NEB&W Guide to the Development of Food

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Prior to the railroads, the American diet consisted mainly of salted pork, corn, beans and occasional produce in season. Railroads made it possible to bring fruits and vegetables from the South and California all year round. Frozen meat came via rail from the Great Plains. Fresh milk came in daily from the surrounding countryside, rushed to the big cities in special hot-shot milk trains, which increased the health of everyone, especially children, while dropping the bottom out of the market for spices used to flavor rancid butter.

In the 19th century, being overweight was a sign of prosperity. By 1920, being slender was a sign of eating right, and overweight, of not being able to afford the right foods. The concept of healthy eating has dominated advertising ever since, with all sorts of health claims implied for their products or even outright lies.


Over the course of evolution, animals can lose the ability to manufacture certain compounds found in their diet. Humans evolved from the primate family, whose diet was high in fruits and vegetables, and the particular nutrients we lack are found in those foods. Cats and meat eaters have a different set of nutritional requirements.

(Of course, animals lose the ability to make compounds not found in their diet, but then they don't prosper to pass on those genes to the whole population. If insulin-containing foods were part of our diet, but citrus fruits weren't, we might consider diabetes a vitamin deficiency from lack of "vitamin I" affecting everyone, and scurvy would be a rare hereditary disease.)

Studies of nutrition around WWI showed the relation between certain vital nutrients needed in trace amounts and diseases such as beriberi or rickets. These were at first mistakenly thought to be part of the amine class of chemicals, hence "vital amines" or "vitamines", coined by C. Funk.


People with a traditional mind-set don't understand how a college student can eat cold pizza for breakfast. However, the American standard meal fare reflects previous limitations in food storage and preparation.

We accept that lunch and dinner are interchangeable, but breakfast has certain foods unique to it. Most of our energy needs (calories) come from carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are sugars, which are small enough molecules that they get absorbed into the bloodstream right away. Complex carbohydrates are sugars that are attached together in long chains, which are called starches. For the body to absorb them, they have to be broken down, which is time consuming. This starts in the mouth to a certain degree. If you chew bread for an extra-long time, it begins to taste sweet.

The problem with refined sugar is that is goes directly into the bloodstream all at once, you get a sudden "sugar rush" and then drops off. Starches take longer, but then provide energy over a long period of time.

After sleeping for some eight hours, you need to end the long period of not eating, literally "break (your) fast". (Coffee or tea gives the chemical caffeine to help wake you up, but no nutrition.) The meal is therefore heavy in sugars to give the quick source of energy. We accept pastries, donuts, sweet rolls, coffee cake, toast with jams or jellies, or waffles or pancakes with maple syrup, since they all provide starches and sugars.

A traditional breakfast probably leaned toward pancakes, as they are made from dough without having to wait for it to rise. The other products would either be made the night before, or by a servant who got up early to go to this trouble. Notice they are individual small units, which take much less time to cook than a loaf of bread would. Non-sweet dough products, specifically bread, can be served for breakfast if toasted and spread with jam or jelly.

With every meal we include protein. Protein contains the building blocks of life, but also can be broken down to yield energy if need be. Before refrigeration, to have any fresh meat - such as a roast - meant slaughtering, dressing, and cooking the animal. By the time you did this to include it in breakfast, it would be lunchtime at least. One source of fresh protein is eggs, which are generally collected in the morning, and require little preparation. (I think of a chicken as a daily egg dispenser.) They are included in any dough product, but of course generally are their own dish, too.

There are two other sources of protein, grilled ham or sausage. Both are pork products, reflecting the former dominance of pork in the American diet. One way to preserve meat is to smoke it, and ham traditionally is the most common smoked meat. Sausage is ground-up animal leftovers, heavily seasoned and I think salted (the word is derived from Latin meaning "seasoned with salt"). It is stored in prepared intestines, which acted as a container long before there were tin cans or Tupperware. I'm not sure if it was the cooking that preserved the contents, or if the salt and seasonings were sufficient. Sausages can also be smoked, of course.

