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Deconstructing Dinner

Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY

Nelson, B.C. Canada

 

December 17, 2009

 

Title: Eating History w/ Andrew Smith

 

Producer/Host: Jon Steinman

Transcript: Carol Elliott

 

Jon Steinman: And welcome to Deconstructing Dinner, a weekly radio show and Podcast produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY in Nelson, British Columbia. Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations around the world, including CJMQ Sherbrooke, Quebec. I'm Jon Steinman.

 

Today's episode is truly in the spirit of "deconstructing" our food and features a talk delivered by Andrew Smith, a writer and lecturer on food and culinary history. His latest book is titled Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine.

 

Andrew teaches Culinary History at the New School in New York City. He's the editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America and he's the author or editor of fourteen other books, including The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture and Cookery and Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America.

 

Andrew was recorded speaking in November 2009 at the Kansas City Public Library in Kansas City, Missouri.

 

increase music and fade out

 

Jon Steinman: Launching his talk in November 2009, New York's Andrew Smith first engaged the audience in a dialogue on what kind of food they would prefer: organic or conventional; local or global; genetically manipulated or not. Of course, the audience chose the options that are the least available. And in a quest to understand how this came to be - that the foods we want the most are the food that are hardest to find - Andrew Smith authored Eating History, in which he speaks of 30 distinct shifts in American food culture that forever changed the way North Americans eat food.

 

Andrew Smith: So, the point that I am raising isn't to discuss culinary hypocrisy - saying we prefer one system and in fact we eat in another. It's really to say, "I'm a culinary historian and the system that you all prefer is exactly the type of system that was around here in 1800."

 

There was only organic food. There were no petrochemical fertilizers. There were no insecticides at all, which surprised me. I had expected to find tobacco and other things being used as insecticides. But there were no insecticides that I found. In addition to that, virtually all food was local. There were exceptions: coffee; tea; and some of the spices were actually imported from abroad. But mainly food was local.

 

So my question, which I began with five years ago, was, "Why did we change?" So I what I started with was the idea that there's fifteen turning points in culinary history about where systems change from one system into another system. And I wrote up my fifteen points and I sent it off to Columbia University Press. They sent it off to real historians, and the real historians said, "Well, this is a good idea, but you really can't exclude this.... This is a really important topic. You got to put this in here." And I said, "Oh, yeh, this makes some sense.," and so I got it up to twenty really turning points. Then I started writing and I got it up to twenty-five, then I got it to thirty. When I got to thirty-three, Columbia University Press said, "Forget it. This is the end."

 

So, I understand the process of publication. So I removed three of the chapters. Three of the chapters had to do with beverages. Then I pitched Columbia University Press, saying : "You now need a companion to this: Drinking History" (audience: laughter), which I'm delighted to say I'm under contract now to do.

 

So, in any case, this is how these thirty events were created. There is a little more thought to them.

 

I want to start with an experience I had about fifteen years ago. I went to a ketchup-making factory. Have any of you ever been to a ketchup-making factory, or a food factory in general? A couple of you have. This happened to be in Ohio. It happened to be by the Heinz Corporation. They took me out, at four a.m. in the morning, to a farm. The farm was not far from the factory at all. They put me onto a truck that was paralleling a harvester. The harvester would go along the fields, pick up the tomatoes, dump anything out the back that was green. I don't know how it did it, but it had an electric eye in there. Any tomato that wasn't exactly the right colour, it broke the tomato apart and shot it out the back. The good tomatoes it put on to the truck next to it. The truck then drove the factory. It was about three minutes away. The tomatoes were put into a flue. The flue came up to the top of the water bath.

 

From the beginning of the point where the tomato was actually planted until the time that you picked up the bottle of ketchup, the only time the tomato might have been touched by human hands was when it was at the top of the flue. In this case, women were charged with the task, saying that anything that the electric eye missed they were to pick it out. And I was amazed. They could have a conversation with me and simultaneously pick things out. I guess if you are experienced you can do that sort of thing. I couldn't.

 

In any case, those tomatoes were then ground up. They were put into a large bath and secret ingredients were put in. The secret ingredients aren't secret: anybody who knows botany and biology can figure out exactly what they are. Well, the secret was the equipment that got it there. And then they were put automatically into a bottling machine, which was right there. And they were automatically put onto a pallet. The pallet was automatically put onto a truck.

 

From the beginning of the process of going out to the field until the time the ketchup came out of the other end, the total length of time that it took to do this preparation was two hours. Whether you like ketchup or not, I looked at that and said, "That's amazing."

 

I tried to make ketchup. Have any of you ever tried to make ketchup? (audience: laughter) I have lots of recipes. It's tough to do. You can never get it the same colour that Heinz does, and you can never get it the same taste. But I was impressed with how that worked out.

 

So the first question that I asked was, "Where did this start?" And my answer was a man by the name of Oliver Evans. Does Oliver Evans ring a bell with anybody in here? Most Americans don't know anything about Oliver Evans. Oliver Evans was a man who was into innovations during the time of the American Revolution. He signed up to be in the American Army, but there is no evidence that he ever actually served in it. But he decided that he wanted to be a wire maker. He made wire for a while. He figured out a better way to make wire. Then he decided he wanted to be a grocer in Delaware. The people that in fact worked with him were those farmers that had mills, and he paid a lot of attention to the milling technology of the time.

 

Do any of you know what the milling technology would have been like in the eighteenth century? What would it have been like? It's pretty primitive, it has stone. It would have been usually a family operation. There would have been five or six people that would have operated that. Virtually every community in America would have had one or more mills. So there were thirty to forty thousand mills in America. And when you didn't have water power, which was obviously important in New England, you had wind power, you had animal power, and you had human power when all else failed. So you had to be able to figure out a way to grind the grain in order to make flour.

