The National Archives in DC has a new exhibit up until January 3, 2012 – What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?. It is a historical look at the role of the government in what Americans eat. I was able to go on Friday and really enjoyed it.
Image courtesy of the National Archives
The exhibit is broken up into four sections: farm, factory, kitchen, and table. The farm section started off with food explorers sent by the government to find new things for the US to grow, and to find different strains of things we already grew so that we could improve our current crop. There were drawings of various types of fruit and vegetables that these food explorers found. The explorer they talked about the most was Frank Meyer, for whom the Meyer lemon was named. This section also included things like education initiatives and the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The most interesting thing I learned in this section is that before World War II, they made ‘refrigerator cars’ by putting huge blocks of ice in the ends and under the boards of train cars. There was also a section about the margarine laws and the controversy over margarine (led by the dairy lobby) in the early 1900s.
The factory section talked about the discovery of dangerous additives in food leading to the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the impact of things like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle on meat inspection. It also went over early labeling restrictions. They had the actual Pure Food and Drug Act on display. I found especially interesting the fact that there was something called the “Poison Squad” led by Harvey Wiley, who was the leader of the pure foods movement. The Poison Squad had healthy men volunteer to ingest food additives of the time to determine how they impacted human health. There was a page of a journal on display that talked about how someone would eat boric acid with their meal and then get sick, and things like that. The most interesting part of the section, I thought, was a letter by Upton Sinclair to President Roosevelt.
Next was the kitchen section, which talked about government efforts to improve the nutrition of American diets, embodied in things like Vitamin Donuts and the food pyramid (and other previous food guides). It also went over rationing and wartime propaganda related to food. I enjoyed reading a letter by Margaret Mead, who during World War II was the executive secretary of the National Research Council’s Committee on Food Habits. The letter was about the culture of racial ‘castes’ in the American south and how that should affect the way the government proposes dietary changes in the south. Of course, I was an anthropology major so it was interesting to me. I also liked the vitamin wheel which showed what foods had what vitamins (as they knew it in the 1940s). This was also where the carp poster was.
Finally, you had the table section. This talked about food given to soldiers (and how that has influenced what a meal is in the US – fascinating!), school lunches, and the way that what the president eats influences what we eat. Apparently LBJ more or less introduced chili and other Tex Mex food to America at large. Also, the Queen of England sent Eisenhower her scone recipe. The people who went with Nixon to China were all sent chopsticks beforehand so they’d know how to use them.
Image courtesy of the National Archives
The exhibit was great especially if you are interested in food history like me. There were lots of primary documents, which are great to see. My boyfriend Jeff and I read everything very carefully and it took about an hour and a half or so, but you could definitely do it more quickly than that. The Archives are open 10 AM – 7 PM daily until Labor Day, and then until 5:30 PM after that. The entrance is at 7th Street NW and Constitution Avenue. You should note that you will probably have to wait in line to get in; they periodically hold the line so that there will be less of a crowd inside.
José Andrés, the Spanish chef who has multiple small plates restaurants in DC (like Jaleo, Oyamel, and Zaytinya), has teamed up with the Archives to open up a pop-up restaurant called America Eats Tavern in his former Cafe Atlantico space at 8th and D Street. America Eats has a menu of historical American dishes, and the menu talks about their historical context. It will be open for the same amount of time as the Archives exhibit, and all the proceeds will go to the Archives at the end. Jeff, our friend Alex, and I all went to America Eats last Monday.
It was quite good, though the service and wait times were a little bad, probably due to the fact that it had only been open for a week. We got bread with blackberry butter, hush puppies, “vermicelli prepared like pudding” (the ‘grandfather of macaroni and cheese’), gazpacho, and then I got a beet salad, while Alex got a cobb salad and Jeff got a lobster roll. For dessert, we had New York cheesecake, strawberry shortcake, and Vermont sugar and snow (hot maple syrup poured over ice). The food was tasty. There was a section of oysters, small plates, a salad and sandwich and soup section, and entrees. None of us got entrees, but there was plenty of food. The vermicelli had a morel mushroom on top, which was incredible. The highlight of the evening was that José Andrés himself was eating a few tables away.
I think that America Eats will be a great place to go in about a month or two, when the details are ironed out. It is a great companion to the exhibit, which I highly recommend.