Congress and my Dinner Plate

Did you know that United States government once placed a special tax on colored margarine? Or that Thomas Jefferson smuggled rice from Italy into the United States, a crime punishable by death?  Or that the school lunch program is one of the nation’s most successful welfare projects in history? If you are like me, then you probably did not know any of this information.

Although I consider myself a foodie, I realized today that there is much more to food than simply how it tastes and how it is prepared. At the National Archives in downtown D.C. there is a new exhibition that explores the government’s effect on the American diet. “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” seeks to educate visitors about the government’s complex programs and legislation that have influenced what Americans see on their plates and eat off of their forks. Considering that the exhibition is devoted to two of my passions, food and politics, I knew this was something I could not miss.

With nothing on my Saturday afternoon agenda, I ventured out of the Georgetown bubble and into the heart of the city. When I arrived at the Archives I was pleasantly surprised by the line of people stretching along the entrance to the museum. While there is no cost to enter, the facility requires all visitors to go through security before getting the chance to see the exhibitions, most notably the showcase of the nation’s founding documents, including the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Even with the line, it was no more than twenty minutes before I was in and through security, ready to discover how Uncle Sam has affected my diet.

Some of the highlights:

  • Ketchup was originally bottled with the preservative sodium benzoate, which oftentimes caused the bottles to explode after opening. It was Henry J. Heinz who first concocted a recipe for the condiment without the ingredient.
  • Through the later half of the nineteenth century, the U.S. government passed a series of acts placing special taxes on margarine, especially for those that were color-dyed. Despite the taxes, the demand for colored margarine grew, thus encouraging a bootleg business for the product. When caught for illegally selling the butter-substitute, many Americans were arrested and thrown in prison for their crime.
  • During World War II, the government encouraged farmers to grow more sugar beets to meet the wartime need for sugar, which included the production of alcohol for the soldiers.
  • After President Eisenhower’s visit to Balmoral Castle in 1969, Queen Elizabeth II sent the Commander-in-Chief her family recipe for the drop scones he enjoyed during his stay.
  • Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle hoping to encourage labor reform. After the book’s release and attention focused instead on meatpacking reform, Sinclair expressed his dismay in a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt, famously writing, “I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit it in the stomach.”
  • Perhaps intrigued by the French paradox, the government in the 1940s advocated for a diet based on seven food groups: milk and dairy products; meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dried beans, peas and nuts; bread, flour, and cereals; leafy green and yellow vegetables; potatoes and other fruit and vegetables; citrus, tomato, cabbage, and salad greens; and, finally, butter and margarine.
  • Although President John F. Kennedy hired a French chef to cater all his State Dinners and prepare meals for the First Family, some of his favorite meals were New England classics, like clam chowder.

In the forty minutes I toured the exhibit I learned a lot about the ways in which D.C. has impacted what I have in my refrigerator. Even so, I wish that the exhibition included more information about current policies and initiatives impacting the American diet. With Michelle Obama’s White House garden and the Let’s Move campaign, the White House has been an active champion of healthy and sustainable eating. In light of recent scientific developments involving genetically modified crops and animals, it also would have been interesting to learn about what the government is doing in response to such progress. Regardless, for any foodie or history buff, the exhibit is worth a look.

From legislation protecting crop prices to the pie charts and food pyramids of nutrition guidelines, “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” makes clear that food occupies the minds of the government just as much as it does in the stomachs of Americans.


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