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A Brief History of Food: Where We’ve Been

What and how we eat has ties to our ancient ancestors, but what we commonly think of as food and cuisine is distinctly modern. Through the last few hundred years, the world has become a large mixing pot of foods, flavors, and cuisines. Urbanization and technological advancement has further transformed what we think of as food.

If someone were to ask you to name some Italian foods, pizza and spaghetti with meatballs would likely top most lists. But how Italian are these foods? A primary ingredient in both dishes, the tomato, was not introduced in Italy until the mid 1500’s and did not gain popularity until the 1800’s. You would be hard pressed to find spaghetti and meatballs on any menus in Italy as the dish is largely a creation of Italian immigrants to the U.S. in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that made use of the greater abundance of beef in their new home. Pizza has roots in antiquity where a lot of cultures made use of flatbreads, but modern interpretations of the now ubiquitous food are a far cry from the simple street food of Italy.

There are similar stories of the transformation of cuisine from introduced foods all over the globe. Where would Mexican food (traditional or Americanized) be without rice, garlic, and cumin, all introduced by way of Europe in the 1500’s? Cattle, pigs, and chicken also came across the ocean, forever changing the landscape and what we think of as food.

Not only are the diverse range of foods available to us a product of recent history, but how we cook and process a number of these foods has changed greatly in the last 150 years as well. The industrial revolution produced many technological advancements and also started a trend of urbanization as more people collected in cities to work in factories. This started a fundamental change in human’s relationship with food. No longer was food predominantly what you or others in your local area raised and processed, but, as more people lived in cities, the greater was the need to bring food to them from farther and farther away.

Without refrigeration and modern sanitation, this posed a number of challenges. Getting meat, dairy, fruit, and vegetables transported to markets prior to spoilage was a major problem. This led to adulterations of food that were less than ideal. Preservatives such as formaldehyde and borax and stretchers like chalk and sawdust were common additives.

Due to the lack of refrigeration, it was necessary to move cattle to the people. This created the tradition of the cattle drive where cattle were herded across the plains to rail stations and transported to stockyards in large cities. Poor working conditions and lack of sanitation in the meatpacking plants led Upton Sinclair to write “The Jungle” which created public outcry leading to the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act and the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act which created the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is the basis for modern food safety regulation.

Pictured: A modern cattle drive moving heifers down the road to a new pasture.

The spoilage and adulteration of food did not engender much trust by people purchasing the food, especially considering the relatively large cost, using up around 40% of a person’s income compared to 10% today. This opened the door to enterprising manufacturers that could provide affordable unspoiled food and birthed the processed food industry. With names that line today’s grocery store shelves, there are a number origin stories from this time period. James L. Kraft was tired of cheese going bad in his door-to-door cheese business, so he developed processed cheese that could be packed in tins and remain shelf stable. Henry Heinz, a pioneer in supply chains and manufacturing, sold his condiments, pickles, and most famously ketchup in clear bottles to showcase quality. The National Biscuit Company (a.k.a. Nabisco) developed the wax paper sleeves and cardboard boxes that are still standard today to get crackers and cookies to the customer while maintaining freshness. Where would breakfast cereals be without the names Post and Kellogg’s, although that origin story is a bit weird. Campbell’s Soup, Oscar Mayer, Keebler, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Aunt Jemima, and Quaker Oats all have their origin from over 100 years ago.

These companies all solved a problem of providing safe and affordable food in a time period when it wasn’t common. This gave them the foothold to become the providers of a large portion of our food today. A recent study estimates that processed foods make up two-thirds of children’s diets, not generally seen as a positive for overall health and well-being. What started as a way to provide affordable, non-toxic food has now become a public health concern.

Today, we have access to a more diverse array of foods than anytime in previous history. Chefs and culinary outlets are exposing us to flavors and cuisines from all over the world. But, we struggle with health and well-being and the role that food plays. There is recognition that fresh, local, minimally-processed foods can play an important part in reversing these health trends. And, yet, these foods remain difficult to access and inconvenient to prepare for most. We can take lessons from our past to re-connect ourselves with fresh and minimally processed food, but this time in a safe, healthful, and convenient manner.

Part of our mission at Gibralter Farms is to be a source of high-quality food for our community. We also want to help you turn these high-quality foods into convenient and delicious meals by providing assistance with recipes and demonstrations. We love exploring the world of food and are excited to share our experiences with you. What foods excite you? Let us know by connecting with us on Facebook, Instagram, and by signing up for our weekly email.

A Brief History of Food