With the precipitous slide into holiday feasting, some historical perspective on calorie-counting can help you face down a plate of Christmas cookies.
It’s not surprising to learn that food is tangled with perceptions of race, class, health, and patriotism. What is surprising is that Helen Zoe Veit has found the source of our current perceptions in the turn-of-the-century Progressive era.
War and technology shifted social standards along with our access to food and information about it. The trends she finds—more convenience foods, managing a household, and attention to nutrition—could be articles from contemporary magazines, but were established at a time when Americans were abandoning the ideal of lavish, Diamond Jim-style meals in favor of healthy and patriotic frugality.
Yankee thrift had wilted in the face of post-Civil War high living, but World War I would swing the pendulum again toward self-policing and thrift, encouraged by the propaganda and programs of the U.S. Food Administration. The goal was to reserve meat and wheat for exports and soldiers, and make corn, buckwheat, nuts, and rice appealing and patriotic alternatives.
The 1910 discovery of calories was another powerful force in making Americans see gluttony not as a privilege, but as unhealthy and immoral. As one Alabama journalist wrote, Americans ate a “scandalous” amount of candy and had the “habit of intemperate drinking.” Calories ushered in the fundamental idea that eating could be healthful and that food choices had consequences.
The impacts of the war and technology rippled through society, reflecting attitudes about class. Calories provided what Veit calls a “cultural algebra,” proving that immigrant food was the nutritional equal of traditional American dishes. Spaghetti with tomato sauce and cheese was just as good as pork chops and potatoes, and so, it was implied, were the people who ate it.
While some diners stuck close to familiar dishes, just as with contemporary foodies, those with knowledge about food and cooking used it to denote education and social standing. Having the means to travel and willingness to adventure showed discernment and taste.
Calories influenced business. If workers didn’t need meat to be healthy, you didn’t need to pay them enough to buy it. Today’s fast food wars—on both sides of the counter—sound familiar. And calories influenced home life, turning mother’s loving hearth into a scientific lab designed to create good citizens.
Class also shaped the responses to wartime rationing. In letters written by Americans to the Food Administration, Veit found one writer who would have been delighted to eat the suggested substitutions, let alone the meat she was urged to give up, but she couldn’t afford any of it. As a rule, the poor wanted rationing to be required, believing the rich were too selfish to voluntarily give up their pleasures. At the same time, the rich believed the poor were morally weak, lacking the backbone to self-police. Just as the table can unite us, it can also divide us.
Calories and patriotic fervor sometimes combined into a logical absurdity that also pointed up cultural standards. Herbert Popenoe, of Washington D.C., a provocateur-cook, served his friends cats and dogs. Beef and pork were needed for the war effort and his approach was scientific, “free from ‘childish demands’ of pleasure and custom.” Though today we take a more reasonable approach, we use science to tout superfoods and perhaps subtly judge our neighbor’s lunch plate.
Rationing and calories also influenced our attitudes toward our bodies, a change Viet sees as “the most extreme and lasting.” In the 1910s, thin became the ideal, with the words “overweight” and “underweight” coming into use in 1899, implying that in the middle, was a normal weight. Fads and willpower, the twin pillars of the diet industry, used both calories and rationing to establish themselves, from movie star ideals living on mineral oil and black coffee to wartime weight-loss clubs like the “Fatless League.”
Obesity retains its hold on the public imagination, whether it’s Oprah’s positive exhortations to live our best lives or the back-handed complement of The Biggest Loser. From Veit’s historical perspective, not much has changed.