Fifties Food

December 17, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Jenn Lena has a link to the Gallery of Regrettable Food, a site which looks back at US food a half century ago and asks, “What were they thinking?”

At Sociological Images, eallen has a more thoughtful take. She looks at the ads with recipes for baked bean pizza or broiled spam on canned peaches and chalks up the reliance on canned or prepared food to “the Atomic Age’s fascination with technologically advanced cookery.”

We look back, and we laugh – “Spiffy Then, Hilarious Now” is the title of eallen’s post. Ah yes, we are so superior in what we eat today.

The trouble with this sort of smugness is that its ethnocentrism stops any further sociological thinking. Fifties food was laughably bad. The end. It’s like watching Mad Men and chuckling at the hair styles and habits (smoking, drinking) and boat-like automobiles, and not looking for the less visible structures that shaped work, family, gender, and consumer choices.

A little cultural relativism and conflict theory might be more helpful. Food is fashion, just like clothing. What tastes good, like what looks good, is what’s in fashion. In a few decades, we may look back at Ugg boots and chicken Caesar wraps the way we now look back on poodle skirts and Jello everything.

Also, like fashions in clothing, fashions in food don’t just happen. They are part of history, and they have an industry behind them. The fifties were the post-War era. The Spam and canned peaches were leftovers, left over from the War. More importantly, so was the industrial set-up producing them. These ads are part of the food industry’s effort to create “a peacetime market for wartime foods. . . . factories were ready to keep right on canning, freezing, and dehydrating food as if the nation’s life still depended on it.”

“What the industry had to do was persuade millions of Americans to develop a lasting taste for meals that were a lot like field rations.”

Both quotes are from Something From the Oven, by Laura Shapiro, who also has more than a few words to say about how these food fashions relate to the social constraints on the role of women. It’s kind of embarrassing when the best sociology on a topic is done by a dance critic.

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