Arts & Life
How Uncle Sam Helps Define America's Diet
Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:46 am
First Lady Michelle Obama received a lot of attention for her vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House. The garden, which provides vegetables both for the first family and for state dinners, was also meant to provide Americans with an example of how to eat more healthfully.
As it turns out, Washington has a long tradition of trying to guide the American diet, going back over 200 years. Founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin brought plants like rice and olives from their missions abroad to see how they would fare in their own country.
Later, the Department of Agriculture sent "agricultural explorers" to remote parts of the world to find plants that would do well in the U.S. Those explorers often ventured to dangerous places and had to deal with threats from extreme weather, wild animals and hostile locals. One of the most famous of these explorers was Frank Meyer, one of whose discoveries — the Meyer lemon — is named for him.
Documentation of these expeditions is housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and is part of a new exhibit called "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government's Effect on the American Diet."
NPR's Renee Montagne met with the exhibit's head curator, Alice Kamps. Kamps explains that while people might not think of food as part of American history, the Archives have extensive records on that subject.
"Anything that touches our lives is represented here," she says. "Food, of course, is a very basic, everyday kind of thing, and government's been involved in it since there's been a government."
One of the most popular programs created by the federal government began in the 1920s and took advantage of a new technology at the time — the radio. The Department of Agriculture produced one of the earliest radio shows, which was called "Aunt Sammy" — the wife of Uncle Sam. The program was aimed largely at farm wives and provided recipes and cooking tips.
The government also sought to provide nutritional information to the American public. One 1930s-era poster in the exhibit illustrates 100-calorie portions of familiar foods. A hundred calories was equal to a pound of tomatoes or three large prunes or a bowl of cereal.
The concept isn't unfamiliar — consumers today can find 100-calorie packages of snacks on supermarket shelves. But, as Kamps points out, the goal of enumerating calories was completely different back then.
"The focus then was getting enough calories," she explains. "This was during the Great Depression. Unlike now, where we're counting calories to keep them down, they were counting calories to get enough."
In addition to making sure Americans were getting enough food, the federal government was looking to protect Americans from contaminated food. Many food and drug laws came about in the early 20th century. One pioneer in food safety was Harvey Wiley, a chemist with the Department of Agriculture.
Wiley was convinced that many of the substances that were added to foods — preservatives and dyes, for example — were dangerous. But he needed evidence of this, so he decided to test these substances on humans. In 1903, he began an experiment he called the hygienic table.
"He enlisted a number of young men, volunteers, to take all of their meals in the basement of the Department of Agriculture," Kamps says. "They outfitted this room with white tablecloths, they had waiters, they hired a chef, so the meals were very carefully prepared. But then these chemical substances were added to them, like formaldehyde and boric acid."
Wiley kept notes and tables of the effects the meals had on his volunteers. Often, they became violently ill. One note reads: "No. 5 was nauseated and sick during the night of February 1 and vomited all of his dinner. He did not eat breakfast on February 2."
Wiley's experiment attracted a tremendous amount of attention from the press, which dubbed his team of young volunteers "The Poison Squad." But the notoriety helped his cause, because people became aware of the dangers of these substances, which went a long way in helping pass the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.
That law made it illegal to ship or receive any adulterated or misbranded foods, like ketchup. The condiment was one of the first convenience foods that had commercial success. But during the mid-1800s, it was sometimes prepared from the refuse of canneries. Tomato skins, cores, peels and sometimes rotten tomatoes went into this product. And once it was bottled, the bacteria often caused the containers to explode.
Along with information on the government's role in regulating the food industry, the exhibit provides records of other programs, such as war rationing, school lunches, and the oh-so-familiar (and now obsolete) food pyramid.
"What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government's Effect on the American Diet" opens at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., on June 10 and runs through Jan. 3.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
First Lady Michelle Obama has gotten a lot of attention for her vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House. The idea is to be an example to Americans of how to eat more healthily. Turns out, Washington, D.C. has a long tradition of trying to guide the American diet, going back some 200 years and featuring something every school child knows: The Department of Agriculture's Food Group.
(Soundbite of vintage audio)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Meat group. Fruit and vegetables group. Bread and cereal group. That's a balanced diet.
MONTAGNE: This 1970s ditty from a children's show, devoted to nutrition, is among the many historical documents kept at the National Archives here in Washington D.C.
Ms. ALICE KAMPS (Exhibit Specialist, National Archives): You might not think that we have records about food here at the National Archives, but really anything that touches our lives is represented here. And food, of course, is a very basic everyday kind of thing. And the government has been involved in it really says there's been a government.
MONTAGNE: That's Alice Kamps. She's the head curator of a new exhibit at the National Archives called "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" What you'll learn there is that Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, brought back from diplomatic missions abroad rice, olives and other plants they hoped would help diversify the crops in their new nation.
The first federal funds that went to agriculture went to the Patent Office in the 1830s to distribute foreign seeds to American farmers.
Ms. KAMPS: In the early 1900s, the Department of Agriculture sent explorers to remote parts of the world to gather plants. They had to deal with tigers, boars, bandits, people sworn to kill all foreigners. And we have wonderful documentation of those expeditions.
