Tribune Print Share Text

What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?

Exhibit traces the government’s effect on what and how we eat

Created date

August 23rd, 2011

In recent months, the federal government has retooled the food pyramid into a food plate, debated the pros and cons of a soda tax, and urged the nation to take action in the fight against obesity. While many appreciate the government s efforts to steer citizens toward better health through a better diet, others see it as an unwelcomed intervention into personal choice and freedom. Like it or not, the U.S. government has been influencing what s on the American plate since the birth of our nation. Now, a new exhibit called What s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government s Effect on the American Diet at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., presents a fascinating history of both the life-saving successes and the dismal failures of the government s efforts to protect the American food supply and influence our food choices. Celebrated chef and recent winner of the Outstanding Chef title at the James Beard Foundation Awards (aka the food Oscars ) Jos Andr s was the chief culinary advisor to the exhibit. Andr s says, The reason I think it s so important to visit the exhibit at the National Archives is that it s going to open a door for you to understand that the policies that our government implemented have a fundamental effect on the way we all live. Through letters, diaries, photos, maps, petitions, films, patents, and proclamations, the exhibition explores four broad themes: farm, factory, kitchen, and table. One of the earliest documents on display dates all the way back to the Revolutionary War a 1776 broadside that itemizes war rations given to soldiers who fought against the British. Each soldier received one pound of beef and one pint of spruce beer per day, along with healthy portions of milk, rice, bread, and vegetables. The rations were deliberately generous with the hope that if freedom didn t motivate colonists to join the war effort, the promise of a hearty meal just might.

The Oleo gang

Today, many Americans take for granted the fact that the food we eat is safe, but a look at images of squalid factories in the early 1900s shows that this was not always the case. From a letter written by famed muckraker Upton Sinclair (author ofThe Jungle)to President Theodore Roosevelt complaining of the horrid conditions of the meat packing industry to investigators logs about toxic candy, there can be no doubt that legislation like the Pure Food and Drug Act and establishing the Food and Drug Administration have saved lives. Other attempts at legislating what Americans eat were less successful. Take, for example, the Oleomargarine Act of August 2, 1886. In the late 1800s, a French chemist invented margarine. When the butter substitute reached our shores, American dairy farmers feared the cheaper spread would negatively impact their bottom line, so they flooded Congress with postcards of protest. Congress responded with a tax that made it much more expensive to produce margarine. Of course, this created a market for bootleg margarine, says exhibit curator Alice Kamps. And so we have these wonderful mug shots of men who were caught dealing with black market margarine and served time in federal penitentiaries.

On the menu

Of course, food is more then just sustenance. In many ways, food defines a culture and what people eat reveals a lot about their lifestyle and their times. There s a photograph in the exhibition of a silver tray holding pineapple rings and cottage cheese on White House china alongside a tall glass of milk that is identified as President Richard Nixon s last White House meal. There s a recipe for ham shortcake, a concoction calling for ten pounds of ham and 2.5 pounds of table fat; it was a popular school lunch offering in the 1940s. And there are menus from Jacqueline Kennedy s state dinners and Lady Bird Johnson s popular Pedernales River chili recipe. Together these mementos offer a unique glimpse of American history.

Kitchen science

As anyone who reads the news regularly knows, nutrition is an evolving science. One day s miracle food is the next day s poison.What s Cooking ,Uncle Sam?shows the government s efforts to inform citizens, especially homemakers, how to get the most out of food. A World War II poster warns Overcooking Destroys Vitamins! Another poster from the Doughnut Corporation proclaims For Pep and Vigor Vitamin Doughnuts! Many of these campaigns were initiated due to ongoing world events such as World War II or the Cold War, and these images and messages relay more than just information. They show how everyday Americans responded to and coped with the times they lived in. As Andr s says, When you leave this exhibit, you will take with you a part of the history of America and that history has been told through the power of food.

Taste for yourself

The National Archives is located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.What s Cooking, Uncle Sam?runs through January 3, 2012. Admission is free. If a trip to D.C. is not in your plans, check out the exhibition s online presentation at In conjunction with the exhibition, Jos Andr s has opened a temporary restaurant called America Eats Tavern. A few blocks from the National Archives, the restaurant offers a new take on American classics, including some long-forgotten gems like burgoo and oysters Rockefeller. With recipes and stories collected through extensive research, and with help from the National Archives and a culinary advisory council of chefs and scholars, the menu showcases the fascinating history of our nation one plate at a time. For more information, call 202-393-0812 or visit