 

So, Oliver Evans took one look at this and said, "We don't need all these people here. We can do this by putting buckets in elevators and all sorts of connections. We can take the grain from the wagon that comes, put it up to the top, have it go through all these processes. And then we just have another wagon on the other end and dump the flour into it. If you want to hold up the bags you can. If you want to just put it directly into the wagon you can do that, too."

 

He in fact was the third person to receive a patent from the US Patent Agency. And he presented this as the whole new technology.

 

Now I know this is going to surprise you but millers of the time didn't like this at all. Why wouldn't millers like this? Anybody? They didn't need it. Why need it? And looking at it, it would mean they would be out of a job. So they decided this wasn't for them.

 

So the technology only took off in those new areas of the country that were beginning to grow grain, that could produce a great deal of it and didn't have a group of people who were already invested in this process. That happened to be Western New York. Now, how many of you think of New York as the grain basket of the United States? (audience: laughter) Prior to this, by the way, the grain basket of the United States was New Jersey, Downstate New York, and Pennsylvania, with some production in Maryland and some production in Northern Virginia. But that's where the grain basket was.

 

My second story here happens to do with the Erie Canal. How many of you know about the Erie Canal? How many of you know the Erie Canal boat song? I can tell, those of us who had a progressive education, we know the real truth behind the Erie Canal boat song. I was going to bring it to you and have us sing it for you, but I am going to have pass on that. You're just going to have to Google it and find out the Erie Canal boat song.

 

So, in any case, the Erie Canal starts off in New York in 1817; it's completed in 1825. Even before the Canal was completed, the milling industry had moved from where it originally had been to Rochester. Rochester is the largest milling city in the world by 1840. So you had this huge shift and change that went out. You had huge production of grain in Western New York.

 

Unfortunately, they didn't know much about fertilizers, they didn't know much about pesticides, they didn't know much about a lot of other things. And the land in Western New York - soon you could no longer raise the amount of grain that you could before. So with the Canal opening up they decided to move elsewhere, and they moved into the Midwest. So you had this huge change going along.

 

The milling technology that Oliver Evans created went right along with this. And the milling technology also went to Europe. It was the Europeans that took one look at this and said, "This is called scientific milling. It is exactly the type of milling that we need here." And they began to make advances on it.

 

One of the advances was rather than using stones, which would typically have been part of the milling process, they shifted first to iron and then to steel. Now the steel technology would come back into the United States and that will be where the Midwest begins to take off, the upper Midwest in particular where it will grow, and can grow hard-grained wheat (or hard wheat), which you couldn't do prior to that time. You couldn't use the milling instruments of the time. So the milling industry moves aside.

 

Not everybody was happy with these changes. One person in particular really was upset with them. You want to know who that person was? I mentioned him on the radio today. You might have had one of his graham crackers or a graham cracker named after him. It's called Graham, and his first name was Sylvester. Sylvester Graham was a failure throughout much of his life. Then he became a Methodist minister. He was a tremendous success being a Methodist minister. He was offered a job in a temperance society in Philadelphia. Temperance really has its beginnings in the United States, not as a particular concern of religion, but it was a medical concern.

 

The best estimate in America at the time in the 1830s was that about twenty-five per cent of the total calories consumed by Americans was alcohol. So, the amount of alcohol that the founding fathers consumed was prodigious by any standards. John Adams, who is not really known as more of the frivolous founding fathers, consumed a tankard of hard cider every single day. To get his juices rolling, I can see that now.

 

In any case, he was concerned on temperance. And he got into the temperance society, which was done by medical professionals at the time, saying, "Alcoholism is a really serious problem in America." He started studying all the medical texts of the day, and they are voluminous. He read them all, and he concluded, "It's not alcohol that's the problem. It's over consumption of food." How many of you have heard this before - over consumption of food? We're talking 1830.

 

Now, no one would have paid any attention to Sylvester Graham except that cholera became a real threat in the United States. Cholera starts off in India and gets to Europe in the 1820s. And Americans know that it's only an amount of time when cholera is going to hit the United States as well.

 

And so Graham has this great idea: if you only follow his rules for eating and drinking you will not get cholera. Now parts of his rules were, by the way:

 

Only consume grain that you grow yourself.

Only consume flour that you have ground yourself or it's been ground locally.

Only consume raw food. (Most of the food that he consumed was raw food.)

Don't drink any alcohol.

Don't eat any ketchup.

 

This is where I got off on him. As soon as he said he didn't like ketchup, I knew that there was something wrong with this guy.

 

But he did make a huge change here. And part of this change - he took one look at this and said, "If you only follow my strictures then you will not get cholera." And he had another stricture: "Don't drink water." Now I know this sounds strange. No one really drank water in the early nineteenth century. But he made it a point to boil the water before you would consume it if you were going to consume it, and do a number of other things. If you know anything about cholera one of the main ways that it is transmitted - there are other ways, but it is actually through the water. So sure enough, everybody that followed his principles all of a sudden didn't get cholera. Or at least that is what he claimed.

 

And he was one who was not opposed to advertising and promoting his views. He happened to print them all up and he happened to make nice booklets out of them and say "how wonderful it is" with all these testimonials from people who followed his principles.

 

Now, I want to talk about one of his principles. He liked bread. But he believed that bread could only be made by the mother of the house, and that bakers were doing bad things to bread. What might bakers be doing at the time that would be bad?

