Is Food as Healthy and Tasty as It Used to Be?
I've been writing about food for 50 years, yet it took the COVID-19 crisis to show me just how much I didn't know. Facing empty supermarket shelves for the first time in my life, I reached out to the people who keep us fed. As I spoke with farmers, fishermen, ranchers, chefs and cheese makers, I finally began to understand how our food system really works.
Here's the thing: We are all aware that our food tastes have changed. We know that Americans now eat more salsa than ketchup and that ramen is as familiar as Campbell's tomato soup. Still, when it comes to the basics, we tend to believe that we're eating pretty much the same food that our grandparents did.
Consider Thanksgiving dinner. Since 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, Americans everywhere have been sitting down to roast turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes. “This tastes just like my grandmother's,” my husband says every year, as we revel in the fact that we are literally eating history.
His memory is playing tricks on him. The food on my table — and yours — does not resemble in any way what our ancestors once ate. A turkey hatched 50 years ago would look with deep suspicion at that bird you're carving, the farmer of the past would barely recognize the potatoes on your plate, and the wheat in the bread we use for stuffing is nothing like the amber grains on the plains of the past. American food is being transformed at such a rapid pace that a few years from now, it's entirely possible our turkeys will no longer even be hatched from eggs.
Although I may not remember how Grandma's food tasted, I certainly remember her complaining about its cost. Little wonder, as almost a third of her household budget went to feed the family. Since then, food prices have come down so dramatically that average Americans spend a mere 7 percent of their budget on it — less than people spend in any other nation on earth. That seems like progress, but just look at us! Three-quarters of us are overweight, and 6 out of 10 of us suffer from chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma and hepatitis. Does our cheap food have anything to do with that? Looking for answers, I turned back the clock.
When I was growing up in Connecticut, my mother bought corn, poultry and tomatoes from the farm next door. Our milk came from the Loudon Dairy, down the road. The farm is long gone, and the dairy is now a golf course, but I never gave much thought to why they disappeared. It was not, it turns out, an accident.
As we entered World War II, almost a quarter of Americans were employed in farming. After the war ended and the Cold War began, our government decided that growing bigger, better and substantially more food than the Soviets did would be a great way to spread democracy. They began by converting into fertilizer the enormous stockpile of ammonium nitrate left over from the explosives program.
The new nitrate-rich fertilizer dramatically increased productivity. Meanwhile, new laborsaving machines replaced inefficient horses, and progressive plant breeding improved yields. Scientific advances such as the use of antibiotics to make animals grow faster were also introduced.
By 1960, our farms had become so efficient that fewer farmers were able to grow significantly more food, and farmers dwindled to 9 percent of the population. Small farms were gobbled up by bigger ones, and in suburban America, farms began to vanish. Urban dwellers barely noticed, but we were starting to lose touch with the way our food was grown. Things got so bad that, 10 years ago, when I handed a cucumber to a New York City kid, he looked at it with wonder. “What's that?” he asked.
But we weren't losing just farms. My family used to pile into Dad's old woody station wagon every summer, stopping to eat at local restaurants as we drove across the country. I remember my first taste of Rhode Island stuffies and the thrill of Iowa loose-meat sandwiches, and, as we drove to South Carolina, I repeated the words “Frogmore stew, Frogmore stew,” over and over, wondering what that regional specialty would taste like.
Those trips ended in the ‘60s: Restaurants that served those dishes began to close, and road trips were a lot less fun when the only dining places left served fast food. Americans had chosen consistency over tradition, yet we lost more than regional flavors: We lost some of the glue that held rural America together.
Efficiency also invaded our homes. In the early ‘50s, Poppy Cannon's The Can-Opener Cook Book charged onto the best-seller list with its suggestions for fast, easy family meals. When Mom became a fan, Dad and I began to dread dinner. I recently looked up the recipe for one of her favorite dishes: Casserole à la King. It turns out to be canned macaroni and cheese mixed with canned Chicken à la King and topped with grated cheese, bread crumbs and butter. Did Mom really think it was palatable? Did anyone? I expect that much of Poppy's success was due to her promoting her specious theories on America's favorite new medium, television.
But she was just a sign of the times. By the mid ‘50s, most American kitchens were equipped with refrigerators, and housewives filled their new freezers with three iconic foods of that moment: TV dinners, fish sticks and Tater Tots. Frankly, after Poppy Cannon's concoctions, they were a thrill; those chicken TV dinners, with their peas and mashed potatoes, were some of the best meals Mom ever made.
"What we want is to make life more easy for our housewives,” Vice President Richard Nixon told Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in the famous “kitchen debates” of 1959. My mother and legions of other women held Nixon to his word. For them, even TV dinners took too much time.
