old food

My coworker and I were talking last night about cubed steak in the South versus cubed steak in the North. Down here, it’s breaded and fried like a lot of other things. We call it country fried steak.  It’s delicious. In my mom’s childhood in the North, it was broiled. Not much point in debating the merits of that.

But it got me to thinking about why some mothers never made anything that required actual cooking. And that led me to wonder what foods women (and others) grew up on. I believe cooking to be more of a family heirloom than “an ends to a means”. Between fast food technology and convenient–but not necessarily cheaper–options at the grocery store, one does not need to cook. At all.

So I did a little research – and Bingo! – the secret to an American mother’s love of boxed things revealed itself.

“The most striking development was the shift toward processed foods. Where housewives had previously prepared food from scratch at home (peeling potatoes, shelling peas, plucking chickens, or grinding coffee beans) an increasing number of Americans purchased foods that were ready-to-cook. World War I brought about new methods of food processing as manufacturers streamlined production methods of canned and frozen foods. Processed foods reduced the enormous amounts of time that had previously been taken up in peeling, grinding, and cutting.”  (1920-1930.com)

Processed foods were totally in every American woman’s wheelhouse. They were considered modern.
And even more striking were the foods introduced in the 1920s that were so prevalent in the Tate pantry of the 1980s. Take a look:
  • Wonder Bread (1920): I didn’t think there was any other kind of bread until I was in my 20s.
  • Welch’s Grape Jelly (1923): Ditto. What is this thing called strawberry jam? I had never heard of it until I was well out of childhood.
  • Peter Pan Peanut Butter (1928): The only brand in our house 30 years later.
  • Velveeta Cheese (1928): Truly astounding! Validation of my own continuing love of the processed cheese food. And, yes, a standard sandwich in the Tate household of the ’90s was Velveeta sliced and placed atop a mayonnaise-laden piece of Wonder Bread.

 Other foods advertised in the 1920s were also hanging around our house 60 years later: Log Cabin Syrup, Van Camps Pork and Beans, Grape-Nuts (still my cereal of choice today!), Cream of Wheat (Northern grits – kind of), and Maxwell House Coffee (who knew our coffee was named after a Nashville hotel – maybe that’s what keeps me in the South).

So now I’m thinking…what will be hanging around my future, non-existent child’s kitchen 60 years from now that’s sitting in my pantry today? Yes, Velveeta will still be sitting jauntily on the shelf, probably with exactly the same packaging. But he’ll also have DiGiorno Pesto Sauce for pasta, Thai Kitchen Coconut Milk for curries, and Supremo Chorizo for quesadillas. Will they seem as old-fashioned in 2074 as Wonder Bread seems today? Fascinating question, no?

May you appreciate what came before you


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