The Rise of Excess — Post-WWII America
This is a transcript of the Food with Benefits episode — The Rise of Excess — Post-WWII America originally published February 28th, 2021. Listen to Food with Benefits here.
Well hi there! My name is Austin and welcome to Food with Benefits! If this is your first time here, welcome to the show! To get you caught up, Food with Benefits is an exploration of our relationship with food and how it shapes us as people. Of course, any sort of relationship has history, and that history can shape and mold our viewpoints in a way that kinda reverberates through our life and alters our course to something new. Whether that something new is positive or negative is largely up to you to decide, but it’s a change nonetheless.
Before I get started, I just want to thank you all for listening and joining along with me on this journey. I hope this episode helps you feel a bit more connected with those around you, and I hope it gives you some philosophical nuggets to chew on for a bit while you think about how this topic may have affected you and your everyday life.
So todays topic is about post-WWII America, and how it was this catalyst that’s influenced a lot when it comes to America’s current relationship with food and consumerism. Now, post-war American capitalism may be the cause of this, but this philosophy towards shopping, much like capitalism itself, cannot be viewed in a vacuum. We have to peel back the layers and layers of nuance, of the little things that led to this current iteration of, what is — unaffectionately — known as late-stage capitalism. So I think a good starting point here before we jump fully into post-war America is to actually look at American right after World War One ended, or as they called it back then, The Great War. Let’s go take a look back at a dinner table in the mid-1920’s.
It’s 1925, the kids are at the table with dad, and the mom is in the kitchen finishing up dinner. The most pungent smell is like a chicken, but there’s a bit of a gaminess to it, and they can smell the heartiness of broiled potatoes and the freshness hit on their nose from the carrots and peas. The mom brings out roast duck broiled potatoes, with those carrots and peas on the side. Once the family has cleaned their plates, the mom brings a Raspberry Mousse cake she picked up from the bakery. The family just got electricity in their home, so the mom was able to finally own a refrigerator to help make sure the mousse didn’t get sloppy or drip while the family ate.
Once everyone is full from dinner, the kids go to play with the new kids who moved in down the road in the city. They’re Chinese immigrants, and the mom always hopped that her kids would bring her some food from their house on their way home. At the time, American tastes in food curiosity was leaning more towards the “exotic” as they called it at the time. And the mom was thankful to live in the city, it meant she could hop over to any of the many restaurants that opened up during The Great War to try Chinese cuisine, Mexican cuisine, or any other type of food she felt like that day.
She didn’t always live in the city. Her, her husband, and the kids were living in the suburbs about 45 minutes out of the city when the war started. When the husband enlisted to join the war effort, he was promptly shipped off to Foggia, Italy. The mom was happy staying at home to raise the kids, but the war effort put a strain on their access to food. Farmers were rationing their food to be sent to soldiers oversees, as most of Europe had already exhausted their food supplies. Meat was substituted for fish. Wheat was substituted for oat, and sugar was cut from dishes almost entirely. But she was determined to provide for her family during the war, she knew she had to make sure the family was taken care of while her husband took care of their country.a
The amount of enlisting that was happening put a strain on the federal administrators in DC, and they were hiring, and hiring quickly. She packed the families bags, said goodbye to family and friends in their small town, and took off for DC. Before she even really started looking she already started working in an office in DC, the bureaucracy of war needed her. That’s what she was told. Of course, a busy mother with no time to cook has to feed the three hungry mouths of her and her kids somehow. Luckily for her, DC had an ever-growing selection of restaurants at their disposal. Her and her family got used to eating out during the war, to ordering food to go to enjoy at home. Granted, it wasn’t anything extravagant, but their home was now a dual-income household, living in the epicenter of the United States, and they were free to enjoy what they could.
