Gabriella M. Petrick
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
American food in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is characterized by abundance. Unlike the hardscrabble existence of many earlier Americans, the “Golden Age of Agriculture” brought the bounty produced in fields across the United States to both consumers and producers. While the “Golden Age” technically ended as World War I began, larger quantities of relatively inexpensive food became the norm for most Americans as more fresh foods, rather than staple crops, made their way to urban centers and rising real wages made it easier to purchase these comestibles.
The application of science and technology to food production from the field to the kitchen cabinet, or even more crucially the refrigerator by the mid-1930s, reflects the changing demographics and affluence of American society as much as it does the inventiveness of scientists and entrepreneurs. Perhaps the single most important symbol of overabundance in the United States is the postwar Green Revolution. The vast increase in agricultural production based on improved agronomics, provoked both praise and criticism as exemplified by Time magazine’s critique of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in September 1962 or more recently the politics of genetically modified foods.
Reflecting that which occurred at the turn of the twentieth century, food production, politics, and policy at the turn of the twenty-first century has become a proxy for larger ideological agendas and the fractured nature of class in the United States. Battles over the following issues speak to which Americans have access to affordable, nutritious food: organic versus conventional farming, antibiotic use in meat production, dissemination of food stamps, contraction of farm subsidies, the rapid growth of “dollar stores,” alternative diets (organic, vegetarian, vegan, paleo, etc.), and, perhaps most ubiquitous of all, the “obesity epidemic.” These arguments carry moral and ethical values as each side deems some foods and diets virtuous, and others corrupting. While Americans have long held a variety of food ideologies that meld health, politics, and morality, exemplified by Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, among others, newer constructions of these ideologies reflect concerns over the environment, rural Americans, climate change, self-determination, and the role of government in individual lives. In other words, food can be used as a lens to understand larger issues in American society while at the same time allowing historians to explore the intimate details of everyday life.
Changing foodways, the consumption and production of food, access to food, and debates over food shaped the nature of American cities in the 20th century. As American cities transformed from centers of industrialization at the start of the century to post-industrial societies at the end of the 20th century, food cultures in urban America shifted in response to the ever-changing urban environment. Cities remained centers of food culture, diversity, and food reform despite these shifts.
Growing populations and waves of immigration changed the nature of food cultures throughout the United States in the 20th century. These changes were significant, all contributing to an evolving sense of American food culture. For urban denizens, however, food choice and availability were dictated and shaped by a variety of powerful social factors, including class, race, ethnicity, gender, and laboring status. While cities possessed an abundance of food in a variety of locations to consume food, fresh food often remained difficult for the urban poor to obtain as the 20th century ended.
As markets expanded from 1900 to 1950, regional geography became a less important factor in determining what types of foods were available. In the second half of the 20th century, even global geography became less important to food choices. Citrus fruit from the West Coast was readily available in northeastern markets near the start of the century, and off-season fruits and vegetables from South America filled shelves in grocery stores by the end of the 20th century. Urban Americans became further disconnected from their food sources, but this dislocation spurred counter-movements that embraced ideas of local, seasonal foods and a rethinking of the city’s relationship with its food sources.
The Immigration Act of 1924 was in large part the result of a deep political and cultural divide in America between heavily immigrant cities and far less diverse small towns and rural areas. The 1924 legislation, together with growing residential segregation, midcentury federal urban policy, and postwar suburbanization, undermined scores of ethnic enclaves in American cities between 1925 and the 1960s. The deportation of Mexicans and their American children during the Great Depression, the incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II, and the wartime and postwar shift of so many jobs to suburban and Sunbelt areas also reshaped many US cities in these years. The Immigration Act of 1965, which enabled the immigration of large numbers of people from Asia, Latin America, and, eventually, Africa, helped to revitalize many depressed urban areas and inner-ring suburbs. In cities and suburbs across the country, the response to the new immigration since 1965 has ranged from welcoming to hostile. The national debate over immigration in the early 21st century reflects both familiar and newer cultural, linguistic, religious, racial, and regional rifts. However, urban areas with a history of immigrant incorporation remain the most politically supportive of such people, just as they were a century ago.