I think smoking preserves meat in a complex fashion. The dry heat partially dries the meat, and the gases kill off the microorganisms that would spoil it.

Grains such as oatmeal or corn (mush) can also be mixed with water and cooked. These are served with milk (protein) and lots of sugar or syrup. In Victorian times, several people were concerned about sexuality in children, which they thought came from eating too spicy food. (My aunt used to tell my sister and me not to put too much pepper on eggs the few times she made us breakfast.) Concerned Victorians invented such bland foods as the graham cracker, a semisweet cracker made of whole wheat flour invented by Dr. Graham. C. W. Post and J. H. Kellogg both invented precooked cereals which were intended as breakfast for children. Notice that sugar is added to breakfast cereal, either by the consumer, or by the producer ("frosted" cereals).

The other two meals traditionally ended with dessert, so that the sugars go into the bloodstream and tell the body that you've eaten. If you eat sweets at the beginning of the meal, it would "kill your appetite" as your mother always threatened. Without the sweets, it would take much longer to feel satisfied.

New Foods

Oranges and lemons probably came from the Orient, and were introduced to the Arabs via trading. They in turn planted lemon trees in Spain during the Moorish occupation, and Christopher Columbus is said to have planted oranges in the New World, and orchards were planted by Spanish settlers. The English Navy had realized lemons and limes prevented scurvy, I think, in the 1700's. (Their sailors were required by law to drink lime juice daily, earning them and eventually English in general the nickname "limeys". This health advantage may explain in part the rise in dominance of English sea power.) However, citrus fruits were considered a delicacy for the rich in America for many years. In 1832, a large shipment from Sicily (not the Americas) introduced many Americans to these fruits. Since they don't grow in the more temperate regions, they had to be transported in a speedy enough manner to prevent spoilage. I think that even in the late '20's, when my mother was a child, an orange was considered special enough to be given as a Christmas gift. Dave Messer points out that even today baskets of fruit are often sent as holiday gifts or for other celebrations.

In WWI, immigrant and southern soldiers were introduced to a more balanced diet, as the science of food was gaining acceptance.

Pineapples were little known until Del Monte began to market them aggressively in 1923. Asparagus was similarly pushed by California growers at about the same time. Until then it was little known outside the state. (This is according to Harvey Green, The Uncertainty Of Everyday Life, 1915-1945, but I question this. "Like asparagus in May" is a line from Gilbert and Sullivan's Gondoliers, written around 1890, although perhaps it was known in England but not America.)

Prepared Foods

Any chemical dissolved in large quantities in water draws water out of living cells, thus killing off bacteria. This includes salt (a solution is called brine), sugar, acetic acid (vinegar), or alcohol. Alcohol preserves fruit juices or grain solutions (beer and ale). Brine or vinegar protects cucumbers (pickles), and tomato sauce (catsup). Sugar and vinegar protects the ingredients in sweet pickles and relish. Sugar alone protects ground fruit (jam, the name came from the process of squeezing the fruit) or fruit juice firmed with pectin and gelatin (jelly, derived from gelatin).

The word "can" comes from the Latin word meaning small vessel, which also came to mean a pipe, giving us the words "cane", "canister", "canal", "channel", "cannon", and "canyon". At first, food that had been heated high enough to destroy any microorganisms were stored in earthenware containers, but these weren't airtight. Supposedly the Roman upper classes used lead for their water pipes ("plumbing" comes from Latin for lead) and for their wine and cooking containers, slowly poisoning themselves as the lead dissolved, making them sterile, and thus leading to the fall of the empire.

Ravioli and pies (and maybe even fried chicken) can be thought of as canned food in a pastry container. The pie dough or pasta is dried out in the cooking process, depriving any bacteria of water. Crackers, pretzels, egg rolls, pasta, and the hardtack used on ships were similarly preserved by drying. Crackers and pretzels also have a layer of salt.