 

Well, one of the things that he was really worried about was the fermentation that occurred in bread. In order to make bread you really need to ferment it and for him that was creating alcohol. And so he believed that bakers making the bread at the time were in fact doing this. So he was going to create bread without yeast. I don't know quite how he did that. But in any case he does have a whole book on how one makes bread. Now, the interesting thing about this is, he said bakers at the time were putting in a lot of things to make it white. I can't tell you why Europeans and Americans liked white bread, but it goes back 2500 years to Roman and Greek times, the idea that white bread was better than brown bread. We all know that shifts in the 1970s - brown bread is better than white bread. But at this time he does.

 

How would you get flour white in the early ...? (audience: comment) Yeh, you would use the sun. And if you had sun you were in good shape. And you would actually put it out in the sun and the insects would come by and eat what they liked. And what they didn't like you would end up with.

 

But you could bleach it... somebody said bleach it. How many of you like bleached flour? Does that sound good? How many of you would consume bleached flour? If you consume flour, all of the flour today is bleached. There is no naturally white flour out there as far as I know. There may be some local brands that are out there. But actually bleach is put it in with the flour in order to turn it white because it is not naturally that colour.

 

But they would also do other things. They would put in plaster. Plaster's good. (audience: laughter) You are all saying, "Ooh." Plaster tastes good. What's wrong with plaster? It's white and it's about the same colour, and really it weighs more than the flour. So when you weigh the bread - which is how they sold it, by weight - it would weigh more.

 

So, in any case, there were abuses of bakers at the time and Sylvester Graham was opposed to that. He only wanted the mother to do it. But he said, even if the baker didn't bleach it, even if they didn't put in plaster and other extraneous products in it, he still thought that mother's bread was better because she put love in it. And isn't that true, I mean, when you think about it? Those of you who bake your own bread - do any of you bake your own bread? If you do, isn't love one of the ingredients that goes into it? We have got some nods here. And I think that one of the wonderful things about home cooking is that the love does go into it. And it does make a difference.

 

Now I used to grow tomatoes. I don't any more. But I used to grow tomatoes. And I calculated the cost of me when my time was into that. Each tomato would be worth about seven dollars and twenty-eight cents. (audience: laughter) If I put my tomatoes into a farmers' market and put that price on it, I wouldn't buy them even if I knew that they were mine, all right. (audience: laughter) But since I grew them it seems to me that that's something special and I like that, and I hope that all of you are inclined to grow your own food to the extent that you can.

 

Jon Steinman: This is Deconstructing Dinner. We're listening to author Andrew Smith speaking in November 2009 in Kansas City Missouri. Andrew is the author of Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine. Today's episode is archived on-line at deconstructingdinner.ca and listed under the December 17th 2009 episode.

 

As Andrew continues, he speaks of Reverend Sylvester Graham, an advocate of dietary reform in the early mid-nineteenth century.

 

Andrew Smith: So, you had a huge shift and change, a huge protest movement. I can't begin to tell you the thousands of people that showed up to listen to Sylvester Graham lecture. And he is the first American to actually develop a whole theory of food. He connected it with a whole lot of other things, which I won't go into in depth, but he thought that anything stimulating was bad for the body. Anything stimulating we won't get into in depth. But the whole idea is part of Christian tradition, this love-hate affair with the body, and the love-hate affair with food. So, this dualism has been there and Sylvester Graham brings it back.

 

His view was food should not taste good. If it tasted good it was bad for you. And it was bad for you because it would get you to overeat, just like wine and beer and ale and cider were bad for you because they would get you to drink more if you like them. So his goal was anything stimulating was bad for you. And that's part of the movement that goes on.

 

He creates a movement that will expand and continues today in many ways. He will influence a whole lot of hydrotherapists. Many of you are practitioners of hydrotherapy. How many of you are practitioners of hydrotherapists in here? None of you want to raise your hands. Some of you are willing to give it a shot.

 

These were medical professionals in the 1840s who believed you should take a bath once a week. Now, you may think that doesn't sound good. All I can do is say, in comparison to the number of baths that Americans took in the 1840s, that's really good. (audience: laughter)

 

And they also believed that drinking water was good, and health spas were a part of that movement. And so you had health spas opening up in New York by a man by the name James Caleb Jackson. The name ring a bell with anybody? He created a produced called granula. Does anyone ever hear of granula? No, none of you have heard of granula.

 

Well, all he would do is take Graham flour, which is unbleached, with all of the germ and with even the casing on the outside of the flour put into it. He would bake it twice. Then he would break it up, and then he would serve it. And because Jackson happened to be a vegetarian as well, he would not consume that with milk but he would consume it with water.

 

This will come into America as another name. Somebody else is going to grab the attention of Americans on this. Anybody know the name of this commercial cereal today? (audience: Grape-Nuts) Grape-Nuts, yeah. The first granula (slash) granola becomes Grape-Nuts. And C.W. Post is going to promote that one later on.

 

In any case, now we have another person coming into this. And it's Ellen White. Does anyone know Ellen White? Does her name ring a bell with anybody? Are you Seventh Day Adventists? No? It's okay, you can be, it's all right. We have no objection.

 

She did visit Jackson and said, "This is the type of food and type of philosophy that we want to instill in our religion." And while vegetarianism is not a requirement of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, it is encouraged for health reasons, not for religious reasons. And much of the simple types of foods were certainly encouraged in the 1840s.

