Food Chains: From Farmyard to Shopping Cart

Food Chains: From Farmyard to Shopping Cart

Food Chains: From Farmyard to Shopping Cart

Food Chains: From Farmyard to Shopping Cart


In recent years, the integrity of food production and distribution has become an issue of wide social concern. The media frequently report on cases of food contamination as well as on the risks of hormones and cloning. Journalists, documentary filmmakers, and activists have had their say, but until now a survey of the latest research on the history of the modern food-provisioning system--the network that connects farms and fields to supermarkets and the dining table--has been unavailable. In Food Chains, Warren Belasco and Roger Horowitz present a collection of fascinating case studies that reveal the historical underpinnings and institutional arrangements that compose this system.

The dozen essays in Food Chains range widely in subject, from the pig, poultry, and seafood industries to the origins of the shopping cart. The book examines what it took to put ice in nineteenth-century refrigerators, why Soviet citizens could buy ice cream whenever they wanted, what made Mexican food popular in France, and why Americans turned to commercial pet food in place of table scraps for their dogs and cats. Food Chains goes behind the grocery shelves, explaining why Americans in the early twentieth century preferred to buy bread rather than make it and how Southerners learned to like self-serve shopping. Taken together, these essays demonstrate the value of a historical perspective on the modern food-provisioning system.


Roger Horowitz

I begin my food-history classes by drawing a simple line on the blackboard with the word “farm” at one end and the word “dinner” at the other. Then I ask the students to explain some of the steps that are necessary for food to move from one end to the other. Within a few minutes the simple line is a complex tree bristling with stages such as “processing,” “trucking,” “scientific research,” “retailing,” and so on. When it starts to get too hard to read the board—which does not take long—I stop, to make the point of how complicated it is to bring food to our tables.

Many students in my classes come with prior interest in food; often spirited discussions break out about the merits (and demerits) of particular Food Network chefs. Some are looking for careers in nutrition, others work in restaurants, and a few even cook themselves. Yet most have little knowledge of the complex chain of firms and social practices that are necessary to make our provisioning system work, and they want to learn more.

A somewhat equivalent gap exists in the growing food-studies field. Among the steady outpouring of books much is written on the culinary and cultural dimensions of food and food consumption practices, along with an astonishing proliferation of books that combine recipes with eating philosophies. Studies that consider provisioning are growing in number but remain small in proportion. Yet there is considerable interest in histories of food that engage with larger patterns of social development, especially how we get the food that we eat.

These insights informed the discussions between Phil Scranton, Susan Strasser, Warren Belasco, and me as we started planning a conference on food history at the Hagley Museum and Library, in Wilmington, Delaware, in the fall of 2006. As the nation’s leading business history library, Hagley has considerable resources for the study of food that we wanted to bring attention to scholars in the field. We hold one or two conferences on varying subjects each year; we felt it was time to do another one on food. A 1999 conference, “Food . . .

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