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Varying the Everyday Menu

UNTIL AFTER THE CIVIL WAR, it was widely believed that all foods had the same nutritive value. There was supposed to be one “universal aliment” which helped the body grow, which kept it warm and working, and repaired the tissues. This popular notion justified the monotony of the popular diet. When men called bread “the staff of life,” they were not being merely sententious. “Give us this day our daily bread,” with Biblical precision went to the heart of the matter. In western Europe until about the middle of the nineteenth century the mainstays, and in some places nearly the exclusive items in the diet, were various forms of cereal, mainly bread, supplemented now and then by salted meat. Milk, fruit, and vegetables were frills, eaten for novelty by those who could afford them and when and where they could be found fresh.

Nourishment was measured by quantity: the poor suffered not because they ate mostly bread, but because they did not have enough bread. Seafarers knew that to prevent scurvy they should eat fresh fruits, but these were considered more medicinal than nutritive. Not until the beginning of the twentieth century did many people discover the meaning of “protective” foods; it was well into the century before a science of nutrition and the notion of a “well-balanced diet” of proteins and carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals had entered the popular consciousness. Americans, showing that they believed the new “science” was real, made a business of it, and dignified the food scientist with the name “dietitian” (a combination of diet and physician), which had entered the English language through the United States by 1905. When the term “Home Economics” came into use about twenty years later, the subject was already required in some public schools and included comparison of the nutritive value of different foods, such as only a food faddist or a specialized scientist would have pursued a century before.

IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, when a monotonous diet marked the lower classes, variety of food was a delight, a dissipation, and a privilege of the wealthy. Patrick Henry accused Thomas Jefferson of an effete taste for “French Cookery.” In the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign of 1840, the Whigs boasted that their candidate, William Henry Harrison, lived on wholesome “raw beef without salt,” while his aristocratic opponent, President Martin Van Buren, was alleged to luxuriate in strawberries, raspberries, celery, and cauliflower. “Democratic” enthusiasm at first made a virtue of crude and tasteless food, and obsession with the delights of the palate was considered a symptom of Old World decadence. Only a few independent spirits like John Adams said that American suspicion of French Cookery was a mere relic of colonial prejudice, and so belonged to the past.

Elegant dining and imaginative cooking were given a French label: “cuisine.” In the 1830’s, young ladies invited out to dinner who wanted to impress their escorts would request that their vegetables be served “in the French manner,” which meant each vegetable in a separate dish. They could show their sophistication by saying that it somehow took their appetite away to see all their foods jumbled together on one plate, in the familiar American manner. French influence, which at first enlarged and enriched the menus only of the well-to-do, gradually reached out. But until about the time of the Civil War, a varied, well-flavored diet was reserved for those who could afford an expensive meal in one of the few new elegant restaurants in the largest seaboard cities.

Among the best of these restaurants was Delmonico’s in New York City. In 1832, at the age of nineteen, Lorenzo Delmonico arrived from the Italian-speaking Ticino in Switzerland. He opened a restaurant in downtown New York, and within a few years his name had become a synonym for elegant dining. In 1868 George Pullman named his first dining car “the Delmonico,” and pretentious restaurants in Western cities called themselves “Delmonico’s of the West.” Delmonico imported his recipes and cooks from the best kitchens of Europe, but he also helped Americans discover delicacies in their own backyard. Just as the colonial physicians had found natural herbs in the woods to cure American ailments, Delmonico now found unsuspected delights for the palate in the same woods. European travelers, familiar with the derogatory cliches about American food, were astonished at the specialties of fish, game, and meat which were served at Delmonico’s. One of his achievements was to help Americans discover salads; and he showed how salads could be made from common New World plants. He popularized ices and green vegetables. Few did more than Delmonico to educate the nation’s palate. Before his death in 1881, he was said to have served every President from Jackson to Garfield. Delmonico’s restaurants had set a standard for New York gourmets which by the mid-twentieth century made that city, next to Paris, the restaurant capital of the world.

