have to pick up the phone to make a dinner reservation anymore. Just pull up your Open Table App on your iPhone and reserve your table for four tonight at eight. Point your browser to TastingTable, Eater, or Ulterior Epicure for the latest in food fads and some frank conversation about who’s not hitting the popular palate. There, you’ll also find food porn.

Ah yes, the latest in food fads… the pornography of the plate. I’m guilty. I admit it. I take photos of fabulous meals (prepared at home by moi or by well-known chefs) and post them to Facebook. And believe you me, they spark conversation. In fact, my picture of the CQs wedge salad launched a days-long discussion on the art of blue cheese and Vidalia onion dressing.

Foodspotting is just a few years young, but picking up on the trend that people are in a food coma, and created a place (online and via their mobile App) with a mission to “find and share the foods you love: Instead of reviewing restaurants, you can recommend your favorite dishes and see what others have recommended wherever you go.” Of course you can link your Foodspotting account to your Facebook page, so every friend is always 100 percent in the know. Whew.

We’re now a society on a mission to find the perfect plate, the next best the thing, the newest food trend; we want our “Artisan bread, dipped in artisan cheese, dipped in artisan nuts, dipped in artisan greens…”

Have we gone too far? As the lyric above from the song “Eat It, Don’t Tweet It” suggests, we can’t all be gastronomists. Perhaps with all this food we’re consuming, we’re really all just full of hot air.

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