 

She goes back to the centre, which at that point happened to be a strange place in Michigan. I don't know the name of it. Does somebody know the name of the place in Michigan? (audience: comments) Battle Creek, okay. Anybody hear of Battle Creek, Michigan? And she decides that she is going to create a spa. So she creates a spa there, but the trouble is it's a failure. No one really wants to go to the Seventh Day Adventist spa, particularly when they find out that, unlike Jackson's spa where you could play cards at night and you could dance at night, there is no dancing and card playing at this spa in Battle Creek, Michigan, all right. So, they said, "This isn't the greatest place in the world. We don't want to do this."

 

But, she finds a teenager there who has read all of Sylvester Graham's work. And his name is... anybody? (audience: Kellogg) John Harvey Kellogg. How many of you have heard of John Harvey Kellogg? Most people actually haven't. John Harvey Kellogg is probably the premier medical professional in the late nineteen century-early twentieth century. And he is a vegetarian, and he does take over the spa in Battle Creek, Michigan.

 

And among the first things that he does is try to figure out what products that can be served there. He takes granula from Jackson and says, "Ok, fine. We're going to create the same product and then we are going to sell it." Jackson was not happy with this idea of him taking that idea and there actually was a huge lawsuit about it. So John Harvey Kellogg says, "Fine. Okay, I'll make up my own formula for it and I am going to change its name." And the name is changed to... (audience: Grape-Nuts). Not Grape-Nuts... (audience: Granola) Granola. This is the first Granola. It looks like Grape-Nuts. It is in fact what C.W. Post steals from the sanitarium and creates as a commercial product. But that's the product that they start with. So, you have this coming in.

 

Now, there is another man that comes in by the name of Schumacher. Schumacher happens to be a German immigrant that comes in. And he decides that Americans need to eat oats. How many of you eat oats? At the time most Americans did not eat oats. Why wouldn't Americans eat oats at the time? (audience: horses) It's horses. That's what horses eat, all right. Americans, we eat corn. We eat wheat. We don't eat oats. Now, if you're of Scottish derivation, you eat oats. If you're of Irish derivation, you eat oats. If you're of German derivation, you eat oats. And so Schumacher comes along and says, "Okay, fine. We're going to make some oats." And they begin selling them to the ethnic communities that had developed in America at the time.

 

And then he happens to go to the 1876 Centennial Fair in Philadelphia. Anyone know of the Centennial Fair in Philadelphia? It is the most incredible event in America in the late nineteenth century. There is nothing like it. Ten million people go in a six month period of time to see the exhibits that are there. Among the exhibits happened to be German millers who brought in the machinery that had been invented in Europe but had been based on Oliver Evans' inventions of the steel mills.

 

He takes one look at this and says, "This is perfect. What we can do with the oats is we can cook the oats to begin with and then we can run them through these steel mills and we will end up with (audience: oatmeal) oatmeal." The problem with Americans not eating oats is it takes an awful long time, mushing up the oats. If you put it in water overnight - or anything overnight - it's going to take an awful long time before the oat is going to break down and so you can actually consume it.

 

Now, the oatmeal has already been cooked once. And you put it through this. All you really have to do is put it in hot water and add hot water to it. And so while it's not an instant breakfast, it's certainly an important breakfast.

 

This is an important process that now other people discover. One is Henry Perky. Has anyone here heard of Henry Perky? He's a little-known man. He's an inventor, too. He takes one look at these rollers and says, "This is a really great idea. What we should is put wheat through this - already cooked wheat. Put a shredding machine on the outside of it. And then put a biscuit machine on the other side of that shredding machine." And we end up with... (audience: Shredded Wheat) Shredded Wheat.

 

And so Perky thinks this is a good idea. He has some problems with the process and he decides he is going to go talk to John Harvey Kellogg and say, "This is a really great invention here." And, reportedly from Perky's standpoint, although not confirmed from Kelloggs' standpoint, Kellogg offers him fifty thousand dollars for the invention. Perky declines it and goes off and creates the Shredded Wheat company, which will end up as a part of Nabisco, which ends up as a part of General Foods. So you have this whole process that goes on at a later time.

 

In any case, Kellogg looks at this and says, "Well, you know what? Why don't we start rolling other things through these steel rollers?" And one of the things that he rolls through it is... (audience: corn) And he ends up with... (Audience: Corn Flakes) Corn Flakes.

 

So, Corn Flakes really starts off as a health food in Battle Creek, Michigan in the sanitarium. And it's a process that Kellogg will say, "Well, let's try and run other products through it as well." And he runs a whole series of different products through. The only ones that have survived are nut butters. How many of you have heard of nut butters? Go to health food stores. You can get nut butters today.

 

Most of you have consumed nut butters. At least one type of nut butter, which is... (Audience: peanut butter). Peanut butter is a vegetarian conspiracy, all right. These vegetarians start putting peanuts through these rollers and end up with stuff coming out the other side. Now, they figured out, you don't really need to put them through rollers. All you need to do is put them through grinders. Now, grinders were around for twenty-thirty years prior to this time but you don't have commercial grinders until the 1880s. And as soon as commercial grinders come in then you can grind up a lot of things.

 

And they start grinding up peanut butter and, really, vegetarians go knock on doors of their neighbours and say, "Would you like to buy a little of this peanut butter that we have here?" And within a period of ten years, from the time that John Harvey Kellogg invents it - and patents the process, by the way, although he claims later on he didn't (I've got the patents) - he takes this out. It becomes one of the hit products in America and virtually every community is going to have a peanut factory.

 

Now, the problem with the peanut factory is relatively simple: most Americans don't like fresh peanuts ground up. Some of us do. Do any of you like fresh peanuts that are ground up? There are problems with them. What's the problem, anybody? (audience: comments) What? (audience: comments ) It depends on what else you put in them. But, it depends on the peanuts, too. They can be very bitter.