The dad was indifferent to the city. He was stationed off in Italy during the Great War, having enlisted when his wife and kids still lived in the suburbs about 45 minutes away. He was used to steak and potatoes, but his wife has grown fond of duck after the war, so it’ll do. While he was away he got a taste for the foreign foods of Italy. Pasta and tomato sauce were some of his favorites. A far cry from the all-American diet, but after eating so much of it oversees, he grew a liking to it. Once he came back home, the whole family got to fully appreciate the benefits of being a dual income household in a major metropolitan area. And with no worries of rations, they began to truly appreciate everything that was available to them.
Expensive dinner parties, roast duck, shrimp cocktails, crown roast of lamb, pickled peaches, the options were nearly endless.
The family was content and happy. They suffered through food scarcity and rations. They persevered through The Great War. America was experiencing an economic rise as husbands came home to spend their money, and wives now had money to spend as well. Sadly, on September 4th, 1929, everything would change for them. They just didn’t know it yet.
The Great Depression started on September 4th, 1929, but no one knew it at the time. It was just a fall in stock prices, nothing to worry about. Let the big wigs on Wall Street write their analyses, let them gaze into their crystal ball to try to figure out what’s happening. It wasn’t until a month later, on Black Tuesday, October 29th, 1929, the the world began to notice that something was wrong. No one really knew why, and even today, we still don’t really know WHY it happened! One theory is that there was insufficient demand from the private sector and not enough people spending money. Another theory points the blame on a banking crisis where people began to pay off their bank loans. Hoarding of money, debt liquidation, even pessimism are all points in various theories that led to The Great Depression. In short, people just got too rich.
But I’m not here to talk numbers, mainly because they confuse me. Let’s go back to this family and see how their life has changed during The Great Depression.
It’s July, 1932. The family is hungry. The dad has lost his job he got after the war. No pension, no retirement, and the government still hasn’t sent him his bonus from fighting in The Great War. Something he desperately needed to feed his family.
The wife lost her job as well. After the war, she was able to get another office job as she was no longer needed to deal with wartime bureaucracy, but as a women with two kids and a husband who they thought would be able to take care of her, she was fired in late 1929.
The kids were growing skinny. The family couldn’t afford beef anymore, let along that roast duck they had years earlier. They had grown out of their old clothes and were unceremoniously wearing the old bags of flour fashioned into clothing for them. Their friends and family back home weren’t any better off. Their farmer friends had no more livestock to share meat, milk, or eggs with them, they were relying on their aging and quickly dying livestock to feed their own family for as long as they could.
The family gathered every morning on the streets at the bread line, hoping that there was enough bread leftover when they were at the front of the line to feed their family. How could they, they were serving over 90,000 meals each and every day. The family was ridiculed by some for seeking this assistance. The mom remembers one day when a man told her husband, in front of her and her children, that waiting in bread line was making him soft, and that he was a freeloader waiting for handouts. It didn’t matter that he put his life on the line for the country just a few years prior. The family was an outcast, a stain on the American image, a parasite.
While the family was struggling, those who were already living at a lower rung in the social class were struggling more. Black sharecroppers, who were already living on the bare minimum, were given fewer rations than their white counterparts. Not only that, but they were required to before illegal street work, or perform other “work tests” to prove their worthiness to receive less than others.
Those who were better off, viewed this food famine as a natural culling the of who they deemed subhumans. Which were typical Appalachians, former slaves and their descendants, and immigrants. This was further exacerbated by President Hoover’s aversion to welfare. It was entirely un-American to him. A spit in the face to the values he held dear.
It’s winter, 1939. The mom is making dinner for his husband and child. Only one child though. Her youngest died in 1935 from pellagra, a disease caused by a lack of niacin. A vitamin deficiency. Sadly, they passed just a few years before doctors developed a niacin supplement. Otherwise, they would have felt better in just a few short days. The smell of the home is different this time around. There’s not gamey roasted duck, no freshness of carrots. Either way, without heat in their home the air is so cold anyway, it nips at your nose and all you can smell is that sharp, biting winter air. The mom brings a large bowl to the table, about half-full with a dish named the Poor Man’s Meal. Diced potato fried in a pan with oil, chopped onions browned and softened to introduce a flavor reminiscent of an earlier time, and sliced hot dogs. But the dish isn’t looked at with disgust or disdain. It’s a hot meal and that was more than enough.
