- Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century by Helen Zoe Veit
Modernity, morality, science, and the twentieth century are topics well studied by utopian scholars. The protracted birth of the modern era, with its newly available scientific and technological ideas and tools, involved countless large and small, and well- and not-so-well-conceived, ideas, plans, and projects that could improve or destroy society. The process took centuries. Although the author of Modern Food, Moral Food does not frame it as a utopian study, it should interest scholars of utopianism because it primarily covers two utopia-tinged endeavors in the early twentieth century: Progressivism and the World War I voluntary rationing campaign of the U.S. Food Administration led by Herbert Hoover. Both efforts pulsed with utopian goals to transform the United States and, indeed, the world into a better, more equable place. The overall thesis is that the Progressives revolutionized American food and American society by rationalizing American food habits with their science and infusing them with their moral beliefs about self-control. In doing so, these reformers believed that they would “strengthen the economy, enhance public health and racial fitness, clarify women’s roles, speed immigrants’ assimilation, and elevate America’s place in the world” (8). Six subtopics illustrate this thesis: the modern-scientific analysis of food, the concomitant rise of both home economics and women, personal self-government and the ideal body type, American dominance in the world through food, and the concern about the social makeup of the United States.
The invention of the calorie and the discoveries of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provided new lenses through which to look at and analyze foods. Those discoveries, along with the professionalization of scientific disciplines and the [End Page 244] increased higher education of women, fueled the rapid growth of nutritional science and the profession of home economics. The increased availability of industrially produced foods and the national availability of fresh foods made possible by refrigerated railroad cars began the standardization of the American diet. The combination of these changes in American culture led to a frenzy of scientific analysis and classification of foods by home economists. They set standards for the requirements of the human body for various ages and activity levels in this new scientific language. This “New Nutrition” (51) divorced pleasure from eating, leaving chemical components and heat-raising qualities as the dominant determinants of what humans should eat. In the age of the internal-combustion engine, it seemed logical to describe the body as one and, by analogy, as “a model of rationalization, efficiency, and perfectibility” (56). In a state of war in which much hope was placed in machines, including engines, it was a metaphor quite useful to the Food Administration.
According to Veit, a large proportion of Americans in the second decade of the twentieth century ate and drank too much, particularly of those foods that Europeans also ate—red meat and wheat. With so many European men at war and the European farms underproducing after 1914, the United States endeavored to feed people on both sides of the Atlantic. The U.S. Congress passed the Lever Act in 1917, establishing the Food Administration with broad powers, including the ability “to requisition any food or fuel deemed necessary from civilians” (16). Herbert Hoover, its chief administrator, chose, instead, to make his food conservation plan voluntary, advising the use of meat and wheat substitutes at specific meals and on certain days and the conservation of foods in general. After the United States entered the war, government propaganda relied heavily on morality and patriotism to move Americans to comply with the Food Administration’s guidelines by controlling their appetites. According to the author, the practice of personal self-government (which Veit erroneously equates with asceticism) was becoming an “increasingly central idea...