"Instant” became my mother's favorite word as she happily embraced an entirely new group of foods designed to get her out of the kitchen quickly. Instant mashed potatoes, freeze-dried instant coffee, Pop-Tarts, Tang and, of course, Carnation Instant Breakfast began to line our cupboard shelves. Mom bragged she could get dinner on the table in 15 minutes flat.
Some people had second thoughts about all this. The price of air travel had dropped dramatically, and hordes of American tourists went off to explore Europe and other parts of the world on $5 a day. They came home hungry for the delicious foods they'd tasted on their travels. Julia Child was there to help.
"This book,” she wrote in the introduction to Mastering the Art of French Cooking, first published in 1961, is for the “American cook who can be unconcerned with budgets, waistlines or … anything which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat."
But the ‘60s were a decade of enormous culinary conflict. Women, entering the workforce in record numbers, yearned for ever-easier and faster foods to prepare for their families. Frozen bread dough, frozen piecrusts, Green Giant peas and Cool Whip all entered the market to make their lives easier. And if they were a little late getting home from work, that problem was easily solved: Snack-food options were exploding, with the introduction of Pringles, Ruffles, Bugles, Chipos and Doritos.
The Julia Child crowd, however, had a new friend in the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt had served hot dogs to the king of England, and Mamie Eisenhower once plied the king of Greece with toasted Triscuits, but the new first lady was eager to show off a different side of America.
Jackie Kennedy lured a serious chef, René Verdon, to Washington so she could regale the president's guests with quenelles and sole Véronique — two recipes straight from Julia's book. Long before anyone had heard of farm-to-table cooking, Verdon was growing vegetables on the White House roof and herbs in the East Garden.
Perhaps that inspired Howard Johnson to hire an equally accomplished French chef to upgrade the food at his iconic chain of American restaurants. Jacques Pépin is one of America's unsung heroes. At Howard Johnson's, Jacques went back to the basics, making everything from scratch. He understood what American food could be: His kitchens turned out 10 tons of fresh hot dogs daily, and he insisted on real potatoes in the clam chowder and real clams in the fried strips. To this day, if you ask me to define American food, the first thing that comes to mind are my memories of those crisp, delicious fried clams.
But another thing happened in the ‘60s that shook up our ideas about food. Congress revamped immigration policy, and that opened the doors to chefs from all over the world. I will never forget my first taste of Thai cooking. Initially my head exploded, then tears ran down my face … and then I wanted more. And more.
The new flavors from China were also a shock: For the first time, cooks from provinces other than Canton entered the country, and we all discovered Szechuan and Hunan food. Is it any wonder that we embarked on a spicy-food craze from which we have yet to recover? Last year, Americans spent $700 million just on hot sauce.
Even so, when I wrote my first cookbook, in 1971, and included a recipe for a Chinese chicken dish I'd learned from a chef in Manhattan's Chinatown, my editor was horrified. “Will people really want to cook that?” she asked. She was equally wary of the Greek moussaka I'd brought back from a trip abroad. Americans, she insisted, didn't like lamb; couldn't I substitute beef? What she really wanted, it turned out, was more desserts. “Baking,” she explained, “is why people turn to cookbooks.”
Perhaps that was why Americans were growing so fat. In 1950, about 10 percent of Americans were overweight or obese; that percentage jumped to 44 percent by the ‘60s and to some 72 percent today. Along came Weight Watchers — by the time Jean Nidetch published the first Weight Watchers cookbook in 1966, a million and a half copies flew off the shelves. And yet, though Weight Watchers has been joined by dozens of other diet systems in the intervening years, we have not stopped growing.
Like everyone who writes about food, I have produced dozens of articles on the subject. We should stop drinking. We should stop eating carbohydrates. We should exercise more. All good advice but probably beside the point. The real answer, I think, is staring us in the face. Eating is learned behavior, and from the moment our children are born, we begin teaching them that the most delicious foods are filled with fat, sugar and salt.
Back in the ‘60s, a young writer named Nora Ephron took a worried look at the schizophrenic American diet and wondered which way it would go. “Whatever happens,” she wrote in 1968, “the Food Establishment at this moment has the power to change the way America eats. And in fact, about all it is doing is showing how to make a better piecrust and fill a bigger breadbox.”
She had a point. Those in the food press were so busy discovering new cuisines, so involved with recipe writing and restaurant reviews, that they paid scant attention to what was really happening to our food.
It wasn't good. Nixon's secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, was determined to make food even cheaper for Americans.
It was the Cold War on steroids, as he urged farmers to “get big or get out.” The result was the demise of even more small farms and the rise of ever larger and more efficient factory farms. These advances all came at a cost, including to flavor. One day in the ‘70s, I boarded a plane while carrying a flat of heirloom strawberries from a small California farmer. The effect was electric. The perfume of those aromatic berries filled the plane and, one by one, people rose from their seats to beg for a taste.
