Food History Isn’t Just Old Stuff

Convenience in the kitchen, a state of affairs that most of our great-grandmothers would have killed for, snuck into food history about the time the Russians sent Sputnik into orbit. Science ruled, even in the kitchen.

An interesting thing happened, though,  when everybody happily dove into easy-to-fix dinners and eating out.

pillsbury-dough-boyPeople started looking like the Michelin Tire guy and the Pillsbury Dough Boy rolled into one. In other words, America got fat.

For the first time in human history, as food historian Rachel Lauden pointed out in a recent post (“A Historian’s Thoughts on Obesity“) on her blog, human beings could feed more people and better than ever before.  One resource mentioned in her comments, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death,1700 – 2100: Europe, America and the Third World, by Robert William Fogel, analyzes just how humans in parts of the world went from subsistence to abundance and more. (Be aware that Fogel’s somewhat technical book has more to do with the increasing demands for and rationing of health care. Nevertheless, he begins with an examination of how people’s body size reflected caloric intake. Reduced body size provided an adaptation necessary for survival, allowing for both bodily maintenance as well as sparing calories for work.)

One side effect of society’s ability to produce more food and feed more people lies in the current epidemic — as many epidemiologists and public health professionals call it — of obesity.

Now, instead of stunted skinny people stumping about and dying young, large overweight and obese people stumble about and would also die relatively young because of their physique if it weren’t for modern medical science with its pills and surgical procedures.

Obesity, defined as being 20% over ideal weight or with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or more, afflicts over 40 million people. Estimates put another 58 million people in the overweight category, or with a BMI of 25 or higher.  That’s almost one-third of the total U.S. population [303,824,640 as of July 2008] walking around with too much padding. And nearly 8 out of 10 people over the age of 25 years old weigh more than they should.

Not just a problem of looks and appearance, excess weight leads to many chronic health problems, including diabetes, which increased by 76% between 1990 and today.

Something needs to be done. But what?

stuffed-by-cardelloJust about everybody from Oprah to the cashier at the grocery store weighs in on the causes and the cures of obesity.

Yet little certainty exists about such a big topic.

Fogel’s first nineteen pages examine the state of the food supply up to 1900 in most of the world.

So now here’s an LA Times  interview with Hank Cardello, former executive in several large food and beverage giants. Cardello’s new book, Stuffed: an insider’s look at who’s [REALLY] making America fat, doesn’t really seem to offer much that’s not already been chewed to death. He does point out that Swanson TV dinners probably ignited many of the tendencies we see today:

JC: In your first chapter, you point to Operation Smash, in which the first frozen TV dinners came about via Swanson. Do you believe that the TV dinners of 1953 America shifted this country’s eating habits forever?

Cardello: Yeah, I do. I looked really hard at that. Some people like to look at McDonald’s or early burger chains. But as a teenager, I’d go buy six or seven of those things. They were small.

But Swanson offered mothers an option not to cook. It was kind of like a collision of events: the TV came about, we’d sit in front of the TV and eat a meal.

They [Swanson] didn’t realize how brilliant it was initially. They only made 5,000 at first until they realized they had a homerun.

Here’s his take on how to get out of the fix we’re in, weight-wise:

JC: What’s the No. 1 thing contributing to America’s fatness right now? And how can we reverse what we have done to ourselves?

Cardello: It’s a collision between weapons of mass consumption in combination with Americans’ want for value. That’s your epicenter right there.

If we were all as disciplined as Navy SEALS, then we’d all know when to say no. So, we have to be realistic. There’s a half-step we have to take. First, we need to un-stuff. Then we can go to healthy. To go all the way to healthy right away for most people … that’s where you lose them.

Un-stuffing as a first step: Let’s take a look at what people like and make sure they are just eating less of it. Make sure they don’t feel deprived, though. Because once people feel deprived, it’s game over.

One thing I really like are these 100-calorie packs. … I’m a big fan of those. I still get to enjoy my Oreos or my Goldfish. Even if I have two of those packs, that’s only 200 calories. It’s portion management without feeling like there’s a penalty box.

Be as it may, what’s happening now with obesity presents food historians with a lot to chew on. Cardello’s book just may end up being part of the archival work studied in the future, as well as today. And Fogel’s work reminds us that when people had barely enough to eat, work — and soldiering — probably took a back seat. One Shakespearean king said “My kingdom for a horse,” but real kings probably yearned for a loaf of bread. Hunger vanquished more armies than we probably can imagine …

From Shakespeare’s Richard III, 1591/2:

Rescue, my Lord of Norfolk, rescue, rescue!
The king enacts more wonders than a man,
Daring an opposite to every danger:
His horse is slain, and all on foot he fights,
Seeking for Richmond in the throat of death.
Rescue, fair lord, or else the day is lost!

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

Withdraw, my lord; I’ll help you to a horse.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen