Fun Food Facts from the Smithsonian Food Exhibit

Sign from the Smithsonian food exhibitPop quiz: Which of the following factors has had the most impact on what Americans eat over the past 50 years? Julia Child, the USDA Food Pyramid, or technology?

Answer: Probably all of the above.

If you live in DC or will be travelling there during the next year, check out the food exhibit at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian, which opened last fall.  The exhibit, titled, “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000,” is a fun and fascinating overview of how the way we eat continues to evolve.

old photo of iceberg lettuceI loved the entire exhibit, but the section that intrigued me the most was the impact of technology on what we eat. The changes in the way that food is farmed and processed have transformed the American diet for better as well as for worse (mostly for worse, in my opinion). Whatever your view, it’s worth taking a moment to think about the impact that technology has had on our food.

For example, baby carrots. They were “invented” by vegetable processors in California in the late 1980s looking for a way to use imperfect carrots that would otherwise have been discarded.  They take full-size carrots, pare them down, wash them in a water/chlorine solution, and bag them. Is this wasteful? Probably. But if making carrots convenient encourages more of us to eat them, I think it’s a net gain.

Technology also transformed the lettuce market.  Iceberg lettuce—the number one vegetable in America in 1950—was shipped all over the country on ice, which resulted in a lot of waste.  In the early 1950s, they started using vacuum technology (developed in WWII) to cool it, reducing the spoilage. While I’d prefer that everyone has access to locally grown lettuce, if we’re going to ship it, we certainly want to keep waste to a minimum.

Four of the many images suggesting the ideal diet.

Four of the many images suggesting the ideal diet.

One of the best reflections of the change in the US diet over the past 50 years is how the USDA’s recommended daily diet has evolved.  A long wooden table at the center of the exhibit is embedded with images of the ideal diet, beginning with “The Basic 7” in 1945 right up to the 2011 “My Plate.” Dietary choices reflect culture, of course.  I was fascinated to see the Oldways Prevention and Exchange Trust’s “African Heritage Diet Pyramid, 2011,” as well as recommended diets from other countries.

Fifty States of WineThe exhibit covers lots of other ground, including the growth of the wine industry (wine is now produced in all fifty states), the treatment of farm workers, the integration of ethnic foods into the American diet, food coops, the “back to the land” movement, the growth of the “good food” movement, and of course, the growth in farmers markets, from fewer than 100 in 1974 to over 2500 in 2001.

As a bonus, the exhibit also includes a tribute to Julia Child, who is rightly credited for popularizing French cooking and wine drinking in the US.  Her kitchen—already on exhibit at the Smithsonian—has been incorporated into this show, as well as new additions from her archives.

The exhibit will run at least another year or two.  If you can’t make it to DC, you might enjoy visiting the Museum’s online collection of food history objects, artifacts, and documents. They’ve got thousands of items archived, from food labels and the original “CARE package” to cookbooks and catalogs. While not nearly as fun as seeing the originals up close, it’s a great way to learn about our food history.


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