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A Look at the American History Museum’s “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000” (Photos)

From Cheez Whiz to California wines, exploring 50 transformative years in American eating.

Julia Child’s famous kitchen, transplanted in full to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Photograph by Jeff Martin.

How did we function before the microwave oven? It’s amazing how many American food elements are taken for granted: the microwave, for one, but also the pasta machine, the yogurt maker, drive-through fast food restaurants, portable coffee, Pringles, Gatorade, and ethnic cuisine. The truth is, when most baby boomers were born, these items did not exist. In fact, their invention and evolution matches that of the fiftysomethings as they journeyed through the post-WWII war era and the Vietnam war era, discovering and embracing the world beyond our borders, the technology boom and the rise of the car culture, and even our own homegrown counterculture. All contributed to what we eat and the way we eat today and collectively are the focus of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian, “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000.” Baby boomers should give the show a visit at the American History Museum—preferable with someone from a younger generation in tow, because there will be a lot to discuss.

Paula Johnson, the curator of the exhibition, walked us through it recently, showing off one of the first Krispy Kreme doughnut machines, circa 1950; a Swanson’s TV dinner tray, circa 1954; a carrot stick cleaner, circa 1959; an early chip-and-dip set, circa 1960; a crock pot from 1975; and a George Foreman grill from 1995. 

Fittingly, the small exhibition opens with Julia Child’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, kitchen, an acquisition the History Museum has been proud of since Child made the donation in 2001. Johnson calls Child the first food “superstar.” Even viewed more than once or twice, the kitchen does not get boring. There’s so much to look at, and it speaks to everything: Child’s singular influence on making us more sophisticated about food; the idea that a home kitchen, with the right equipment, could replicate a professional kitchen; and the impact of television and celebrity on the culinary arts. It even had a part in the film Julie and Julia. Though James Beard was the first chef on TV, it’s because of Child and her hit PBS broadcast that today young chefs who are still wet behind the ears can land a role on Top Chef and, if the stars align the right way, can come out with investors, their own eponymous restaurant, and a robust fan base.

“Food is a fundamental subject that everyone can relate to,” Johnson says. “The second half of the 20th century was a time of rapid change in America.” She hopes a walk through the 50 years of food history will prompt discussions “about food and the forces and factors that influenced how and what we eat.” 

Tidbits of tasty trivia from the exhibition:

  • Supermarket carts have grown considerably bigger over the decades, underscoring the big-box trend of buying large quantities of food.
  • One of the first microwave ovens designed for home use, made by Tappan, cost $1,295 in 1955.
  • Cheese Whiz was invented in 1952.
  • Slurpees arrived on the food scene in 1975.
  • Chuck Williams, the founder of Williams-Sonoma, contributed his own Cuisinart to the exhibition.
  • California wine put American wine on the map, but by 2000 wine was being produced in all 50 states.
  • James Beard published The Complete Book of Barbecue and Rotisserie Cooking in 1955, following the introduction of the first Weber backyard grill.

It’s interesting to trace the role of advertising in our love affair with food and the telling way it reflects a changing culture, especially the proliferation of an electronic device called a television. While this would jar many women today, the tagline for Swanson’s TV dinners is “Now Mom’s in on the TV fun from the start.” Similarly, an early ad for 7-11 played to the suburbs and the car culture: “Leave your youngsters in the car. Why not? You can see them from anywhere in the store” (not quite as reassuring these days).

The Museum of American History says the exhibition will run for at least two years and that hopefully it will expand over that time. Museum officials are also considering small gatherings with area chefs and food entrepreneurs to talk about specific aspects of the show—for instance how bread went from bland white loaves to artisanal specialities, or the quest in Virginia to make a world-class wine. Of particular interest to the local area is the section on the influence of “new immigrants,” because the Washington area is dense with good ethnic food from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Mexico, and Central America. A look at this year’s list of 100 Very Best Restaurants shows that almost a quarter of them are Asian, Latin, Middle Eastern, or Mediterranean.

  • Feel Wood

    Julia Child's kitchen is not from California. It's from her former house in Cambridge MA, where she filmed many of her PBS shows.

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