 

And so commercial makers of peanut butter decide they want to do something quite different. Commercial makers decide they want to do something different, and what they're going to do is add sugar to it. So now sugar is about one-third of the content of peanut butter. John Harvey Kellogg is now furious with this additive to it, and, needless to say, considers this one of the horrible things, just like Sylvester Graham would have considered it earlier on.

 

I've talked a long time about a process. I want to now go back. The process that Oliver Evans created is called continuous processing. Does that name ring a bell with you? Every single processed - almost all processed - food in America is made by that principle, where it starts and is totally operated by machinery and comes out the other end. That is the way most processed foods are made today.

 

Likewise, Americans, with the Erie Canal, stopped buying local food. It only started with the Erie Canal and with the Transcontinental Railroad. You ended local cuisine and you began national cuisine. And when you begin to have container ships in the 1950s, you begin to shift to a much more global environment in terms of our culinary life. So these are changes that happened.

 

To the extent that Americans were aware of these changes and aware of the implications they embraced them. They loved these shifts and changes that went on. And maybe no one knew all the consequences that were behind there. For instance, in cereal, anyone know what the percentage of sugar is in Trix? Captain Crunch? How much? (audience: Thirty-five?) Go up, up. It's almost fifty per cent. By the way - I won't get into it - they use to have "Smart Choice" typed on; now they've removed it. So I can't complain about it anymore. But in any case, you have these shifts and changes that went on in the American diet.

 

What I have tried to do in this book is not be normative. My goal was not to make value judgments. I have opinions on many of the topics that are there. And if I'm asked I will tell you my opinions. But in this book I tried to say two things: if you like the American food system the way it is, it's largely efficient; it's largely low cost. Americans spend less on food than any other group of people in the world. Eight per cent of our take-home pay goes into acquiring food. Anyone know what the French percentage is of take-home pay? Eighteen per cent. So it shows you that different groups of people make different choices with regard to food. Americans tend to want speed. That's there before food comes along. It's before McDonalds. It's before all the things that we think of today as part of fast food.

 

So, all I can do is say, you have a large number of parts of American culture that come into food and have shaped the food the way we have it today. And if you don't like that system then part of the message is, if you are going to change it, you are going to have to change American culture along with it. So it's not an easy task to make the shifts and changes that are there.

 

Jon Steinman: This is Deconstructing Dinner produced in Nelson, British Columbia at Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY. I'm Jon Steinman.

 

Today's episode is truly in the spirit of "deconstructing" our food and features a talk delivered by Andrew Smith, a writer and lecturer on food and culinary history. His latest book is titled Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine.

 

Andrew teaches Culinary History at the New School in New York City. He's the editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America and he's the author or editor of fourteen other books, including The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture and Cookery and Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America.

 

Andrew was recorded speaking in November 2009 at the Kansas City Public Library in Kansas City, Missouri.

 

In this second half of the show, we'll listen in on some of the questions and answers that rounded off Andrew's talk. Questions covered the history of government involvement in food, the history of food advertising, and this question on the history of Cracker Jacks.

 

Andrew Smith: Cracker Jack starts off with a German immigrant. Anyone here ever heard of German immigrants before? (audience: laughter) By the way, anybody know what the largest group of immigrants coming in from what country? The largest group of Americans today, who recognize their heritage from that country? Anyone know what it is? How about England? How many think England? No? How about Italian? How many think Italian? How many think Irish? How many think Mexican? I asked this question in Los Angeles two weeks ago and they all raised their hand. (audience: laughter) It's German. The number one ethnic heritage that Americans identify: forty-one million Americans identify their heritage as German. Germans had a huge impact on the food.

 

And one of the impacts happened to be by the name of Frederick Ruckheimer. Frederick Ruckheimer comes into the United States, works on a farm not far from Chicago, just before the Chicago Fire. When the fire burns down much of the city he goes into the city to help reconstruct it. He decides that construction work really wasn't for him and that what he wanted to do was sell food to the workers that were there, and he goes into the popcorn business. Now, you may not think that that is a profitable business to go in but people made fortunes on selling popcorn throughout the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century on the street.

 

So, the problem is, as soon as he started making a fortune there were a lot of other popcorn vendors. And so he had to vary his product. So he started adding in things, making flavourings and what not.

 

In 1893 at the time of the World's Fair - he was not at the World's Fair but he was on the outside of the fair selling to people coming to and from the fair - he hit a wonderful combination of popcorn, caramel and peanuts. And he doesn't really name it for three years. It's been called Cracker Jack. There are lots of different versions on how it got its name. But, all of a sudden, he decides that it just is a nice product for Chicago but really America should have the rest of this enjoyment. And so he begins to sell and advertise Cracker Jack throughout the United States. It is the first commercial, national snack food.

 

Prior to that time, Americans would have been opposed to consuming snack food. Why would Americans have been opposed to consuming snack food? It's what your mothers all told you. Why can't you consume a cookie before dinner? It destroys your appetite, all right. How many of you have had your appetite destroyed by that cookie? (audience: laughter) I consume cookies now before dinner and think that that's going to destroy my appetite. It doesn't work for me. (audience: laughter) But I guess it did in the nineteenth century.

 

So all I can do is say snack food was something that was not commonly part of the American diet. It was frowned upon by medical professionals, including John Henry Kellogg, including Sylvester Graham, including virtually every other medical professional. They were consumed mainly at fairs and at circuses and things of that sort. But now you can consume this every day, any day that you want to, by simply going down to a local store and buying your Cracker Jack and eating it. So they had this shift and change. It creates the snack food industry, which is today a thirty billion dollar business.