POPULAR PREJUDICES CONFIRMED the limits of the American diet. In the 1830’s and 40’s there was a widespread suspicion that fresh fruits and vegetables were dangerous to health, and that they were especially detrimental to children. Uncertainties about the causes of dysentery, typhoid, cholera, and other epidemic diseases made these fears more plausible. But within fifty years the United States had organized a nationwide, soon to be world-wide, trade in fresh fruits and vegetables. Diet was democratized and the diet of the common American citizen was more varied than that of many a European man of wealth.

In Europe for centuries olive groves and vineyards had been the main sources, in some places the only sources, of fruit products for export. Olive oil and wines were easy to prepare and to transport, but fresh fruits or vegetables out of season or from remote places seemed contrary to nature. “To every thing there is a season,” said Ecclesiastes. From the proverb “Everything is good in its season,” it was easy to conclude that “Nothing is good but in its season.” The rise of canning, of course, changed the palate of the seasons, but canned goods had to be altered for their voyage through time. The miracle of freshness was something else. And many of the same forces which promoted canning were beginning to make this miracle commonplace.

Paradoxically, it was the rapid rise and growth of American cities, as much as anything else, that spread the growing and eating of fresh fruits and vegetables over the United States. If the inhabitants of large cities like London and Paris were to have fresh fruits and vegetables at all, these had to be grown in gardens on the city outskirts. And in western Europe there was a long tradition of government-controlled municipal markets, like Paris’ Halles Centrales, to which farmers hauled their produce. In large American cities such as New York, the situation was much the same except that such markets were less common. Only the well-to-do could enlarge their diet beyond crops that were in season and grew in the vicinity. In late May 1833, for example, a New Yorker who wanted to eat strawberries had to pay $1.50 a quart, while a resident of Baltimore could have all he wanted for twelve cents a quart.

Railroads naturally enlarged the supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. In the 1840’s the Camden & Amboy Railroad, which went through the “Pea Shore” garden region of New Jersey, ran a special train, known as the “Pea Line,” to pick up farmers’ produce for New York City. On a single night in June 1847, the train brought into New York City eighty thousand baskets of strawberries. The extension of railroads widened the sources for the cities. By the 1860’s New Yorkers were eating produce shipped from the truck gardens around the new rail center of Norfolk, Virginia, and an enterprising commission merchant in Chicago imported green peas from New Orleans at $8 a bushel. Then the food seasons became longer, at least for prosperous Northern city dwellers. Within the three decades before 1865 the strawberry season in Northern cities had been lengthened from one month to four months, the grape season from four months to six, and the peach season from one month to six. Fresh tomatoes, which had only recently been a four-month seasonal commodity, now were available year-round.

Before about 1875 the people who lived comfortably in cities preserved their own summer perishables for winter use. Commercial canning had not yet become as important as home canning. The housewife would buy strawberries or peaches in season and make preserves or jam to use at other times of the year. Apples, potatoes, and some other fruits and vegetables, mostly of local origin, were bought in season and then stored in the family cellar.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, two great changes in city living made it harder for each family to store its own supply of perishables for winter eating. One was central heating, for when householders put furnaces in their cellars, these became too warm for winter cold storage. The other innovation was the apartment house, a by-product of the higher land values which had come with the crowding of the cities. For example, the value of land within the corporate limits of Chicago doubled from about $500 million in 1873 to $1 billion twenty-five years later. The first apartment house (a middle-class dwelling, as distinguished from a tenement) appeared in New York City about 1870, and in Chicago soon thereafter. The apartment dweller usually had no cellar at all. As the new immigrant working class poured into the cities and increased their earnings, they had more money to spend on food, and they too enlarged the city retail market for perishables.

THESE MONEY-MAKING OPPORTUNITIES for the dealer in fresh produce brought into being more commission merchants and more wholesale buyers of fruits and vegetables. Now they could assure the farmer of a ready, regular market for all his produce, which they sold to distant consumers.

Before, the farmer, by growing early and late varieties of the same fruits, and by several plantings, might have something fresh to sell to the local market over most of the months. “Carrying-quality,” not to mention such fine points as appearance, taste, and texture, did not enter much into his calculations. But the refrigerator car and the refrigerator ship changed all this. Now the farmer could devote his land to the one variety that best survived shipping and at the same time was attractive and tasty.

