In a typical supermarket, all of the fresh food—fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy, and bread—line the perimeter of the store. The expansive middle, meanwhile, features aisle after aisle of processed foods. “It’s all of these crazy crackers and chips, and stuff that didn’t exist before,” says Deborah Fitzgerald, the Leverett Howell and William King Cutten Professor of the History of Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. “I started wondering where it all came from. There had to be a driving force that made people think this was a great idea.”
Acclaimed for her book Every Farm a Factory (Yale University Press, 2003), in which she explored the history of agricultural industrialization in the United States, Fitzgerald went on to spend nine years as Kenan Sahin Dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Now she is at work on a new book examining the origins of America’s current supply of food products.
The story begins with World War II, when the country mobilized to feed 6 million soldiers stationed abroad in 23 different climatic regions. “All of the food they ate was made in America and shipped to wherever they were,” Fitzgerald says. At the center was the US Army Quartermaster Corps, which exerted a profound, yet understudied, effect on the trajectory of our nation’s agricultural system. “It was an amazing operation that has been written about very little.”
The military solved its provisioning problems by working with food companies to create food described as “time-insensitive”—bland, processed meals that could withstand the rigors of overseas shipping and be carried by soldiers into battlefields anywhere. That meant heavily processed and preserved foods like cans of beef stew and chili con carne, “meat bars” (made of compressed and dehydrated meat), biscuits, cookies, and candy that could give soldiers energy and nutrients in a hurry.
To accommodate this rapid shift, the Quartermaster Corps requisitioned massive quantities of produce from distinct areas—fruits from California, dairy from Wisconsin and New York, grains from the Midwest—consolidating industries geographically. “Before the war, farmers grew a little bit of everything, but that became less realistic as the war developed,” Fitzgerald says. “This big national crisis turned around the way agriculture was done.”
After the war, those changes stuck. Midwest farmers, for example, suddenly found themselves with bumper crops of wheat and corn with no obvious civilian market. Food companies stepped in, creating new products to utilize the surplus. “They had to turn it into something—so welcome, Doritos!” Fitzgerald says. To make these processed foods more palatable to civilians, the companies tapped new technologies in coloring and spray-on flavor to create an amazing variety of foods—a trend that continues to fill the middle aisles of supermarkets today. Fitzgerald says the story of 20th-century processed food is an intriguing lens through which to view the history of technology generally—especially in a place like MIT that has so much faith in the positive potential of technology.
“People tend to think that all of the things we are consuming were developed for a reason, and that’s because they are better,” says Fitzgerald, who has written an article on the history of processed foods for a forthcoming issue of Osiris, an annual journal dedicated to the history of science. “I want people to see the links between their experience and the larger cultural context,” she says, explaining that she has found change comes most often in response to specific cultural and economic realities. “It’s almost never because it was intrinsically better.”