 

So from that I trace the other snack foods that are common in America today. Potato chips obviously, and candy of one sort or another, and chocolate. But it begins there. That's the first one that I could find that was national that was advertised in that way. I think that's a great story. Sorry.

 

Audience member: It wasn't the question I came to ask but when did they put the prize in Cracker Jacks?

 

Andrew Smith: When did they put the prize? It wasn't at first. The first Cracker Jacks were actually in barrels. And there was a problem with the barrels. Can anyone imagine what the problem with the barrel would be?

 

Audience member: It's moisture.

 

Andrew Smith: It's moisture. That's one problem. What else?

 

Audience member: Mice.

 

Andrew Smith: It's mice. How many of you are into mice in Cracker Jack? (audience: laughter) Food in America was a commodity, and it was served in barrels. So, you would walk into a store. If you wanted flour, for instance, you would go in, pick up the flour, put it into a bag. You wouldn't do that. Actually, the grocer would do that, the person who was operating the store. And then that would then be sold to you by weight. And that was how Cracker Jack and most of the other foods in America were sold.

 

Needless to say, it didn't work out. The moisture came in. You had problems with vermin coming in. It wasn't appetizing when you had a lot of insects and you were pulling them out. So they decided to go to a box. But the problem was they needed to figure out a system that you could have as a box that would prevent moisture from getting in.

 

Those of us who can remember the old days of Cracker Jack, they used to come in three different packages. There was paper inside, there was a cardboard box on the outside, and there was wax covering on the outside. All that was to keep the moisture out.

 

Well, needless to say, when you made the shift, you could also advertise on it. And the first thing that they did was say, "Well, in order to do this, this is a children's target." And this is the first time that any food in America had been targeted at children. It was unthinkable. It was not a good business plan. Children did not have money. (audience: laughter) Children don't have money today. What do they have? (audience: parents) They have parents. And they have pester power, all right. Pester power operates. I know that none of you would ever give in to your children about something like this. I did on occasion just to make my kids feel happy, all right.

 

But, in any case, once you have it given to children you got to have something that children can get other than the Cracker Jacks themselves. And so they started putting coupons in the packages. They're not the first to put coupons in; it actually is soap. The soap companies started putting coupons in. So they liked the idea and so they started putting coupons in. And you had to do this.

 

So, in 1910 they decided what they really need to do: why do the coupons when the kids have to send the stuff in and we have to send it out and it costs lots? So we'll start putting toys in them. And they put in all sorts of toys. They had I think the first baseball cards. If you could correct me on that, but the first complete set. I think it's 1916-1917. And we all know what happened during the World Series in that time. Needless to say, I won't get into that.... Baseball season's over. Did you hear about the Yankees and the World Series? I just thought I'd ask that, just in case. (audience: laughter)

 

So the answer was that's when it starts. It has toys. And the toys were incredible. There are people who collect Cracker Jack toys. Anybody here collect them in here? If you go on eBay if you have any you make a fortune. There's a whole society. They have a meeting on an annual basis. They come and talk about this. And almost everything now has a group like that. And I think they are wonderful.

 

Jon Steinman: Author Andrew Smith. In this next clip, a member of the audience poses a question on the history of government involvement in the food industry. In his response, Andrew Smith refers to one of the most well-known exposes of the meat industry, Upton Sinclair's 1906 book, The Jungle.

 

Audience Member: You talked about medical doctors and ministers telling us how to eat. (Andrew Smith: Yes). When did the government get in the business of telling us how to eat, and how did that come about?

 

Andrew Smith: Oh, I was hoping you'd ask. My next book, which I have finished, is actually on the American Civil War.

 

The answer is the government played no role in food until the American Civil War. As soon as the South seceded from the Union and left Congress, four bills were passed within a matter of two months. They were all bills that had been presented for decades prior to that time. But it was the Southerners that blocked every single one, in part due to states' rights. They believed in states' rights and they believed the federal government shouldn't do anything. And so therefore one of the things that was passed almost immediately was the creation of the United States Department of Agriculture. The United States Department of Agriculture was created in 1862. It is from the USDA that you have the beginning of the federal government's role in food. So that's the first thing.

 

The pure food movement starts off in states. States did the best that they possibly could to make sure that bakers weren't putting plaster into their bread and canners were actually putting products in that wouldn't make you sick. I hate to say this: there was a canner in Massachusetts in 1890 who wanted to make ketchup, but the problem was he didn't have any tomatoes. He did have a lot of apples, so he ground up the apples. Then the problem was the apples weren't red, so he put a red paint in. A number of people died due to that.

 

There are thousands and thousands of examples of that that appear in newspapers. The problem was states couldn't control what happened in other states. So you could produce ketchup in one place in one state and then ship it across state lines, which is in fact what happened.

 

So, for a thirty or forty year period of time, we had an attempt to create a pure food law in the federal government. And it was consistently defeated by corporations, the corporations saying, "This is our right to do what we want to do, and we'll please ourselves," and a whole series of other reasons. I know this is going to shock everybody - they gave money to politicians. (audience: laughter) I know. It was surprising when I found that out.

 

The chapter that I loved the most in the book writing and the one I was surprised at - even though I had read the book in my undergraduate years I never realized the impact - was The Jungle. Does anybody ever hear of The Jungle? Upton Sinclair, does that name ring a bell with anybody?

 

Upton Sinclair was a dying novelist. As far as I know, The Jungle is the only book that made any splash in his life. I think he wrote probably about a hundred novels, and that was the only one that made a difference. He had written about twenty or thirty dime novels prior to this time in a period of about two years.

