When did Americans become so self-righteous about the food they eat, not to mention so high-minded and hectoring about what others consume? In a useful if somewhat preachy book, Michigan State University history professor Helen Zoe Veit helps to explain the rise of the modern American foodie.
Veit traces the origins of our fraught relationship with food back to the early 1900s, when American culture was being shaped by rising levels of immigration, changing views of gender and race, greater access to public education, and the socially and politically disruptive effects of World War I. Even before the United States sent the doughboys to Europe, the US Food Administration, under Herbert Hoover, instituted several programs aimed at conserving food at home so more could be sent “over there” to help nourish the civilians and armed forces of the Allied nations. Some fourteen million Americans, mostly women, joined the effort, signing nonbinding pledge cards and proudly proclaiming their commitment to conserving food for the sake of the war effort. But as Veit points out, Hoover’s agency did more than simply change Americans’ eating habits: “The food conservation campaign of World War I contributed to new and complex beliefs about American food, especially that increasingly central idea that ‘the secret in eating is to become master of yourself.’”