SMITHSONIAN CHRONICLES TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN FOOD & WINE

Volumes have been written about the transformations that occurred in American society in the last half of the Twentieth Century. Certainly, no arena of American society has seen more change since the end of World War II than that of food production and consumption.

 

A new exhibit, “Food: Transforming the American Table,” which opened at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History last November, really brings these changes to life in a unique and effective way. I had a chance to view the exhibit recently and heartily recommend you visit it, too.

Fourteen years in the making, co-curator of the exhibit, Paula Johnson told me this first major Smithsonian exhibition on food history is intended to illuminate the transformation of how food is produced, how we eat, and what we eat. Ms. Johnson also wanted to make sure I noted she made a conscious decision to include a section on wine in recognition of its growing significance in American food culture and the increasing acceptance of its place at the American table. I will touch on this later in this column and will go into greater detail about the wine section, including my subsequent interview with winemaker Warren Winiarski (a critical figure in American wine history), in a future article.

Courtesy of Smithsonian

The exhibit employs a variety of displays to illustrate the post-war changes. It begins with “Julia’s Kitchen.” This literally is the kitchen from Julia Child’s Cambridge, MA home with original table, appliances, and utensils. It was quite remarkable to peer through the glass and witness this iconic space.

Courtesy of Smithsonian

“New and Improved” – a display highlighting the introduction of various new scientific approaches to farming, processing and distribution – recalls various developments in what I would call the industrialization of food. Even as science and technology (most notably in the form of chemical fertilizers and pesticides) produced higher yields, more certainty and lower costs in the fields, new appliances and access to more energy changed the way people prepared meals.

 Viewing the display, I also got a sense of how all this intersected with the American myth of “progress” and how advertising slogans like “better living through chemistry” were deployed in an industry offensive to convince the American people (who had just survived the Great Depression and World War II) the changes would always make life better. Of course, it wasn’t all good news. A section of the display titled “A System for Abundance” tells a story of the difficult, dangerous lives of the workers in the field.

Courtesy of Smithsonian

Curator Johnson aptly characterized “Resetting the Table” as illustrating the complementary and contradictory trends of the time – showing how immigrants, activists, and global travelers all challenged what had become convention. The display first takes a look at the rise of ethnic food and its connection to the country’s history as a nation of immigrants. To me it illustrates an insight into how immigrants adapted to their new environment and how those of us already here have benefited from a broadening of our exposure to previously unfamiliar foods, cultures and people.

 

This section also chronicles the rise of alternative visions of American food culture that emerged in the 1960’s and 1970’s – often associated with what has been labeled the “counterculture” and “back-to-the-land” movements – and focused on small scale, organic production. Being reminded of the “Do It Yourself” advice of Mother Earth News it becomes clear these alternatives were (and are) not anti-science, as often has been charged. Rather, they reflected a different approach to science – one that used new discoveries to assist nature, not subjugate or appropriate it. And viewing copies of fondly remembered books like Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat and the Moosewood Cookbook I realized also these were a call to recover an appreciation of quality, an assertion that food can taste good and be good for you.

While millions of Americans were embracing the new culture of convenience and abundance, these alternative voices drew attention to the trade offs and the long-term effects of mass production (industrial, large-scale, centralized) and mass consumption (consumerism, planned obsolescence, disposable): impacts on the environment, individual health and workers.

Courtesy of Smithsonian

This period also was a time of great transformation in wine. The “Wine for the Table” section calls attention to the complicated relationship this country has had with alcohol – specifically, in this case, fermented grape juice. Much has been made over the years of Thomas Jefferson’s affinity for wine; and even more has been written about the origins and legacy (and reality) of Prohibition.

 

Most people today still probably don’t realize wine grapes have been cultivated since the 1700’s on the East Coast; and probably only a few more realize the boom in California winegrowing that began about the mid-1800’s. Not surprisingly, in 1950, wine was mostly an afterthought for most Americans. Julia Child deserves credit here as well for introducing to the public the European tradition of drinking wine with food.


Then, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a group of truly visionary California winemakers (many of whom benefited from consultation with the great winemaker André Tchelistcheff) transformed the industry, not only in California but – with a little help from the famous “Paris Tasting of 1976” – throughout the U.S. and really, over the following decades, the whole world.

 

The exhibit highlights contributions from now icons of the California wine industry, such as Robert Mondavi, who left his family’s winery to start his own winery and became arguably the greatest ambassador of California wine. And Miljenko “Mike” Grgich at Chateau Montelina and Warren Winiarski at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars – the winners of the 1976 tasting – are well represented. These and others, of course, emulated French winemaking practices like using small oak barrels, along with what I’ll call modern winemaking techniques like using stainless steel tanks and temperature-controlled fermentation to vastly increase quality.

Display highlighting heritage of California Zinfandel

Actually, the transformation of wine after 1950 reflects many of the same forces as with food – the intersection of agriculture with business with marketing with culture. At the same time as these smaller producers were showing the world California could match European quality, large-scale wine production (most notably the Gallo family – shown on the cover of a 1972 issue of Time) emerged to introduce wine to the American public in a volume and at a price most could enjoy on a daily basis.

 

Over the last two decades especially, there has been a growing interest in organic and other forms of sustainable agricultural and cellar practices. Sometimes it seems like every winery large and small is touting its efforts in this regard. The key here, as Mr. Winiarski pointed out to me, seems to be to find ways to harness science, technology and cultural forces, while retaining the lessons of tradition.

Courtesy of Smithsonian

Finally, in what I think was a brilliant idea, they have included what they call the “Open Table” in the middle of the exhibit.  It is a place where “(v)isitors will have the opportunity to take a seat at a large, communal table and engage in conversation about a wide range of food-related issues and topics.” Here, the museum is inviting visitors to go beyond just being passive viewers of the exhibition. They are saying eating food and drinking wine are essentially social, convivial activities (not to mention economic and political activities). Visitors are encouraged to discuss the themes of the exhibit and even examine how this history has influenced each of our own eating and drinking choices.

 

As I have pondered this fascinating exhibit, it has occurred to me the unwritten theme could be “Back to the Future.” The natural food movement that began in the 1960’s has evolved and grown parallel to the growth of industrial food and the current renewed emphasis on local, small scale production grows in significance alongside the “Big Ag” of multinational corporations that for their part still dominate.

 

The 2000’s especially have seen a renewed commitment to authentic food and wine, with more emphasis on organic, local and small-scale production. The battles between these often opposing forces are heating up over the food world’s role in climate change and the pros and cons of GMOs. We even may be in the midst of another period of transformation. Maybe the Smithsonian should consider making the exhibit permanent and plan to add more years.

 

The exhibit will run indefinitely, and more information can be found at http://americanhistory.si.edu or by calling the public line at (202) 633-1000.

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.