 

One of the things that happened in 1904 was there was a strike in Chicago of the slaughterhouses and stockyards. Immigrants - Ukrainian and German and Irish and a whole series of other immigrants, went out on strike.

 

During this time, Upton Sinclair decides that he wants to write a manifesto for these workers and he wants to support them. He creates this nice proclamation that says, "You really need to pay people a decent wage. When people die, and they fall into the slaughterhouse, you really should take them out before you continue the process." And things like that. Unheard of, I know, but those things were parts of this.

 

So he wrote this nice manifesto, and the workers loved it. They actually printed up thirty-five thousand copies of it and it's available in lots of libraries. I don't know if you've got one or not? Yeh? But, in any case, they have got one of these manifestos down there. And he had just published a book on the Civil War. He had failed, and in the midst of the failure one of his socialist editors wrote a note saying, "I'll give you five hundred bucks if you write a novel about something that promotes socialism in America." He said, "Fine." So he wanted to write about the slaughterhouses in Chicago. He lives in New Jersey. He goes for six weeks to Chicago. He gets stories down of the workers and stories of other socialists who were there. Almost everything in The Jungle had been published previously, by the way. It was initially published in serial form. It was published, then he wanted to get it into a novel. No publisher in American would touch the book the way it was, and he refused to make changes in it. So, all the socialists got together - Jack London, Sinclair Lewis - and they gave him money to help fund the publication of it. Then at the last minute a publisher got in and said, "Okay, fine, we'll publish it the way that you want it." From the instant that it was published it had a huge impact on America.

 

Now one of the immediate things was the passage of the Meat Inspection Act, which gives the USDA the power to inspect meat, poultry and eggs, a power that they still have today. And it created the FDA, the second bill - the Food and Drug Act. So you have a division even today of separation of this.

 

So here he is - he is complaining bitterly. He did not support the legislation. He was opposed to the legislation. What he said was, "This legislation is going to help the corporations." Believe it or not, the legislation helped the corporations, because it meant that Americans could buy their food with at least some feeling of security. And so lots of the problems disappeared. Despite all the complaints about corporations beforehand, most of them embraced it, and immediately it changed what the American Diet was. So those are two things that are part of it. I love that chapter.

 

Jon Steinman: This is Deconstructing Dinner. We're listening to author Andrew Smith speaking in November 2009 in Kansas City, Missouri. Andrew is the author of Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine. Today's episode is archived on-line at deconstructingdinner.ca and posted under the December 17th 2009 episode.

 

In this last clip, a member of the audience questions the history of food advertising. Andrew Smith introduces Quaker Oats as one of the first examples of national marketing of a food product. We'll also hear a question on the emergence of high fructose corn syrup.

 

Andrew Smith: Food advertising is really low key until the 1870s-1880s. There is canned food that is available. The problem with canned food is, you have no idea what's inside. So the can makers began to put out labels, which reflected what they thought - what you hoped - was inside when you bought it. (audience: laughter) The labels are gorgeous. Have any of you seen the nineteenth century...? I collect tomato labels. I like tomato labels: they are absolutely spectacular. I think the library should have an exhibition on labels, by the way. So, I just mention that, saying labels are great.

 

So you begin to have advertising. As soon as you have labels, you have names on that. And there were certainly specialty food operations that began to have advertising. The first was the Atlantic Tea Company. Do any of you know anything about the Atlantic Tea Company? (audience: The A & P) How many of you have heard of A & P? It starts off as the Atlantic Tea Company. When the Transcontinental Railroad connects up the Eastern part of the United States with San Francisco they then become the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. Then they start selling other things other than tea so they just become A & P.

 

They are the first chain grocers in America. They were hated in America by grocers because they could buy products for a large number of their stores more cheaply than could a small grocer that could only deal with them. So when you increase the ability to buy a large amount of products you can decrease the price and you can run everybody else out of business. And that is essentially what A & P did until the rise of other supermarkets.

 

This principle is followed by the world's number one grocer. (audience: Walmart) Walmart is the world's number one grocer. They were not selling any groceries fifteen years ago. So they applied the process that they have with their other products - they applied it into food - and today they are the world's largest distributor of food. So you have these shifts and changes.

 

What happens in the 1870s is Quaker Oats. Quaker Oats is the first nationally advertised product. It just so happens that a man by the name of Henry Crowell works with Schumacher. They have a love-hate affair. In the end, Henry Crowell takes over the company and creates Quaker Oats. In the midst of that, he decides that what they need is an advertising campaign. But how do you advertise when there is no radio, no television? There's no internet. There were no real magazines at the time that focused on food. There were national magazines but they focused on other matters.

 

He's not a Quaker, by the way. He has nothing to do with Quakers. He just thought Quakers looked good on the package. (audience: laughter) And so he created this image of the Quaker, which we still have with us today.

 

He decides that what we need to do is dress people up like Quakers, and put them on railroads, and move them around the country, and give Quaker Oats away - small boxes of it. And this is the way we can convince Americans to eat oats, which would not have been consumed by Americans - even mainstream Americans - prior to that time. So the train starts off in Des Moines, Iowa, ends up in Portland, then goes down the coast to San Francisco, then heads back across the country. From then on out they had about twenty people dressed up like Quakers who were going around promoting it.

