Guest post by Josh the Spokesgay.
[Note: This is a hypothesis and it’s surely incomplete and might be badly wrong in some places. I’m not suggesting it’s a well-documented piece of research; criticism and correction is welcome.]
I wonder if anyone else has noticed this: The current obsessions with gluten, GMO crops, “chemicals,” and “clean eating” are expressions of the exact same set of purity concerns that animated the mid-20th century consumer love of —wait for it—-foods made in sterile, scientific factories.
Take a look through cookbooks and promotional materials from food companies published in the 1930s through the 1950s. They go on at length about the “hygienic conditions” in which foods like vegetable shortening and bread were made. Many proudly feature photographs of boxy, Brutalist-style factories where “safe, pure” foods were made. Enriched with extra vitamins to be wholesome, of course.
This was a cultural reaction to the new availability of standardized manufacture and quality control of foodstuffs. It was a reaction AGAINST what consumers believed (sometimes wrongly) were the unsafe, tainted foods produced by local family farms. Consumers often got it wrong. For instance, believing that locally baked bread was to blame for illnesses. Of course, most food poisoning came from bad dairy, meat, etc., not bread.
The appetite for canned (purified, protected) and frozen foods was enormous among the post-war US buying public. Homemade foods that we’d call today “local” and “artisan-made” seemed to be have been seen in the 1950s the way we see mass-manufactured “processed” foods like boxed macaroni and cheese. That is, they were the province of unsophisticated or dated homemakers.
You were seen as “country” or out of touch or not sufficiently worried about your family’s health if you served traditionally made foods. Good, Caring housewives served spinach from a frozen box and cheese sauce from a can. You didn’t reuse bacon grease like mother did, you used vegetable shortening. Spry-brand shortening was advertised on the basis of its “purity”, signified by its brilliant white color. One ad in my collection has a smartly dressed woman (picture Rosalind Russell in The Women) saying, “It’s so white I know it’s pure!”.
The preference for this kind of food was largely about the convenience that was available in food preparation for the first time in history. But it was also about misguided notions of purity and contamination, and about posturing through purchasing to show that you were Properly Concerned About Your Family’s Health.
The supermarket housewife stocking her larder with cans of Libby’s vegetables seems to me to be the cultural equivalent of the “crunchy moms” who ostentatiously patronize Whole Foods and claim never to let a non-organic potato pass the lips of dear little Kayden or Abigail.