For most Americans in the 19th century, it wasn't what you ate, but how much you ate, that mattered. Late in the century, doctors wrote books like How To Be Plumb and the voluptuous woman was the ideal. The famed actress Lillian Russell, considered by many the epitome of beauty, weighed almost two hundred pounds. Today, in contrast, Americans seem obsessed with calories, diets and slimness, and with eating healthful amounts of vitamins, minerals, fats and proteins. What sparked this remarkable revolution in the way we eat.
As historian Harvey Levenstein points out, the great American food revolution really occurred between the years 1880 and 1930. Focusing on this pivotal half-century, Levenstein provides a vivid account of the people and social forces that redirected the American diet, spiced with colorful portraits of the reformers, scientists, businessmen, faddists and hucksters who promoted or exploited the eating revolution. Here we meet the MIT chemist Ellen Richards and the "scientific" home economists who failed to change workers' diets, but then succeeded with the middle class...the wealthy faddist Horace Fletcher, the Great Masticator, advocate of a low-protein diet and "thorough mastication" (over 100 chews per mouthful)...the social workers who despaired over immigrants' eating habits, particularly their love of spicey, one-pot dinners...the flamboyant Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, and his brother William, who invented corn flakes as a vegetarian health food...and Elmer McCollum, who discovered vitamins A and D, and who was later hired by General Mills tout the nutritional benefits of white bread.
Levenstein serves up fascinating insights into the social, economic, and political forces that spurred the eating revolution--urbanization, immigration, technological and agricultural advances, and the changing role of women in society. He examines how nutritional science developed in America; how Prohibition's ban on wine helped destroy French cuisine in America; how changes in women's work, marriage, and the family led to lighter, time-saving meals; and how giant food corporations used massive advertising budgets to change the way Americans prepared foods.
By 1930, the eating habits of Americans had undergone an incredible metamorphosis. For anyone who has ever wondered why we eat what we eat, and why we sometimes change, this wide-ranging, colorful social history offers some illuminating and even surprising answers.