This led to widespread innovations in fruit and vegetable growing. While the peach industry had developed in South Carolina and Georgia between 1850 and 1870, it had almost disappeared for fifteen years until the hardy Elberta peach was introduced in the age of the refrigerator car. New strains of oranges (the navel orange from Brazil, and the Valencia orange from Europe) appeared in Florida and California in the 1870’s; new varieties of lemon (the Eureka from Sicily and the Lisbon from Australia), and then the seedless Marsh grapefruit were introduced to California. A half-dozen types of potato for the first time began to be grown commercially; improved kinds of cabbage were introduced from Holland and Denmark. The development of a tomato suitable for the commercial market also dates from this period. And these are only a few examples. By 1875 Luther Burbank, a friend of Thomas A. Edison who came to be known as “the farmer’s Edison,” was applying his inventive genius to developing still more desirable and more marketable varieties of fruits and vegetables.

Instead of looking for streams and rocks that would yield gold or silver, enterprising Americans, in an increasingly urban America, were seeking soils and climates to grow perishable crops to ship to remote parts of the nation. Exuberant land promoters, like those who had hoaxed and victimized fortune seekers in the mid-nineteenth century, now directed their advertising to the ambitious farmer. Before World War I, pioneer fruit and vegetable growers had staked out their new orchards and truck farms all over the country. Irrigation was producing cantaloupes, watermelons, lettuce, asparagus, and tomatoes in the Imperial Valley of California and the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas on the Mexican border; these products would be carried in refrigerator cars to markets three thousand miles away. Land that only a few years before had been scorned as desert was now supplying city dwellers in Boston and New York, in Chicago and San Francisco, with exotic fruits. A “Market News Service,” begun by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1915, soon used the wires of Western Union to spread information on the shipments and prices of produce all over the country, and so helped create a fluid and responsive national market.

As the number of city dwellers increased (by 1920 it was half the nation’s population) and as the urban American worked shorter hours and became more sedentary, as offices and homes were better heated, the demand for starchy, energy-producing foods declined, and Americans wanted more and more of the lighter fruits and vegetables. In addition to the greengrocer, there now appeared the fruit stand. When more women went to work and there was generally more eating at lunch counters and restaurants, there was more demand for salads that used fresh fruits, vegetables, and lettuce.

By the 1930’s the average length of railroad hauls for fruits and vegetables in the United States was about fifteen hundred miles. The diet of Americans had been transformed. Fresh fruits and vegetables were no longer the food mainly of the rich, but became commonplace on American tables year-round. The discovery of vitamins in 1911 led within a few years to a spectacular increase in the use of citrus fruits and leafy vegetables. About the same time, the slim figure became fashionable for women, and insurance companies began warning against overweight; all of which reduced the demand for sweet and starchy foods, potatoes, bread, and fatty meats, and correspondingly increased the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. After about 1927, when the motor truck and refrigerator ships began carrying produce, perishable foods were distributed far beyond the railroad network. New Yorkers were buying fruits and vegetables from forty-two states of the Union and nineteen foreign countries, while Londoners at the Covent Garden Market could buy Washington apples, Florida grapefruit, and California pears and oranges.

ANOTHER ESSENTIAL STEP toward homogenizing the regions and seasons, toward democratizing the national diet and increasing the variety of foods of the ordinary citizen was the coming of refrigeration to every household. Enterprising New Englanders like Frederic Tudor and Nathaniel Wyeth had built a thriving ice trade well before the Civil War. But until 1830, ice was used mainly for frozen luxuries like ice cream or for cold drinks on the tables of the wealthy. By the time of the Civil War, “icebox” had entered the American language, but ice was still only beginning to affect the daily diet.

Then the ice trade grew with the growth of American cities. Ice was used in hotels, taverns, and hospitals, and by some forward-looking city dealers in fresh meat, fresh fish, and butter. The German immigration of the 1840’s brought the lager-beer brewing industry, which required low temperatures and used large quantities of ice.