Napoleon realized "an army traveled on its stomach" meaning the size and effectiveness of the soldiers depending on being able to feed them. The French government offered a large sum of money to someone who could figure out a way to preserve large quanities of food. In 1809, Nicolas Appert realized that food cooked inside an airtight container wouldn't spoil.

Appert had no idea why since Louis Pasteur's work on understanding the role of microbes was half a century around.

Glass containers go back to the production of wine. At some point (1600?), an increase in the strength of the glass allowed a second fermentation to build up pressure of carbon dioxide, thus creating champagne and other sparkling wines. Iron couldn't be used, as it rusted. It was found possible to coat the iron with tin, and the tin can (which is mostly iron or later steel) was patented in America in 1825. Actually, they switched to iron cans the following year, 1810, made from wrought iron plates. I think the 1825 invention was of tinned iron. A tin can is not fragile like glass, so most commercially prepared foods were shipped in tin cans, not glass containers. (Glass containers were hand-blown until about 1903 when automatic machinery was developed, making tin cans much cheaper, too.) Foods such as olives and pickles, packaged in brine, tended to be shipped in glass, as brine is corrosive to metal.

It also took decades for a can opener to be developed as the early can foods was mainly used by the armed forces, who used their bayonents to open the cans. The early cans also used soldered seams, letting lead leach into the food.

According to Thomas Schlereth (Victorian America, 1876-1915) H.J. Heinz of Pittsburgh at the end of the 19th century began to offer foods which previously had been canned at home, including pickles, relish, baked beans, and catsup. (I understand catsup had started life as a patent medicine.) By 1900, Heinz was producing some 200 products, many more than the "57 Varieties" of their slogan.

By 1930, the middle and upper classes were buying fresh bread made commercially and usually delivered routinely by the bakery. White was considered a sign of purity, so a blander but whiter product was developed to meet consumer demands. Dark breads like pumpernickel, rye, etc., were "immigrant" foods.

Refrigeration & Freezing

In 1803, a Maryland farmer, Thomas Moore, invented a double-walled cabinet that could be used to store perishable food, using ice. He called it a "refrigerator." The ice was natural, cut from a local pond in winter. Shortly thereafter, Dolly Madison was able to serve her guests in the White House a frozen desert called "ice cream" and America was way ahead of Europe in having ice boxes in their kitchens.

Rudy Volti had an article in the Spring 1994 Science & Technology on the development of frozen food. The following information was taken from that:

In 1876, Carl Linde of Germany developed a practical artificial refrigerator system, using ammonia as the refrigerant. At first, it was only used in industry. In 1918, General Motors introduced a home model, which they called "Frigidaire". This was to become so popular that the brand name became almost a generic one for all makes, just like Kleenex and Aspirin. The problem of leaking refrigerant was a concern, but in 1928, Freon was invented. In 1930, the sale of electrical refrigerators overtook those of ice boxes, and in 1944, nearly 70% of all homes had these, even as the railroads were just beginning to try mechanical refrigeration for their reefer cars.

Clarence Birdseye in 1912 went to Labrador as a fur trader, where he saw that caught fish, which had frozen in the 50 degree below zero air as they were being pulled from the water, were fresh - and sometimes even alive - when thawed out months later. In 1923 he began experimenting with making this a commercial process and formed General Seafoods Corp. This later became General Foods, when he expanded the concept to other foods, most notably vegetables.

Birdseye's process took time to perfect, but even longer to get the physical plant to support it, including refrigerated freight cars with extra insulation to haul the product, deep freezers for stores to carry frozen food, home refrigerators with dual temperature areas (introduced in 1939), and a bad reputation gained by producers freezing nearly rotten produce only as a last resort. Even in the '50's, refrigerators still only had a tiny freezer. Birdseye had full page ads in the 1940 issues of Life, although the ads cautioned consumers that the product would be hard to find.

A total of 39 million pounds of frozen food were sold in 1934, which increased to 600 million in just a decade.