 

They had advance men that would go into the local town. They would go to the local newspapers and they would create puff pieces. Does anyone know what a puff piece is? I am sure none of you have ever seen a puff piece before. It's where the company pays the local paper to have an article appear about them that they write. I know that this doesn't happen today. (audience: laughter) But in the nineteenth century that was the typical process - without having any announcement that it was advertisement or anything else. So large numbers of people showed up. When the train pulled into the train station you had literally the whole community. They paid boys to go around and knock on doors and say, "The Quaker's coming." This was the way they had it. From sex, to advertising on street cars, to advertising on barns, everything else that you think of prior to the time of radio and television they invented. They followed the principles that had in part been established prior to that time by patent medicines, which I won't get into, but there's a whole new story on that.

 

As soon as Quaker Oats does that, everyone else decides they need to do that. For almost another fifty years, most of the total advertising budgets of food companies - almost twenty-five per cent - went into advertising. So you have this shift and you have this change.

 

Now, the person who says, "No, I will not advertise," is John Harvey Kellogg. John Harvey Kellogg is opposed to advertising. He thinks all money should be spent on food and it should be spent on healthful food and it should not be expended on advertising.

 

Now, he happened to have a brother. Who's his brother? Anybody know who his brother is? (audience: comments) What? (audience: W.T. Kellogg) Not W.T. - Will K. Kellogg, all right. That's the name that appears on the Kellogg .... And his brother decides that he needs to advertise or Kellogg's Corn Flakes is never going to make it. By this time there were at least sixty different cereal companies in Battle Creek producing health foods and all having no association with the sanitarium but claiming that they were a health food because they were from Battle Creek.

 

And so the brothers had a split. They never spoke to each other except through lawyers at that point on. They had constant legal battles. And it's a tragic story. But Will Kellogg says, "If we don't advertise we aren't going to make it." He creates the Kellogg's company in 1906 and he begins massive national advertising as well as C.W. Post.

 

Now C.W. Post is another person who starts off the cereal advertising. C.W. Post is supposedly a patient at the sanitarium. But he decides that he really doesn't need to stay in the sanitarium. He'll just come during the day and get the services and then he's going to live in the town. And the rumour was that every night he came back and then went out and had a great time on the town. That's not verified by primary source data but it is later on.

 

He learned all of the secrets of the sanitarium and began to create commercial products. The first commercial product wasn't a cereal at all, and it just went out of sale about four years ago. Anyone know what it is? It's Postum. Anyone hear of Postum? If you had Postum you would know it. (audience: laughter) All I can do is say Postum is a bizarre product. Rather than drink coffee or tea, which John Harvey Kellogg was opposed to, they brewed that. He then duplicated what John Harvey Kellogg did with Corn Flakes and put Post Toasties out. That came out the same year that they had Kellogg's Corn Flakes beginning to be advertised. And they absolutely duplicated each other from that point on.

 

Audience Member: When did they start putting in high fructose corn syrup instead of sugar?

 

Andrew Smith: Oh, that's a good question. How many...

 

Audience Member: And also....

 

Andrew Smith: Most of you can't remember back... I'm sorry. You had another part to the question?

 

Audience Member: And also, yes, is it just high fructose corn syrup, as opposed to a regular corn syrup, that negates the effect of leptin, the hormone that makes you...?

 

Andrew Smith: I am not a medical professional but I will answer your question anyway. Never stop me. The first part to that is simple.

 

Most of you can't remember back to the 1970s, can you? (audience: comments) Some of you can. I know you were a child at the time, and you can remember a Secretary of Agriculture by the name of Earl Butz. Do any of you know Earl Butz? Whether you like him or not, he made a huge shift and change in American agriculture.

 

One of the things that he did was say, "We need to protect American farmers who are raising corn. One of the ways that we can do this is by increasing tariffs on imported sugar cane." At that point the United States had no sugar cane production, except in Hawaii. And so, consequently, during the early 1970s they increased the tariffs on sugar cane, making it possible to use corn to convert it to high fructose corn syrup.

 

From that point on, within a matter of five years of the changes, you have the elimination of sugar cane from virtually all of the soft drinks, and today with some few exceptions. Now some companies are advertising that they have real sugar cane. And if you go to Mexico, or if you go to Canada, you can have real sugar cane in your product. High fructose corn syrup was in fact the product that was substituted simply because it was less costly.

 

Now, the medical side to it, I really can't answer that. I've been engaged in a large number of discussions with other people. It either is processed exactly the same way as sugar cane itself or it's not, depending on who you believe. There is no known proven evidence that high fructose corn syrup causes any medical problems, with the major exception of weight. (audience: laughter)

 

Now, it's embarrassing for me but I will raise this. If your body is in perfect balance - meaning your exercise calories equals the input calories - and you consume one twelve ounce can of soda a day for a year, anybody know what will happen to your weight? Twelve pounds. Twelve to fifteen pounds, depending on who you are. That is what it does.

 

So you have concerns about particularly teenagers again. And again with adults, I don't care. Adults, you make your own decisions. But with kids I do care. The average is something like seventy-two per cent of teenagers consume one twelve ounce can of soda every day. So you begin to take a look at this huge influence that it's had on American society. That is one of those ones that I will take a stand on and say, "That's not right."

 

Jon Steinman: Author Andrew Smith speaking in November 2009 in Kansas City, Missouri. Andrew is the author of Eating History: 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine. He teaches Culinary History at the New School in New York City. Today's recording was made available by the Kansas City Public Library.

 

ending theme

 

And that was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner, produced and recorded at Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman. Thanks to my technical assistant John Ryan.

 

The theme music for Deconstructing Dinner is courtesy of Nelson-area resident Adham Shaikh.

 

This radio show is provided free of charge to campus/community radio stations across the country, and relies on the financial support from you the listener. Support for the program can be donated through our website at deconstructingdinner.ca or by dialing 250-352-9600.


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