As the family sat and ate, the husband and wife spoke of Germany’s invasion of Poland. Of the
UK and France declaring war on Germany. A new war was coming, but it wasn’t anything for the family to worry about. To them, they had their own worries, and the squabbling of Europe was the least of their concerns at the time.
It’s summer, 1943. The United States has joined World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and its declaration of war against Japan. Life was different for the family again. The husband was home, not having passed his physical to qualify for duty, malnutrition has caused problems that weakened him too much to serve. Their daughter, their only child, is assisting in the war as much as she could on the homefront. She volunteers in planting community “victory gardens”, canning produce, and salvaging commodities and sending care packages to soldiers on the warfront. While the sound of gun fire and airplanes soared over the skies for the servicemen at war, the sounds at home was quieter.
The fighting never made it to their home, but the war was still part of their everyday lives. Food rations were implemented again, right as the United States began to recover from The Great Depression, a memory that still haunts the family. Wheat, meat, and sugar were again in short supply. The United States has already encountered this before, and much of the population knew exactly what to do.
President Woodrow Wilson created the CPI, the Committee on Public Information. It was a propaganda factory, to put it bluntly. Just days after the United States entered the war the CPI was releasing pamphlets informing Americans on how they can serve the United States to assist the war effort. They deployed volunteers called Four Minute Men who appeared at churches, theaters, and even schools, to talk to anyone and everyone about liberty bonds, the draft, and the patriotism of growing your own vegetables (we’ll get back to that later).
There were posters promoting Pig Clubs that said “Raise Pigs, Help Win the War, 40,000 Boys and Girls are Raising Pigs, You can do it too!” A poster of a starving women and son on it that says “Hunger Breeds Madness: America’s Food Must Save the World”. Or the image of a tired and worn soldier slumped on the grass with the phrase “Don’t Let Up, Keep On Saving Food” emboldened across the poster. The CPI and the United States Food Administration created enough art to fill more than $19 million dollars worth on advertising space. All donated of course to serve the war effort. Food Will Win The War. Waste Nothing. That was the main message driven home to American families.
The United States knew that forcing Americans to ration their food by laws would lower the morale of a nation still recovering from the legally-mandated rations of World War I, and the food scarcity of The Great Depression. Americans needed to feel patriotic, they needed to feel that they were part of the war, fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. That’s primarily why I say the CPI is a propaganda machine, it’s goal was to coax Americans into voluntarily cutting back on their food intake. To the point where homemakers and students were being asked to signed pledges to eat less meat, wheat, sugar, and fats. Peer pressure was another major point. Wear your pin to show your patriotism that you conserve food. Hang our poster in your window! All means necessary were taken to ensure that Americans felt that they were doing this on their own volition, not by the forceful hand of their government.
One of the major ways this was done was through Victory Gardens. A symbol of your patriotism and self-sufficiency. Urban and suburban families grew their own vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Community gardens were more popular in the urban areas due to limited space. Eleanor Rosevelt even got in on the action, planting her own Victory Garden at the White House in 1943. Largely as a political message to further drive home the patriotic duty to garden (even though she didn’t tend to it herself). Near the end of the war, almost ⅓ of all vegetables produced in the united states came from these victory gardens.
Canning foods became more popular during this time as well. It was a way for the family to preserve food for months to come, especially during the winter months when victory gardens were waiting to grow and sprout, and American agriculture slowed. Largely due to the drastic reduction in imported goods by supply ships being sunk by German U-Boats.. Pickled onions, canned fruits, and tomatoes were largely popular at the time. This is one of those trends that has stayed with us even today. My mom actually cans some food on her own as well. Pickles (which my boyfriends absolutely despises by the way), homemade jams, and the such.