After the Civil War, as ice was used to refrigerate Swift’s and Armour’s freight cars, it also came into household use. Even before 1880, half the ice sold in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and one-third that sold in Boston and Chicago went to families for their own use. This had become possible because a new household convenience had been invented. The “icebox,” or “refrigerator,” was one of the first in a long series of kitchen contraptions that within a century and a half were to mechanize the American household and turn the American housewife into a household engineer.

Making an efficient icebox was not as easy as we might now suppose. In the early nineteenth century the knowledge of the physics of heat, which was essential to a science of refrigeration, was rudimentary. The common-sense notion that the best icebox was one that prevented the ice from melting was of course mistaken, for it was the melting of the ice that performed the cooling. Nevertheless, early efforts to economize ice included wrapping the ice in blankets, and all sorts of other devices which kept the ice from doing its job. Not until near the end of the nineteenth century did inventors achieve the nice balance of insulation and circulation needed for an efficient icebox.

But as early as 1803, an ingenious and enterprising Maryland farmer, Thomas Moore, had been on the right track. He owned a farm about twenty miles outside the new capital city of Washington, for which the village of Georgetown was then the market center. When he used an icebox of his own design to transport his butter to market, he found that housewives would pass up the mushy yellow stuff in the tubs of his competitors to pay a premium price for his butter, still fresh and hard in neat one-pound bricks. Moore’s Essay on the Most Eligible Construction of Ice-Houses; Also, a Description of the Newly Invented Machine called the Refrigerator gave instructions: inside an oval cedar tub, place a tin vessel of the same shape but somewhat smaller; store the butter inside the tin vessel; then insert pieces of ice in the space between the tin vessel and the outer cedar tub; cover the whole with a hinged wooden lid lined with coarse cloth and rabbit skins hanging down to cover the joint when shut. One advantage of his refrigerator, Moore explained, was that farmers would no longer have to travel to market at night, which had been their practice to keep their produce cool. “The whole cost of this machine,” he wrote, “was about four dollars: The butter always commanded from 4d. to 5 ½d. per lb. higher than any other butter in market; so that four times using it paid the cost.”

Moore secured a patent for his refrigerator, and announced in his pamphlet that he would not charge royalty to any person who made a small refrigerator to carry his own butter to market. Permits for other sizes and other purposes could be obtained by writing to Moore and paying him a fee which varied from $2.50 to $10. But “any person in low circumstances” who offered a certificate “signed by three reputable neighbors” would be given a permit gratis, as would “any more wealthy person” certifying “that he believed the terms are hard and improper.” Moore did not sell many permits. But his pamphlet helped popularize the icebox, and Frederic Tudor himself had read a copy while preparing for his first big shipment of ice to the West Indies.

By the 1840’s the expression “iceman” had entered the American language, and within a few decades the iceman had acquired the vivid role which he would play for a century (Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh was produced in 1946) in American folklore and lovelore. In 1855 a Boston family wanting ice delivered during the season, from May to October, could receive fifteen pounds each day for $2 a month, or $8 for the whole period. By 1880 one ice company in Philadelphia was employing eight hundred men.

But while the icebox brought the sociable iceman, it had many incidental disadvantages. It required frequent deliveries, and it still left Americans at the mercy of the weather. A heavy winter meant cheap ice; the techniques of the natural-ice industry had so improved by 1883 that cutting and packing the ice might cost as little as twelve cents a ton. On the other hand, a mild winter like that of 1890 reduced the ice crop and considerably raised the price of ice.

Mechanical refrigeration developed only gradually, having been made possible by the discoveries of European chemists and physicists. The Americans discovered no new principles but again showed their talent for application. In 1834 what was probably the first United States patent for mechanical refrigeration was issued to an ingenious New Englander, Jacob Perkins, who was better known for his new methods of using steel plates for engraving bank notes. By 1839 Dr. John Gorrie, a Florida physician, was applying mechanical refrigeration to promote public health, and was on the way to patented improvements of his own. A leading citizen of Apalachicola, where he was postmaster, city treasurer, and mayor, he was intent on preventing and curing malaria. Having noticed that the disease disappeared with the coming of cold weather and that it seemed to be contracted only at night, he believed that if he could “purify” sleeping rooms by keeping them cold enough, the disease might be prevented. He suspended a bowl of ice close to the ceiling below a hole through which air was drawn down a soot-lined chimney. As the air came down the chimney, the “malaria” in it would be decomposed because of the affinity of carbon for “vapors and organic Oils,” and by passing over the ice, the malarial vapors would be further condensed, thus allowing only purified air into the bedroom. An exhaust pipe near the floor helped ventilate.