One thing that changed that was when in 1955, C.A. Swanson & Sons sold an entire meal arranged in an aluminum tray, which could be eaten when watching the newest fad, television. That year, 70 million of these "TV Dinners" were sold, starting the change of a family dinner time prepared by the housewife, to an individual eating experience with one's attention glued to the "set". (A refrigerator ad in a c. 1948 Life showed a full width freezer compartment, promoted as a place to store compete frozen dinners, among other items, so the TV Dinner was not the first, just the first to catch on in a big way.)

Retail Operations

In New York City in 1859, George Gilman and George Hartford opened a small tea shop with the pretentious name "The Great American Tea Company." They gradually added other prepackaged groceries to their store, and ten years later, in honor of the new transcontinental railroad, changed the name to "The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company" which later became known as A&P. By 1876, they had opened a chain of 67 stores, and supposedly in their peak between 1912 and 1915, they were opening a new store every three days.

Grand Union was started in the 1870's, Kroger's in the 1880's and Jewel Tea in the 1890's. The number of chains doubled during the first two decades of the 20th century, with the actual number of outlets increased by 8 times during this period.

In 1916, Clarence Saunders opened the Piggly Wiggly chain of stores, starting in Tennessee. (I think this was a regional chain in the South, as I don't know of any up here, and had never even heard the name until the movie Driving Miss Daisy.) This was the first supermarket, with products set out in aisles (generating impulse sales). It was self-serve, rather than asking for items across a counter.


Delmonico's in New York City was the first restaurant where you could order off a menu a la carte.

While it is true that some diners were converted from passenger cars and interurbans, by far the vast number were built as such, and were much too wide to ever have been on the rails. I'm not sure if the similarity of the design was a carry-over of this concept or a copying of the railroad dining car. Certainly the standard layout inside of a long counter and grill on one side and booths along the other is not found in railroad cars.

Modelers love to convert a passenger car to a diner, but I think this has become a cliché. The buildings themselves are discussed in their own chapter.

The diner often reflected Art Deco or Art Moderne styling, indicating the concept arose in the '20's and continued through the advent of the drive-in and fast food. This would suggest that the auto was vital to this idea.

For more on diners, see the diner section.

Fast Food

The frankfurter, a German sausage, has become popular at baseball games in New York City. In 1871, it is introduced at Coney Island. Cart vendors yell, “Get your dachshund sausages while they’re red hot!” Sports cartoonist Ted Dorgan mocks the vendors in a cartoon, showing them selling actual dachshunds in a roll, yelling, “Get your hot dogs!” The name sticks.

McDonalds pioneered the concept of a chain of fast food stores, opening their first in the mid-'50's (hence too old for our layout set in 1950). Drive-in fast food stores date back earlier, related to the rise in driving in general.

In the 1920's, the White Castle and White Tower chains made their debut. Hamburgers were made extra small so they cooked faster.

Some items, such as hamburgers without the special sauce, can be cooked to order, but the modern concept of fast food is not so much fast cooking (that's what distinguished the diner), as it is that the food is already prepared for you and kept hot. The concept actually dates back to the hot dog vendor in ball parks and amusement parks. Meat that continues to cook, even if slowly under the heat lamps, becomes tough and stringy. The best meat product to overcome this problem, hot dogs and hamburgers, are both finely ground so that chewing is not required, and mixed with large quantities of fat to keep the meat from drying out. For the same reason, potatoes cooked in hot cooking grease, i.e., french fries, are universal. The grinding also intimately mixes the fat and meat, as separate globs of fat as on steak would be objectionable. Grinding disguises the source of the meat and meat by-products and allows cheaper cuts of meat to be used.

Ordinary slices of bread were too thin. A thick bun was necessary to absorb the grease so it could be handled. Handling the meat allows it to be raised to the mouth and cut by teeth, rather than requiring utensils. Also, if you don't have to press down on the meat to cut it with a knife and fork, you don't need a clean surface that can stand the pressure. Thus hot dogs and hamburgers can be served without needing regular tableware (requiring the cost of a human or machine dishwasher) or the added cost of disposable utensils and plates. Fast food can be handed directly to the customer, perhaps in a napkin, when sold at an amusement park, or can be wrapped in a waxed or foil paper.

