food in the context of time and culture, old advertisements

Over at a suggested lesson plan at the National Endowment for the Humanities it states, “Ancient cultures provide some of our deepest connections to the humanities, drawing life from that distant time when the study of history, philosophy, arts, literature, and language itself began.” It goes on onto to suggest that  the study of Sophocles’ Antigone, with its universal themes of gender conflicts, war, grief and ethics is a great way to connect to those times and see how some basic aspects of humanity have changed little over the few thousand years since that play was written. While many people really get into Antigone – most of my class did in a survey of Western Literature, some, especially high school students find the classics tremendously dull. They find the language outdated rather than eloquent. They don’t see what the big deal is about a dead body and religious rites being performed. Certainly not worth all the drama. Yet a seventeen year old westerner that listened to the news about how the bodies of mercenaries or private security contractors if you like, were treated at yet Fallujah in 2004 probably got upset. Thinking how tragic, how barbaric the whole incident was. That tendency to only relate to what happens in the context of one’s life is pretty common. It seems to me to lessen somewhat as people get older because they start to see how rapidly change takes place. How many of the books and movies they like remain relevant even though no one in To Kill a Mockingbird uses a cell phone, we still see and hear the racism. No one in Woody Allen’s Sleeper, even though it is about the future, uses a laptop to surf the net, but it is still funny. Anyway i was thinking about how people see and evaluate culture and food in the context of their lifetimes the other day when all the news about Hostess and Twinkies broke. My first thought, other than being concerned about the loss of jobs for the employees, was the people feeling all nostalgic about the Twinkie. The Twinkie? Besides the bleached white flour and sugar are enough preservatives and chemicals to keep it fresh in your nuclear fall-out bunker for years. I’ve eaten Twinkies, but when I was a kid I liked something Hostess makes or did, I’m not sure if they still do, a turnover, not made with peaches or apples, but chocolate pudding. So I’m guilty too, just over a different product. It turns out that our taste buds have been targeted for dumping down, just like television has largely dumped down the news from informing people, to what some people have called infotainment. At Your Convenience

Some convenience foods actually predate the 20th century, among them canned soups, fruits and vegetables; gelatin dessert mixes; ketchup and other prepared condiments; pancake mixes; ready-to-eat breakfast cereals; sweetened condensed milk. After the First World War, these and more found their way into the kitchens of eager young housewives, with manufacturers often promoting their innovative products via free recipe books.

There’s no denying that flavor, texture and nutrients suffered, but people began to rely on these conveniences, and their tastes simply changed to accommodate. It was, after all, an era of scientific progress.

By 1937, as another world war threatened, the timing was perfect for the arrival of a processed, canned meat product called Spam. Currently celebrating its 75th anniversary, Spam was all but guaranteed to make a name for itself when the U.S. government included it in war rations to be shipped overseas to Allied troops. It was economical, had a long shelf life, needed no refrigeration, and was ready to eat straight from the can.

The processed meat product won a place in pantries back home as well, and for all the same reasons. During wartime, women joined the workforce in unprecedented numbers to fill in for all the men-turned-soldiers. This left less time to cook, and many of the newly employed were ready for quick, cheap, modern and convenient time-savers at the end of the day.

After the war, women (whether or not they were still employed outside the home) were encouraged to embrace the frozen, dehydrated, canned and boxed foods that promised to save time in the progressive modern era and allow more time for new leisure options—for example, watching television.

We all grew up in a largely Twinkified culture. A good cake, like my grandmother made, she sifted the flour herself or one from a decent bakery makes a Twinkie taste like cat food in comparison. Yet people have always had the choice, spend the time making something good or cutting corners because at the end of a long day few people feel like going to too much trouble to cook. If you grew up having never tasted a homemade apple pie, one of Hostess’s apple turnovers probably taste pretty good because you don’t have any reference outside that experience.

Inevitably people began combining various convenience foods: a package of noodles, a can or two each of condensed mushroom soup, tuna and peas, some crumbled potato chips on top, and voilà—the tuna casserole was born. And for the ultimate side dish, a baked mixture of canned green beans, condensed mushroom soup and dehydrated fried onions. What could be simpler?

[  ]….Advertising companies and the growing convenience-food industry made sure that eating the modern way became the fashionable way. Real, fresh food in its natural form no longer seemed desirable. With the advent of frozen products in addition to canned, foods were widely and consistently available year-round. There was no need to rely on seasonal or regional crops, and prices remained fairly stable from winter through autumn. In keeping with this revolutionary new approach, a fish dinner—which might once have consisted of fresh, delicate lake perch with a butter sauce and in-season vegetables—now meant reheated frozen fish sticks with instant mashed potatoes, canned peas and Jell-O salad.

There is more at the link, but that is a brief synopsis of how contemplating the loss of bad food became something to be depressed about, oh no the Twinkie is gone, the end of an era.

*Someone is likely to buy Hostess and continue production.

Below are some old advertisements. Some of the products are no longer in demand, some are just not made anymore and one is obviously racist stereotyping.

Thompson’s vegetable cattle powder For diseases of horses, cattle, hogs & sheep. 1868.

 Dewdrop bitters – the great American stomach regulator. 1868. Bitters is actually an alcoholic beverage flavored with herbs. People still drink bitters and it is used in some cocktails for flavoring. The advertising angle is ageless, the pretty woman with the lecherous old man.

Saint Ronald Reagan selling  cigarettes. Reagan would go on to sell a poisonous brand of conservatism to the American public.

Carhart & Brother celebrated B-D & T roasted coffee, 1907. To me this is a beautifully done advertisement. Great colors and composition. Though you have to overlook the ridiculous, “De missus won’t hab nuthin’ else’ tag line.