Quotulatiousness

December 5, 2017

QotD: Why mid-20th century Americans ate what they did – 4

Filed under: Economics, Health, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The foods of today’s lower middle class are the foods of yesterday’s tycoons. Before the 1890s, gelatin was a food that only rich people could regularly have. It had to be laboriously made from irish moss, or calf’s foot jelly (a disgusting process), or primitive gelatin products that were hard to use. The invention of modern powdered gelatin made these things not merely easy, but also cheap. Around 1900, people were suddenly given the tools to make luxury foods. As with modern Americans sticking a flat panel television in every room, they went a bit wild. As they did again when refrigerators made frozen delights possible. As they did with jarred mayonnaise, canned pineapple, and every other luxury item that moved down-market.

Of course, they still didn’t have a trained hired cook at home, so the versions that made their way into average homes were not as good as the versions that had been served at J.P. Morgan’s table in 1890. But it was still exciting to be able to have a tomato aspic for lunch, in the same way modern foodies would be excited if they found a way to pull together Nobu’s menu in a few minutes, for a few cents a serving.

Over time, the ubiquity of these foods made them déclassé. Just as rich people stopped installing wall-to-wall carpeting when it became a standard option in tract homes, they stopped eating so many jello molds and mayonnaise salads when they became the mainstay of every church potluck and school cafeteria. That’s why eating those items now has a strong class connotation.

Megan McArdle, “Friday Food Post: The Economics Behind Grandma’s Tuna Casseroles”, Bloomberg View, 2015-10-30.

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