Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century

By Smith-Howard, Kendra | The Journal of Southern History, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century


Smith-Howard, Kendra, The Journal of Southern History


Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century. By Helen Zoe Veit. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. [xvi], 300. $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-0770-2.)

Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century explains that some of the most basic assumptions present-day Americans make about food--that some foods are more nutritious than others or that keeping trim requires self-control--originated early in the twentieth century. Between 1900 and 1920, Helen Zoe Veit argues, emphasis on expertise, as seen through nutrition science, blended with ideas of virtue to invest food consumption with great political and cultural significance.

World War I is pivotal to Veit's analysis. Wartime food conservation efforts elevated the role of nutrition science and home economics and created conditions in which Americans willingly exerted greater self-control over their own eating habits. To explain these trends, the author relies heavily on the papers of the Food Administration, the federal government agency charged with the task of food conservation. Just as the correspondence of the U.S. Children's Bureau aided Molly Ladd-Taylor's Raising a Baby the Government Way: Mothers' Letters to the Children's Bureau, 1915-1932 (New Brunswick, N.J., 1986), the Food Administration records allow Veit to explore how a diversity of citizens engaged in and complained about food conservation efforts. Veit also draws on the personal collections of policy makers and nutritionists and on published primary sources.

Not simply of interest to food historians, this book offers great insights into political and intellectual currents of the Progressive era and the 1920s. Veit's impressive chapter on the geopolitics of food explains how wartime food aid helped Progressive-era Americans conceptualize the nation's growing international leadership--connecting domestic to foreign policies in a manner akin to Elaine Tyler May's Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York, 1988) or Nick Cullather's The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia (Cambridge, Mass. …

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