Modern Food, Moral Food: A Review

Modern Food, Moral Food: Self –Control, Science and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century. By Helen Zoe Veit. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.


modernmoralThis volume is a study of food habits in the Progressive Era. The Progressive desire for good, clean, and moral government carried over into the realm of the cooking and consumption of food. Veit contends that the advancement of society in the era also included self-improvement and self-control.


The book contains seven chapters on food in American life. Great attention is paid to the culminating event of the period: involvement in World War I. There are ten illustrations and twenty-five pages of bibliography. One will also find eighty pages of copious, informative, and often amusing notes that may have the reader flipping back and forth from text to notes. For instance, Veit cites the Hartford Courant as confirming the canard that sauces were invented by European chefs to hide the taste of spoiled food. In another section, Veit cites foodways as the inspiration for Jewish intellectual and playwright Israel Zangwill’s coinage of the term “melting pot” as applied to the assimilation of immigrant populations. (He had a play with that title produced in 1909.)


The first three chapters of this text deal with the World War, the United States and food relief, rationing, and conservation. Veit explains the Lever Food Act Control Bill of 1917, which she calls “the most radical bill ever enacted by Congress.”(14)

The new law created the Food Administration headed by Herbert Hoover, a mining engineer turned public servant. The law gave the federal government the power to buy and sell commodities such as wheat, requisition food supplies, to take over any mine or factory related to fuel or food, to fix food prices, and to impose food rationing. During the war, rationing never became mandatory, but voluntary rationing was promoted by a huge public relations effort with themes such as meatless Tuesdays and pork-less Saturdays. Veit gives the reader of view of the pre-presidential Hoover. Since 1914 Hoover had been head of the Commission for Relief in Belgium. By 1917, America was feeding nine million people in Belgium and northern France. Food relief under Hoover continued after 1918, and was even expanded to provide relief to former enemies.


Chapter four details the development and growth of the discipline of home economics that had begun at the land grant universities in the 1870s. Veit argues that the home economics movement attempted to reframe women’s role in society, showing the larger social value of women’s domestic tasks, with the war endowing this new professionalism with a sense of urgency. Yet these professionalized tasks seldom led to administrative or other paid positions for women as they were seen as but a projection of women’s “natural” roles as caregivers.


Readers may be amused, informed, or astounded by some of her materials. Chapter five details the attempts to make Americans buy into the idea of trying new foods or substituting different food items for their usual fare. From 1917 till 1919, Portia Smiley, a college-educated black woman toured the country giving informative presentation on how to cook with corn. Attired in the kerchief and full skirt of a mid nineteenth-century slave woman Smiley attempted to teach white northerners how to cook like a southern “mammy.” The chapter also includes an introduction to a ‘science” of the little known study of euthenics, a sister ‘science’ to eugenics, which purported to measure the effect of environmental factors on race. Food was, of course a major environmental factor. Discussions of the day included the effects of meat eating on races and nationalities and the superiority of processed white flour. The latter, a modern product, championed c white bread over whole grain products. The spirit of conservation was served by recommendations that corn could be substituted for wheat.


In chapter 6 Veit turns her attention to the Americanization of foreign food and eating habits. Stews, casseroles, chicken noodle soup, chili, and especially spaghetti were domesticated. Pasta, especially processed pasta, produced by modern factories in sanitary factories was promoted.   By the early 1910’s Franco American, Van Camp, and Heinz were selling large amount of canned pasta to a mass market.


Veit’s final chapter reflects on the aesthetic and health consequences of progress, morality, and nutrition. Veit reminds us that terms such as underweight and overweight originated in the 1910s. Sacrifice for the war effort and self-control briefly reversed some Progressive standards. It produced slim and toned individuals, including new standard for feminine beauty that rejected the presumption that people of substance were necessarily healthy and that one gained girth with age. In many ways Progressive Era foodways presaged today’s concerns with poor eating habits.”


Veit’s book is a contribution to culture studies and to the emerging area of food studies. She approaches the Progressive Era from a different, well researched, and thoughtful point of view. Her work will be of interest to scholars and general readers alike. Her clear and sometimes humorous writing will remind some of the well-received work of Tom Standage. Her work is both scholarly and a thoroughly entertaining read.


Amos St. Germain

Wentworth Institute of Technology









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