To be successful, the items should sit under the heat lamp as short a time as possible, which means a steady stream of customers. Before cars were used to drive out and grab a meal, the only place this was possible was at ball games and amusement parks.


In North Chateaugay, we have modeled a couple of blocks of industries taken from Burlington, VT. Dominating these was the Burlington Grocery Company. Next to it was the Vermont Fruit Company, and a Swift plant in between.

"Grocery" is derived from "gross", twelve dozen, from the Latin "grossus" meaning large, bulky, thick or coarse. This also gives us the slang term as in "Boy, is that gross!" The term also came to mean without refinement or deductions, hence "gross income."

A "grocer" was one who sold items that were countable, as opposed to the butcher, who sold by the pound, although today we buy meat in a grocery store.


This area is based on Vergennes, VT on the Rutland RR. The Kennedy Brothers Furniture Company is the former Sheffield Farms Creamery. Dairymen's League (the gray building) is still an active creamery. Both shipped milk to New York City. Shade & Roller Co. shipped wooden dowels off the team track. Feed came in from the West, while fertilizer was shipped from Boston.

South Hero South Hero is a small farming community. Down by the depot was a corn cannery and a dry bean elevator. In 1915, the Twitchell & Champlain Company of Maine built a plant here for the purpose of buying local sweet corn, processing it from cob to can, and shipping it by rail throughout New England under their brand name, "Maine's Finest Corn." The steam-powered plant only operated for some 6 weeks every September. Wagon loads of unhusked corn would draw up and unload for preparing, cooking, canning, sealing and packaging. Around 1930, the depressed market price for corn and a plague of ear worms forced the plants to close.

In 1918, the Belden, Inc. of Geneseo, NY built a plant here to clean, sort, and store dry beans grown locally. Belden already owned 25-30 such elevators in New England and New York, including one at nearby North Hero. This seasonal operation, starting in late October, lasted some 10 to 20 weeks. Ten women employees processed 500 bags (100 lbs. each) for a box car load each week. Around 1930, Belden sold out to Friend Brothers of Boston, whose baked beans are still sold today.

Prices for the beans varied between 7 and 18 cents per pound and farmers found it profitable to plant a portion of their farms in beans. During WWII, the government pegged the price at 8-1/2 cents/lb. Milk and dairy prices, however, continued to rise, and farmers no longer planted beans in favor of dairy products. The dwindling supply of beans forced the closing of both this and the North Hero plant. The South Hero plant was abandoned and torn down in 1945.

Green Island

The 19th Century Gilbert Car Shops contained a large plain building that had tracks running into it. Although the rest of the plant was eventually taken over by the Manning plant, this one building was sold separately. By 1950, it had been taken over by Albany Public Markets as their warehouse and perhaps as also their retail outlet. Today they are known as Price Chopper, a supermarket chain in the region.


According to Thomas Schlereth (Victorian America 1876-1915), Gail Borden had grown tired of the limited foods available to him living on the Texas frontier. After some experimentation, he took out a patent in 1856 for a way to evaporate milk in a vacuum, and then can it. He was the direct ancestor of both Elsie and Elmer.

In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. Many smaller companies could not afford to meet the new sanitation rules, so they were taken over by National Dairy Products and Borden. Borden became a huge conglomerate. In 1928 alone, Borden took over 52 smaller companies in just one week (Harvey Green, Uncertainty of Everyday Life, 1915-1945).

At one point, only children drank milk. Around 1900, discoveries about the poor sanitation of store-bought milk scared off consumers, but then they were lured back by "Pure Milk" campaigns. National Dairy's product was marketed under the name "Sealtest" in that the containers were sealed and tested. By the mid-'20's, Americans consumed an average 800 pounds per year.

