What’s Cooking Uncle Sam: A Must-See Show at the National Archives

The show was a revelation for exhibiting the breadth of the government’s involvement in our food

School lunch program poster
School lunch program poster Courtesy of the National Archives

When Thomas Jefferson visited Lombardy, Italy in 1787, exporting rice in the husk was illegal on pain of death. Such trivialities didn’t keep this founding father from secreting illicit grains in his pockets and taking them back to America. “The greatest service which can be rendered to any country,” he later wrote, “is to add a useful plant to its culture.” (Indeed, he considered his introduction of European rice and olive trees to the Americas as one of his greatest life accomplishments alongside writing the Declaration of Independence.) That attitude was adopted and maintained by the United States government, and a show on view at the National Archives explores how Uncle Sam affects how we eat. Through paper ephemera, sound recordings, posters, the show illustrates how the government influenced food on the farm, in the factories, in our homes and in the overall American diet.

I think most of us are at least somewhat aware of the ways in which the government guides how we eat. If you went to public school, you were probably exposed to the federally subsidized lunch program (for better or for worse). You may have noticed the recent unveiling of the plate-shaped infographic designed to help Americans plan balanced meals. And then there are FDA food recalls. Those facets are certainly represented here. But this show is a revelation (at least for me) for exhibiting the breadth of Uncle Sam’s involvement in our food. Beginning in the 1830s, the USDA started a seed distribution program in which they gave free seeds to farmers in an attempt to figure out which plants would fare well in a variety of soils and climates. And when food production became industrialized—with factories and canneries cranking out prefab products—the USDA had to step in to set quality guidelines when Americans were getting sick from ill-prepared foodstuffs. It got to the point where a “poison squad” was appointed to test suspect additives and preservatives to determine which ones were actually safe for human consumption.

Steady readers know of my love of food-related crime, so it was fascinating—if not slightly bizarre—to see mug shots of men who did time for violating the oleomargarine act by selling margarine that was colored to look like butter. Another display—attractively housed in a doughnut-shaped frame—talks about how World War II-era studies showed that B1 promoted energy. Since the nation was mobilizing for war, one food manufacturer responded with vitamin doughnuts. The poster on display hawking the product promises plenty of “pep and vigor” as evidenced by the pair of grinning, rosy-cheeked children who are noshing on vitamin B1-fortified pastry. The government stepped in saying that this and similar products could be marketed only as enriched flour doughnuts. I also loved seeing sample recipes for federally subsidized school lunches from circa 1946. Liver loaf, ham shortcake and creamed vegetables seem a far cry from the sentimental favorites from when I was buying school lunch. Any other fans of the chicken fillet on bun out there?

In the show, stereoscopic viewers let you take a look at vintage 3-D photographs, mocked-up radios allow viewers to “tune in” to food-related radio programming, and there’s a hearty helping of snippets of government-produced movies—everything from short silent movies promoting the nutritive merits of milk to informational films featuring flustered housewives who need some words of wisdom to put a healthful meal on the table. My favorite was the clip from the Mulligan Stew informational films from the 1970s, a trippy series in which the kid stars not only dispense dietary advice but also have a rock band. (I was also quite taken by the themed wainscoting, with carvings of corn stalks in the farming gallery, canned goods in the factory gallery and so on. Even the paint on the walls made the show a vibrant and fun experience. Were photography allowed, I’d go back with the Sherwin Williams app on my iPod to get some digital paint swatches. But I digress.)

The show covers a wonderfully wide swath of territory, and I heartily recommend that you make a point of visiting the National Archives, where “What’s Cooking Uncle Sam” will be on display  until January 3, 2012.

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