FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000

Introduction

FOOD exhibit logo

Between 1950 and 2000,
new technologies and cultural changes
transformed how and what we eat.


Whether convenient, fast, organic, processed, gourmet, ethnic, or local—the foods available to Americans have never been more plentiful and diverse, or more ripe for discussion. Coupled with big changes in who does the cooking, where meals are consumed, and what we know (or think we know) about what’s good for us, the story of Americans and food in the last half of the twentieth century is about much more than what’s for dinner.

This exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History explores those changes and some of the factors—new technologies, influential people, and broad shifts in social and cultural life—behind them.

The exhibition is organized into the following main sections:

Julia Child's Kitchen

Legendary cook and teacher Julia Child had a tremendous impact on food and culinary history in America. Through her books and television series, which spanned forty years, she encouraged people to care about food and cooking. The kitchen from her Cambridge, Massachusetts, home provides both a starting point and a backdrop for the exhibition.

New and Improved!

Americans were greeted by claims of “New and Improved!” on more and more foods and consumer goods during the second half of the 20th century. Optimistic attitudes about “progress” and “better living” continued throughout the century, even as many raised questions about the long-term effects of mass production and consumerism, especially on the environment, health, and workers.

Resetting the Table

Between 1950 and 2000, Americans experienced immense changes in what and how they ate, and in how they thought and felt about food. Direct challenges to conventional diets and cooking styles came from immigrants, activists, and global travelers, and spread from local communities and restaurants to supermarkets and suburban backyards.

Wine for the Table

From Thomas Jefferson’s failed efforts to cultivate French grapevines in Virginia to the onset of Prohibition, the desire to produce wine for the table on American soil seemed beyond reach. But in the second half of the 20th century, a community of California dreamers would spark a revolution in a bottle that not only realized Jefferson’s vision, but changed the entire world of wine.