Now, while Americans weren’t, by law, required to ration food. The government placed a points system on many food items. You were given a certain number of points, and could buy what you please, but once you were out of points, these items were unattainable to you. This included condensed milk, canned fish, and breakfast cereals. To avoid any loss in moral due to the loss of these items on the free market, the government informed Americans that their points do not apply to restaurants, and that they would not need ration coupons at them either. Restaurants were open game to anyone who could afford them. This drastically increase the amount of Americans who were eating out. Some seeing a a doubling in businesses by October 1943. By 1948, restaurants were serving 15 and a half billion meals annually. At the time, this was every single American eating out around once a week at restaurants.
To Americans in the South, which featured very few restaurants, as most concentrated in the urban areas, the rationing, points system, and reliance on self-sustainability hit hard. To them, they were losing morale, and quickly. With a higher population of African Americans, mainly being freed slaves or the children and grandchildren of freed slaves, now relegated to sharecroppers, they were exploited for their labor yet again. To them, they were not able to appreciate the growing restaurant scene of the north, or even local eateries in the south, which were still refusing service to them. To the south, self-sufficiency was a necessity to stay alive, the war effort was just a side effect.
They were told that their hard work, their pain, and their sacrifice would pay off when the war ended. They would get to indulge in exotic foods from Asia, from Mexico, from around the world. They would once again experience a light, bouncy cake made with eggs and milk again. Enjoy the smell of steak and potatoes every night again.
To those who lived through World War I, The Great Depression, and now World War II, the thought of being able to enjoy daily what were, at the time, considered unnecessary luxuries, was enough to keep them going. They grew that victory garden, they made sure their plate was clean and no food was wasted. They were doing their patriotic duty. In part for the war effort, but largely for the promise of indulging in excess afterward.
It’s Spring, 1955. World War 2 has ended, it’s actually been over for a long time now. Soldiers are back home with their families. Rationing is a thing of the past. The CPI has been dissolved as it has done its duty. The point system is no more. And America is enjoying the many benefits that are present in most post-war countries. Economic booms, advanced technology, and connectedness with the outside world yet again. The mom no longer has to worry about work, as her husband has a well-paying job with a corporation in DC, and their daughter is married and starting a family of her own.
The daughter, now married, is making the newest trend in dinner for her and her husband. Swanson’s frozen turkey dinner. That sweet and mouthwatering smell of turkey, roasted and seasoned potatoes, and vegetables filled their home. A quick 25 minute cook in their new electric oven got the job done, and they were free to enjoy their dinner. Best of all, she only had the utensils to wash which gave her just enough time to finish everything up so they could watch I Love Lucy together on their new TV.
Food changed a lot in the years after the war. With the proliferation of electricity into more and more households frozen foods were becoming more common. Giving way for Americans to enjoy that excess they were promised during the war. Steaks, chicken, fish, vegetables, fruits, you name it. All flash frozen and kept in their new GE-model freezers for whenever they need it, be it later that night or 2 months from now. They knew they’d had food no matter what.
Technology developed during the war began to make its way into the homes as well.
Microwave ovens were a spinoff from military technology, allowing frozen foods to be cooked faster than ever before, giving Americans more time to themselves and their busy suburban lives.
With airplanes now being mass produced and pilots needing jobs after the war, flights were being made to bring in food from all around the world. Restaurants and supermarkets everywhere in the US now had access to Alaskan King Crabs, strawberries from California year-round, salmon from Nova Scotia, Canada, venison from South Dakota, and paté from France. America was becoming globally connected. Cuisines and cultures were being shared at a pace that was unimaginable when this family was growing up. And now they had access to all of it right at their local grocery store.