MONTAGNE: Kamps says some of those exotic species they brought back are now everyday foods: apricots, persimmons, oranges, and the Meyer lemon - named after one of the most famous agricultural explorers, Frank Meyer.
But not everything they brought back caught on with the American public.
Ms. KAMPS: We have some wonderful film footage. I think it's from the 1920s of two women enjoying jujubes. And I think they thought there was going to be this great market for jujubes. But, in fact...
MONTAGNE: In fact, what are jujubes?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KAMPS: In fact, what are jujubes? You don't see those in grocery stores. Apparently they weren't very popular. I think they are sort of date-like.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: The government did catch on to the potential of the new medium to spread the word on eating well. In fact, the Department of Agriculture produced one of the earliest shows on radio. One extremely popular show shared recipes and cooking tips, and featured a woman named Aunt Sammy. Aunt Sammy as in Mrs. Uncle Sam.
(Soundbite of vintage audio)
"AUNT SAMMY": Get your pencils and paper ready, we're going to have some more recipes today. Now, write this menu: cold sliced tongue...
MONTAGNE: In a National Archives exhibit, along with the photo of a 1930s farm family gathered around a radio, there's a poster from the era illustrating 100-calorie portions of familiar foods. So...
Ms. KAMPS: To get your hundred calories, you could have a pound of tomatoes, three prunes.
MONTAGNE: That's amazing.
Ms. KAMPS: Okay, a bowl of cereal. The focus, though, then, was getting enough calories. This is during the Great Depression and unlike now - where we're counting calories to keep them down - they were counting calories to try to get enough.
MONTAGNE: And as it still is today, the federal government back then was looking to protect Americans from food. Many food and drug laws came about in the early 20th century. Curator Alice Kamps walked us over to a display devoted to a pioneer in food safety, a chemist with the Department of Agricultural named Harvey Wiley.
Ms. KAMPS: He was convinced that many of these substances that were added to foods as preservatives and dyes, and so forth, were dangerous.
MONTAGNE: And this is back in the late 1800s, early 1900s?
Ms. KAMPS: Yes. So he wanted some proof of this. So he decided to test these substances on humans. In 1903, he started an experiment he called The Hygienic Table. He enlisted a number of young man, volunteers, to eat all their meals in the basement of the Department of Agriculture. And they outfitted this room with white tablecloths, they had waiters, they hired a chef, so that the meals were very carefully prepared. But then these chemical substances were added to them, like formaldehyde and boric acid.
So we have his notes where he recorded the effects of these chemicals on these young volunteers. And they often became violently ill.
MONTAGNE: Here I'm reading on one of these yellowed, handwritten notes: Number Five was nauseated and sick during the night of February 1st, and vomited all of his dinner. He did not eat breakfast on February 2nd - huh, not surprised.
Harvey Wiley's experiment attracted a tremendous amount of attention from the press, which dubbed his team of young volunteers The Poison Squad.
In those early days of the 20th century, there were even songs written about The Poison Squad. On display are the lyrics from one song used in a vaudeville act. And it begins: (Reading) If ever you should visit the Smithsonian Institute, look out that Professor Wiley doesn't make you a recruit.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: (Reading) He's got fellows there that tell him how they feel. They take a batch of poison every time they eat a meal.
Ms. KAMPS: The press had a field day with his and it was the butt of many jokes. But the notoriety even helped his cause, because people learned about it and became aware of the dangers of these substances. And that went a long way in helping pass, in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Law.
MONTAGNE: That law made it illegal to ship or receive any adulterated or misbranded foods, like ketchup. On the wall of the National Archives is an illustration of the Victorian house housewife leaping away, as a bunch of ketchup bottles blow up behind her.
Ms. KAMPS: During the mid-1800s, it was sometimes prepared from the refuse of canneries. So tomato skins, cores, peels, sometimes rotten tomatoes went into this product, and it was then bottled. And the bacteria often caused the bottles to explode.
MONTAGNE: Many years later, the Agriculture Department almost classified ketchup as a vegetable in school lunches, which in a way gets us back to food groups. At one time, there were as many as 12. Ever since the first food guide was published in 1894, the government has drawn and redrawn the basic building blocks of nutritional health.
Curator Alice Kamps points to a pie chart from World War II.
Ms. KAMPS: And you can see there are seven food groups here. And we really like this particular food guide because butter has its own food group.
MONTAGNE: If you look at this, you'd eat as much butter as you eat green and yellow vegetables.
Ms. KAMPS: Yeah.
MONTAGNE: And the government added a helpful postscript; in addition to the basic seven, eat any other foods you want.
(Soundbite of song)
FARMER BROWN: (Singing) On the farm, we grow the food that's everything you need to eat. It's the fruit, the veg, bread, the milk, a tease of bean of meat.
Hi, I'm Farmer Brown, singing about the food you need...
MONTAGNE: We got a sneak preview of this exhibit which opens this Friday at the National Archives. It's called "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" See Dr. Wiley's lab at our website, NPR.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.