Gorrie’s device would not prevent malaria, but it did cool a hospital room. Obsessed by the problems of refrigeration, Gorrie studied physics, and by 1850 his machine using the expansion of air actually produced ice at a public demonstration. Gorrie was on the right track.

After Carl von Linde, a German, invented the ammonia-compression machine in 1876, the way was cleared for the commercial production of ice. By 1879 there were 35 commercial ice plants in the United States. Ten years later there were more than 200, and within another twenty years there were 2,000. For some time these ice plants remained the main source of supply for the household “refrigerator” which was still an “icebox.” But by the 1920’s the mechanical refrigerator was beginning to become an essential piece of furniture in the American middle-class kitchen. While in 1921 only 5,000 mechanical refrigerators were manufactured in the United States, by 1931 the annual production exceeded 1 million, and six years later the figure was nearing 3 million. By mid-century, mechanical refrigerators were found in more than 80 percent of American farm households, and in over 90 percent of urban homes.

MANY WOULD HAVE THOUGHT that when every American household had its own refrigerator this was the end of the road, that there was little more to do to equip the American for a nearly uniform year-round diet. The unpredicted next step went still further in decentralizing storage, and at the same time improved the taste and the nutritive value of storable foods.

Here the undisputed hero, Clarence Birdseye, was so successful that before his death, people assumed that “Birdseye” was the name of a product and not of a person. Birdseye was a naturalist and author of books on wildlife living in Gloucester, Massachusetts, who had been looking for better ways to preserve fish. One winter day in 1912 when the temperature was 20 degrees below zero, he was fishing through the ice in Labrador; he pulled up a fish and dropped it on the ice beside the hole, where it quickly froze solid. Birdseye took the fish home, and when he put it in a pail of water he found to his amazement that the fish started swimming. The explanation, as he later discovered, was that the cells of the fish had been frozen so quickly that there was no time for large crystals to form. It was these large crystals that usually broke the delicate cell walls and killed the fish, with the result that on defrosting, vital fluids leaked out, changing the physical character of the tissue, and incidentally its taste. Birdseye had discovered the quick-freezing of food, based on the chemical law that when solutions crystallize, the size of the crystals is in proportion to the length of time of crystallization.

Even after Birdseye had discovered the meaning of this principle for food preservation, there remained many problems before quick-frozen food could be prepared and marketed. All cell structures did not freeze or defrost in the same way or at the same rate. For each kind of food it was necessary to discover the precise temperature needed to produce the greatest number of small crystals in the shortest time. Birdseye had to invent his own machine to do the job of quick-freezing, for the familiar techniques of refrigeration were not suitable.

Until then, cold-storage and household refrigeration had generally depended on the transfer of heat by convection—a cold current of air drawing the heat out of the food to be chilled. Finding that this process was not fast enough for quick-freezing, Birdseye invented a machine which froze by conduction, that is, by pressing thin parcels of the food to be frozen directly between metal plates cooled to 25 degrees below zero. In this way, too, both the temperature and the freezing time could be more closely controlled. Birdseye’s process was first applied to seafood, and it was especially well suited for that purpose: the ocean catch could be quick-frozen as soon as it was lifted aboard a trawler. Later it was found that frozen food could be precooked and sold ready to heat and serve. As frozen foods multiplied and as their popularity increased, deep-freeze compartments were included in home refrigerators, and deep-freeze refrigerators came to be developed for self-service at the corner grocery. By the 1940’s in small towns, central frozen-food lockers were common where fishermen and hunters could store their season’s catch to be enjoyed year-round. By 1972 one household in three had its own deep-freeze unit, separate from its refrigerator, and most American households had a place for the storage of frozen foods.

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