While it’s easy to say that this was an incredible time for American, that’s looking at it through some heavily rose-tinted glasses. At this time, many African American soldiers returning from war were still being denied service at restaurants and establishments all over the US, primarily in the southern United States, where many older adults were children of Confederate soldiers. Food waste began to run rampant. With food at low prices, and the economy booming, food was being purchased and forgotten. Families no longer needed to make sure their plates were fully clean like they did during the war. In-sink garbage disposals were advertised as early as 1950, just 5 years after the war ended, highlighting the prevalence of food waste at the time. This is primarily attributed to the out-of-sight-out-of-mind consequences of waste and food consumption, something that’s even more prevalent today as almost 700 million people in the world suffer from hunger.
The near necessity of restaurants during WWII, those promises of excess beyond our wildest dreams, coupled along with the post-war economic booms has paved the way for modern American food consumerism. As a society today, around 40% of the food supply in America is food waste. For every zucchini you buy, or apple, or pound of ground beef, buy another one and then just throw it away. That is the scale of food waste that we are dealing with here.
I will say though, I can’t blame them. The trauma of living through food scarcity for nearly 20 years, with constant promises of a better life tomorrow, can and will absolutely warp the perception of food to anyone. It will create that unhealthy relationship with food. Not the kind of unhealthy relationship where you’re eating too much salt, or not enough veggies in your diet. But a psychologically unhealthy relationship, where we view food as this scarce, limited resource that must be hoarded. My generation and my parents generation never had to experience this scarcity, but my parents were raised by their parents who LIVED through this scarcity. Those viewpoints and that relationship was instilled in them, but the reasoning behind those feelings was not. The emotional and psychological trauma cannot be passed down through the generations, but the responses to that trauma can and are.
So as this podcasts comes to a close, here’s the little nugget that I want you to think about. Evaluate your relationship with food through this lens of post-war American consumerism. Do you catch yourself hoarding food only to throw it away when it’s gone bad? Do you view food as a scarce resource, even as the world produces enough food to feed 1.5 times the global population? Or do you view food as an abundant commodity, and therefore those restrictive practices of eating only what you can don’t really matter?
It’s Spring, 1955. The mom and the husband are actually cooking dinner together tonight. It’s their wedding anniversary and the husband couldn’t think of a better time to try his new grill. While the wife toys around with her new electric oven and microwave. With the latter being an anniversary gift from the husband. He’s on the back porch grilling skirt steak, seasoned with salt, just enough to enhance the juicy, savory flavor. It’s a flavor he’s always loved as a child when his parents would get steaks from the local butcher in their small, backwater town. It’s a flavor he missed as he weathered through two World Wars, and a Depression with his wife and family. They have it so often now, they barely think of the years they spent living off of hot dogs and potatoes alone.
The mom is in the kitchen, taking her green bean casserole out of the oven and placing it next to the deviled eggs and glistening butter rolls. The home smells like a home you and I would be familiar with. Spices, savory grilled meat, freshly baked bread, and an overall smell that reminds you of thanksgiving. She thinks back on her child she lost during the Great Depression, feeling that tinge of sadness that they aren’t able to appreciate the luxuries they have now, things they could only ever dream of back then. The husband lets her know the steaks are almost done. She begins to set up their table, tucked away in their breakfast nook — well, dinner nook for now. Candles are lit, her best plates and silverware are set nicely on the table (fork on the left, knife on the right, with the coffee teaspoon to the right of the knife). She takes off her apron and sets their favorite record on the record player, letting the music fill the air.
The family of two now sits at the table enjoying each others company and they reminisce on their times together.
Thanks so much for listening to Food With Benefits. I hope you enjoyed this episode and learned something new along the way. I absolutely loved writing this script and taking some deep dives in the internet to learn more about food culture in this time period from WWI to post-WWII America. If you want to stay in touch you can follow me on Instagram at @AustinEatsATL, I’ll post about new episodes there when they’re available and post some of the recipes that I make as well! If you want to learn more about me and what I do, I also have a website set up at AustinEatsATL.com. There you can listen to my other podcast episodes anywhere, take a peek at some recipes, and can even send me a message if you’d like.
Thanks again for listening everyone, I’ll catch you next time on Food With Benefits. Stay safe, and stay curious everyone.