Food shaming is nothing new
Nearly 100 years ago dietary transgressions were darn near treasonable.
Not unlike today there was a moralization of food choices but it was based less on nutrition and health than patriotism.
A century before the current war on gluten was declared in the borough of Brooklyn by wheat shunning, vegan loving, white sugar snubbing hipsters, the same strict food edicts were enforced by patriotic Brooklyn housewives from Bushwick to Bay Ridge including my own great-grandmother Rebekah
In 1917 we were at war Over There, but back here on the home front it was all out war on wheat, meat, sugar and animal fats. “Food will win the war,” Uncle Sam proclaimed, exhorting women to win the war in the kitchen by restricting those precious commodities so that the dough boys would be well fed.
We Cheerfully Deny Ourselves
Unlike food rationing which was obligatory during WWII, during the Great War, the restrictions were wholly voluntary.
In an age when Americans were gluttons for gluten and massive meat eaters, getting the public to change their food habits was no easy feat.
Remarking on the difficult task of altering folks eating habits, Ladies Home Journal commented in a 1917 editorial: “Perhaps it was not to be expected that a peace-loving people more prosperous than any other people on the face of the earth should overnight readjust themselves.”
Guilt and shame those twin handmaidens of social pressure worked like a charm
Just as the government had whipped a very reluctant country to go to war in order to “make the world safe for democracy,” so Uncle Sam became skilled at food shaming the American public.
When America entered the war in April of 1917, the U.S. Food Administration was formed to help feed the American armies and her allies. Herbert Hoover, the hero who saved Belgium from starving was the logical choice to head it.
Along with the FA, President Woodrow Wilson had created another agency The Committee on Public Information to turn the tide of public opinion on the war. They now actively sold the American people on the very war the president sought to avoid the year before when he ran for president under the slogan “He kept us out of war” Rhetoric was shifted completely and effortlessly to win the war to end all wars.
The committee on Public Information monopolized every medium and every avenue of communication available at that time with the goal of mobilizing and creating a nation of enthusiastic soldiers and home front warriors for democracy and convince them they were needed to help make the world safe for democracy.
Hoover’s agency used the same patriotic propaganda to reduce food consumption in the US drawing on the themes of shared sacrifice and responsibility of citizenship encouraging every American, adult and child, to “do your bit.”
Enlisting the help of housewives by making them soldiers of the kitchen women were on the front lines on the home front including my great-grandmother Rebekah and her daughter my then 17-year-old grandmother Sadie
Young girls were eagerly sought after to be part of Wilson’s infamous Call to the Women of the Nation” and my then teenage grandmother eagerly stepped up.
A true American girl of tomorrow, 17-year-old Sadie was among the first girls in her school to take a class in the new field of Home Economics.
No subject was as cutting edge as Domestic Science and more important in the distribution of war-time food preparation information.
By the time of the Great War, food itself had entered a modern scientific age with the establishment of what was called the New Nutrition. Hoover’s war time programs would rely heavily on these new principles.
At the beginning of the last century most folks at the time believed certain foods were good and others dangerous but there was no scientific basis to it. There was no concern about high protein, low carb foods because food itself hadn’t even been classified as such.
Sadie learned that although it was a German Scientist who had come up with the new idea of classifying foods into proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and water, the “new nutrients,” the German origins was now downplayed . Besides which, it was American know-how and industry that was putting this new knowledge to good use. And would use that new knowledge to lick the Kaiser!
Home economists from the Food Administration had prepared a hefty textbook for High School students explaining not only the theories of new nutrition, but devising recipes and menus which would use substitutes for precious wheat, beef, butter and sugar.
The no-nonsense class was run with the efficiency expected of a future household engineer. Donning her crisp, sanitary white apron and starched white cap, Sadie quickly absorbed the most current information explaining the new and efficient ways to think about diet, and be patriotic to boot.
Her Home Economics teacher, Miss Hattie Smith ( who only 2 years earlier had been known as Miss Schmidt, but changed her name so as to sound less German ) was a stern looking woman, with salt and pepper hair pulled tightly in a bun with features as sharp and angular as the wooden ruler she wielded.
She meticulously followed the course outline prepared by Uncle Sam, emphasizing the sacrifices needed in the home kitchen. It wasn’t enough to merely change the names of food from Sauerkraut which was now to be called liberty cabbage, or referring to hamburgers as liberty sandwiches.
First and foremost, Miss Smith appealed to the students conscious.
“In every home,” she emphasized echoing Mr.Hoover, the conscious must reign. If not, what then? Picture America –on compulsory rations – God Forbid! Every man woman and child in the US can help win the war by doing their duty by using recipes for wholesome menus that serve your country”
“Lick the Plate and Lick the Kaiser.”
Wearing pince nez and an immaculate white smock, the domestic dominatrix, would explain to the class
“Every time you eat 3 times a day think of the starving people in Europe and the soldiers who are fighting out battles and keep those rules in mind!”
To waste a single morsel of food that can be used is a crime,” she admonished her class.
“Almost everything we have been asked to do has been directly for our good; to eat less meat where we are eating too much; to eat less wheat where we were overlooking the other more nourishing cereals and grains.”
Following the ideas of the new nutritionists patriotic Americans would learn for the first time that they could actually interchange proteins, fats, and carbs; that they could be persuaded to get their proteins from say beans rather than meat, their carbs from corn meal, oats and grains other than wheat and their fats from vegetable oils. A truly revolutionary idea,
Fruits and Vegetables
Uncle Sam wanted us to eat our vegetables and the textbook reflected the recent growing awareness of the nutritional values of vegetables and fruits.
Only a few years earlier before the discovery of vitamins, most of the early scientists dismissed fruits and vegetables because under the microscope they were just boring old water and carbohydrates. The tomato for instance was as good as useless. It could, if you wished be used in small amounts to flavor food, like salt and pepper, but it had no nutritional value of its own.
Now they were to be an important part of the diet seen as cheap, filling foods, and Uncle Sam encouraged planting victory gardens using slogans such as “We Can Can Vegetables and the Kaiser Too!”
Finally Miss Smith emphasized the key element of Uncle Sam’s program. The pledge drive
One way that Hoover was able to coerce people into volunteer conservation efforts was to sign a pledge card. The pledge card was used to make people feel a moral obligation to stay true to the ideals of the FA and conserve food.
These patriotic pledges were directed specifically too rally the middle class housewife and played an integral role in producing social pressure to promise to have one wheat-less day a week, one wheatless meal a day, one meatless day a week and one meatless meal each day and then to hang cards attesting to their oath ( “the service tag of American women”)
“Women,” she exclaimed, “must set the tone for the household conservation.” It was time for women to mobilize
When the first pledge drive began in late October, Sadie answered Uncle Sam’s call to canvass her Brooklyn neighborhood and collect pledge cards. Since no one wanted to be accused of having lax dietary choices which became synonymous with being unpatriotic, Americans unanimously agreed: “We shall cheerfully deny ourselves.”
Next Pt II: I Pledge Allegiance
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.