"Oh,” crooned one woman, closing her eyes as a look of ecstasy crossed her face, “I'd forgotten what strawberries used to taste like.”
We'd all forgotten. Yes, the strawberries, corn, tomatoes and peaches in our supermarkets were big. They were beautiful. They lasted a long time, too. The meats were plentiful. It's just that none of it tasted like much anymore.
Some people also began to wonder if the new foods were as nutritious as they once had been. And what about those animals that were being raised in cages? In 1971, Frances Moore Lappé published Diet for a Small Planet, which proved to be a wake-up call for millions of young people, including me.
Pointing out that raising meat is an extremely inefficient way to produce calories, she urged her readers to get their protein by combining grains and legumes. We were all very earnest, and as Anna Thomas’ The Vegetarian Epicure appeared, followed by Mollie Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook, and William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi's The Book of Tofu, a lot of us started down the path to vegetarianism.
You might call the ‘70s the granola decade: Farmers markets opened, soda bottles began to be recycled, and counterculture foods such as Celestial Seasonings herbal teas and Yoplait yogurt appeared on our supermarket shelves, and Ben & Jerry's opened their first store.
Then the food scares started. In the ‘80s, when I became the food editor of the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper's lawyers insisted we put warnings on all recipes featuring undercooked or raw eggs. The American egg supply was so badly contaminated by salmonella that we even advised our readers to avoid soft-boiled eggs. The terms “salmonella,” “botulism” and “mad cow disease” entered our vocabularies. We were accustomed to being cautious about what we ate when we went abroad, but few people of my generation had ever worried about the safety of American food.
It was a shock, though temporary.
In 1993, Reese Schonfeld had an idea to change the way we thought about food: a television channel devoted exclusively to what we eat. TV's Food Network started on a shoestring budget, but within 15 years had become a juggernaut that changed America's ideas about food and cooking, and made chefs the coolest people on the planet. Viewers wanted to taste new foods, travel to new places — and cook. Cooking, once relegated to the “women's pages” of newspapers, had finally broken free.
I don't think it is possible to overstate the positive influence of food television. It may have begun with silly shows such as the kitschy Japanese Iron Chef and with Emeril Lagasse shouting “Bam!” — but it paved the way for the enormous range of programs that have become part of popular culture. Most important, thoughtful cooks like Anthony Bourdain inspired a generation to look at food in a way Americans never had. For the first time in our history, we are starting to understand that how and what we eat have consequences far beyond the table.
People who care about the environment, for instance, have driven the cause of organic farms, whose numbers have doubled in the past 10 years. Old-time farmers had it right: Plants grown in fertile soil are not only more nutritious; they also require less water. Major companies such as General Mills and Nestlé are starting to put millions into regenerative agriculture, and that is cause for rejoicing.
But the most revolutionary changes in food production revolve around meat. Research has shown that a meat-based diet increases the risk of heart disease and cancer. And environmentalists worry about the vast amount of water it takes to produce a pound of beef (mostly to grow food for the cattle). Bring on the plant-based burgers! They're everywhere — and meat, egg and fish alternatives are showing up on menus across the country. (Though note: Many of those alternatives rely on genetically modified beans and grains, along with a range of unpronounceable chemicals.)
The coronavirus disrupted the American food supply, and it changed the way I shop, cook and eat. Seeing packing plants turned into COVID-19 hot spots made me question how we process our meat. Watching the domino effects of the restaurant shutdowns — dairies having to dump milk, fishermen who lost so much business that they simply docked their boats — has inspired me and many other Americans to spend in ways that could more directly benefit our food suppliers and producers.
Indeed, across the country, people in lockdown began to cook again, and the family meal — long threatened — returned in earnest. Many who had never before put their hands into the dirt planted gardens; seed sales have soared. People like me, who live in rural parts of the country, began buying our food straight from the farm, just like my mother once did. I know I'll be doing that for the rest of my life.
And there's another reason to be hopeful. As Nixon told Khrushchev in 1959, “The American system is designed to take advantage of new inventions and new techniques.” For most of our lifetimes, that technology was used to give us cheaper food. We're finally beginning to understand the hidden costs and far-reaching consequences of those inventions, and there's no reason to believe that new technology will not bring us food that is increasingly healthful, nutritious and flavorful. If there is anything to be learned from the history of American food, it is that we are capable of enormous changes, at the drop of a fork.
Cookbook author and memoirist Ruth Reichl was the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, and was the editor in chief of Gourmet magazine. Her latest memoir is Save Me the Plums (2019).