Milk is a water solution of proteins and other nutrients, and containing little globules of butterfat in suspension. According to an article on ice cream by Lawrence Joseph in the August '92 Discovery, cow's milk is made up of 87% water, 4% milk fat, and the rest protein, lactose or milk sugar, and ash. As it comes from the cow, each tiny fat globule has a phospholipid membrane, which is negatively charged. The charges repel each other, keeping the globules from meeting up with each other and separating out from the mixture.

Heating the milk destroys the membranes, so pasteurizing means the milk will separate out, unless it is also homogenized. If these globules are broken up much finer (homogenization), they will stay in suspension much longer. ("Heavy" cream, made of more butterfat and less water, is actually lighter in weight than milk.)

Heavy cream contains so much butterfat that the suspension is relatively unstable. While it can be whipped to a froth if kept cold, if it is "churned" at room temperature, the suspension changes nature. The butterfat becomes the continuous medium, with tiny globules of the water solution dispersed throughout, in other words, butter.

Ice cream came on the scene only after the invention of the ice box in the early 1800's meant the development of an industry to harvest ice in the winter and store it over the summer. Americans were way ahead of Europe with natural ice refrigeration, and as a result, ice cream became a common part of our diet much earlier. The high butterfat content of the mix (10% by federal law, 2-1/2 times that of milk), along with the constant stirring, causes the water to freeze into tiny crystals, so small the mouth can't detect them, so the product seems smooth. Ice cream that is allowed to melt and refreeze does so with bigger ice crystals, and tastes grainy.

Yogurt and cheeses are milk or cream, acted upon by microorganisms. By the way, while federal law has standards for ordinary yogurt (and thus a health claim can be made), there is no standard for frozen yogurt. It can have as little true yogurt as there is Vermouth in the driest martini, i.e., a little waved over the top.

Milk was delivered to the consumer in glass containers. According to the November 1939 Pencil Points, the square milk container of heavy paraffin coated paper had just been developed.

We have a whole major section devoted to the milk industry (creameries) and transportation ( milk trains).


Tomatoes were brought over to Europe from Mexico about 1550, but mainly were considered ornamental plants, like gourds are today. Soon afterwards Italians began to use them for food. In America, they were considered poisonous, as they are a member of the nightshade family. There is a wonderful short story that I assume is fictional, about a plot to poison Washington by serving him some tomatoes. The cook/spy then took his own life by a more effective method even as Washington was sitting down to his meal.

In the mid-1830's, it was realized that tomatoes were not deadly. Some promoter ate bushel loads before an astonished audience (who or when I don't remember), but even then there was reluctance. It was not until 1900 that tomatoes became popular, probably as the result of Italian immigrants.

Pizza was introduced around WWII, but the craze for it was a long time developing after that. In Earl Stanley Gardener's Perry Mason mystery series, written between 1933 and 1970, detective Paul Drake would always complain about having to work all night, and having to living on food delivered to his office. It was always hamburgers, which were cold and soggy by the time he got to eat them, followed by medicine for indigestion. He never once ordered pizza (or for that matter, Chinese).

Potato Chips

In the late 1800's, George Crum, a Native American, was working as chef at a fancy Saratoga hotel. He was an acclaimed cook, the favorite of such guests as Vanderbilt, but whenever a guest returned a dish that wasn't to his liking, Crum made it a point to cook up the worst concoction possible. One night, a guest continued to complain about the french fries, and sent them back to the kitchen to be cut finer. Crum sliced the potatoes as thin as he could, but to his surprise, the guest was delighted with the crispy chips. The next day they appeared on the menu as "Saratoga Chips" and within a few years were a national snack food.


According to Morgan (Symbols Of America), Cortes discovered the Aztecs wearing popcorn as jewelry (remember corn was a New World plant). Supposedly popcorn was served at the first Thanksgiving. During WWII, sugar shortages led to a enormous increase in consumption of popcorn as a candy substitute, and the tradition of eating popcorn during movies started.