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Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000

December 3, 2012
Beth Meyer
National Museum of American History
14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
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You would think that my family would be tired of food the day after Thanksgiving. Instead, inveterate foodies that we are, we visited Food: Transforming the American Table: 1950-2000, the new ongoing exhibition on the first floor, East Wing of the National Museum of American History. It is chock-full of text and artifacts. From iceberg lettuce to bagged lettuce from Cheez Whiz to Thai, this exhibition documents fifty years of American food and eating habits.

Many visitors will already have seen Julia Child's kitchen, which has been on view since 2002. The famous chef's cookbooks and cooking shows radically changed the way Americans think about food. Her kitchen, complete with pots, pans, and knives, was transplanted from her Cambridge, Massachusetts home. The snippets of her cooking shows on view are still tremendously entertaining.

The "New and Improved" section on the right as you come in traces advances in manufacturing, farming, equipment, and convenience foods. There is a section on the history of iceberg lettuce. My 8 year-old was absolutely transfixed by a Krispy Kreme doughnut machine from 1951 that churned out sixty dozen doughnuts an hour. The Interstate Highway Construction Act in 1956 along with railroad expansion spurred the growth of the supermarket. On display is a telescopic shopping cart from 1946 that was created to nest into other carts. You will also learn the history of the barcode that started in the 1970s.

"Food in Popular Media" films include a History of Kraft Cheese 1959 and a film about TV dinners from 1960. A display shows new cooking equipment trends from the Veg-O-Matic (remember "It Slices and Dices") to the Foreman Grill of the nineties. The 1950s saw the development of Fritos and Cheez-Whiz, while the 1960s gave us sugar-free drinks and Gatorade. My husband would not want me to neglect the influence of the Super Bowl on the American diet. The section concludes with a display of coffee lids from 1950 to 2000.

The opposite side of the room called "Resetting the Table" explores the influence that social upheaval and immigration had on the American table. The after effects of World War II resulted in Tiki Bars and America's passion for grilling. The section on the rise of Mexican food features the first Frozen Margarita machine, which was inspired by Slurpee machines. The counterculture movement promoted the philosophy "You are what you eat" and saw the popularity of soul food, natural food, and vegetarian cooking. Julia Child, Time Life's Foods of the World series, Gourmet magazine, and the opening of William Sonoma in 1956 were all part of the Good Food Movement represented here by a fondue pot, pasta machine, and food processor. Berkeley gave us Alice Waters and Alfred Peet (the forerunner to Starbucks). Between 1960 and 2000 the number of farmer's markets in the nation increased from 100 to 3,100.

In the center of the room is a large communal table with chairs. Inserted into the table are four wheels, each illustrated with a number of food pyramids from different periods and cultures. They included a 1945 wheel which listed butter and margarine as a separate food group, Japanese, Mediterranean, and African Heritage charts, and even a cartoon food pyramid for canines. The food pyramids were fascinating and the most popular part of the exhibition for all of us. Spinning the wheels is the only interactive part of the exhibition and a number of toddlers were enjoying them.

The back of the exhibition "Wine for the Table" will be of the least interest to children. It traces the history of American wine. In 1950, Americans consumed 36 million gallons of table wine and in 2000 that number became 567 million gallons. Now all fifty states produce wine. The fifty years saw the growing popularity of Zinfandel, and the development of Gallo wine and wine tourism. I thought the wine wheel invented by Ann C. Noble in 1984 as a lexicon for describing taste and aroma was especially interesting. A film shows the work involved in operating a California winery.

The exhibition sparked some reminiscing with my husband about the foods we grew up with such as iceberg lettuce, Pringles potato chips, and Swanson's T.V. dinners and the foods that are now part of our daily diet - artisan breads, organic produce, and all kinds of ethnic foods. Since I have raised my children to be passionate and sophisticated diners, my kids 8 and 12, were thoroughly entertained by the exhibition. Most kids will probably find something of interest especially the history of snack food, the doughnut machine and tortilla maker, the gross but oddly fascinating mass production of TV dinners and Kraft cheese, and the video clips of Julia Child's television shows.

We followed our visit with a trip to the Museum Book Shop, which has a number of exhibition-related items including kids cookbooks. This exhibition is the first major exhibition on food history at the National Museum of American History and is the basis of a major initiative by the museum to create an ongoing program on food and drink in America. In 2015, the museum plans to house a state-of-the-art kitchen on its first floor.

Additional Information

  • Hours and Admission: Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 except for extended hours December 26 to 30, 2012. Closed December 25. Admission is free.
  • Directions and Parking: Federal Triangle and Smithsonian stations, both Orange/Blue lines, are the closest. There are some free three hour parking spots on the mall but they are hard to come by.
  • Restrooms and Refreshments: There are family restrooms on each floor. Outside the restrooms are water fountains. There are cafes on the first floor and lower level.

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