America strode into the 20th century proud of its industry, sure of its science and cocky with its prosperity. It was a country with an appetite for everything.
One percent of the population controlled 50 percent of the nation's wealth. For that segment, America was a land of plenty, and the Diamond Jim Bradys of the world wanted more than their fair share.
For financier Brady, breakfast was eggs, breads, muffins, grits, pancakes, steaks, chops, fried potatoes and a pitcher of orange juice. At midmorning, he ate two or three dozen oysters for a snack. His restaurant lunch (often at New York City's Delmonico's) would be more oysters and clams, lobsters, crabs, a joint of meat, pie and more orange juice.
Dinner was his focal point, however, where he'd again eat three dozen oysters, a dozen crabs, six or seven lobsters, terrapin soup, a steak, coffee, a tray of pastries and 2 pounds of candy. (When Brady died at 56, his stomach was said to be six times larger than the average man's.)
Brady was usually accompanied by his lover, Lillian Russell, a popular stage actress. Russell is said to have eaten as much as Brady, in addition to smoking 500 cigars a month.
This couple was not alone in their conspicuous display of caloric consumption. In 1903, the New York Riding Club hosted a "horse dinner" in the fourth-floor ballroom of Louis Sherry's restaurant. Horses were brought to the room in the freight elevators, hitched to a large dining table and fed oats while the riders ate a 14-course dinner and sipped champagne out of bottles stashed in the saddlebags.
But not for the first time in Americans' table matters, and certainly not the last, there was another segment of the population eating a very different diet.
William and John Kellogg had introduced cornflakes by the end of the century and were promoting the cereal at their sanatorium at Battle Creek, Mich. Later, a former patient of the sanatorium introduced his take on the benefits of cereal with a beverage he call Postum and started producing Grape-Nuts. All these products were promoted as being healthful.
Ah -- manna from heaven -- a breakfast food that didn't need to be cooked. With fewer and fewer servants (they were finding more lucrative work as clerks and telephone operators), this was a boon to households. Also, middle-class America was becoming obsessed with "germs," a relatively new term that segued into the science bent of the era's social reformers. These mass-produced cereals were packaged and were perceived as cleaner than bulk foods shoveled from bins.
Americans had reason to be suspicious of their food supply. The Pure Food and Drug Act was instituted in 1906 after the fallout from the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and its exposure of conditions in Chicago's slaughterhouses.
Home economics came into being as a new class of reformers decided America would be better off eating by the numbers. Food was viewed as fuel, not fun, and was expected to provide function, not pleasure. Like machines, the body must be properly fueled to promote efficiency.
Another time saver in the kitchen was the publication of Fanny Merritt Farmer's Boston Cooking School Cook Book. Farmer is credited with standardizing measures (instead of instructions like "a knob of butter the size of a hen's egg") and putting an emphasis on simpler food.
"The time is not far distant when knowledge of the principles of diet will be an essential part of one's education," she wrote. "Then mankind will eat to live, will be able to do better mental and physical work and disease will be less frequent."
For most Americans, food was becoming much simpler and less fussed with. The "modern" way to eat included canned goods, gelatin salads and a breakfast more appropriate for an office worker than a farmer. Food history from 1900 to 1909:
1900: The kitchen range is redesigned to burn coal instead of wood. …