Dinner at Broad Channel, in Queens, New York City, c. 1910 (Library of Congress).

Three Squares

Mealtime in America

Three square meals a day – we’re used to hearing this when it comes to dining. But for many of us, eating is as much about socializing as it is about finding the perfect nutritional balance. On this episode of BackStory, the hosts recover from their Thanksgiving feasts by looking back over the history of mealtime in America. From Victorian table manners to the battle over the federal school lunch program, how have our ideas about meals evolved?

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NOTE: The following transcript corresponds to an earlier version of this show. Some passages may not match the rebroadcast audio above.

ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. The holiday season revolves around the dining room table, and as history has shown us, when people sit down to eat, things can get complicated. Take School Lunch, a federal program to feed hungry kids. It wasn’t an easy sell in the South.

SUSAN LEVINE: They didn’t want the federal government to come anywhere near the schools, because they really feared, and I think rightly so, that the federal government would begin to dismantle their system of segregation. It would begin to demand some kind of equality.

ED: For the quality of school lunch, well, let’s just say history has seen worse. Take train food, for example, in the 1860s.

STEPHEN FRIED: Basically the food was considered so terrible that the “New York Times” suggested, at one point, there was more danger eating the food than there was from train wrecks of fires in the West.

BRIAN: The history of mealtime in America, today on BackStory.

MALE SPEAKER 1: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. On Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: The 19th Century Guy. Peter Onuf, our 18th Century Guy, is out this week, which is actually kind of great, just between you and me, because this show in particular is one that I want a little extra share of for myself.

BRIAN: Yeah, Ed. Today it’s all about the history of meals in America. And we’re going to go ahead and start with, well, an outsider’s perspective. In the mid 1800s, a lot a high class Europeans were coming to visit the United States, and one thing quite a few of them seemed to write about was how Americans ate.

JOHN KASSON: Charles Dickens among them described Americans as eating gravely.

ED: Nobody says anything at a meal to anybody.


ED: Every man sits down, dull and languid.

JOHN KASSON: Eating food as if they were simply fueling themselves.

ED: Swallows his fare as if breakfasts, lunches, and suppers were necessities of nature.

JOHN KASSON: Without any kind of semblance of pleasure.

ED: Never to be coupled with recreation or enjoyment.

JOHN KASSON: Bolting their food, and then going off to do something else.

BRIAN: This is John Kasson, an historian at UNC Chapel Hill, and an expert in, among other things, 19th century dining. He says Dickens was shocked at American table manners, or lack thereof.

JOHN KASSON: They would eat characteristically then with a two-pronged iron fork, and then a knife in the right hand. And they would put the food in their mouths with the knife. Dickens said that he’d never seen such contortions, except for a sword swallower in a circus.

ED: If Dickens had come just a little bit later, however, in the 1870s and the 1880s, say, he would’ve encountered a very different scene. By then, upper class Americans had picked up on the trends of their European counterparts, and table manners took on a whole new importance.

BRIAN: That’s right, Ed. There was kind of her arms race based on forks, if you will, and how many you could have. And this was born the strange ritual you’ve probably seen reenacted in countless costume dramas. The Victorian dinner party.

JOHN KASSON: It’s typically going to start with oysters and champagne, and then you’re going to have soup, either white or dark soup. Then an entree of vegetables, perhaps sweet corn or asparagus. And then– are you still with me, Brian?

BRIAN: I’m here.

JOHN KASSON: And then you will be given a slice of the roast, with either claret or champagne. This is moving right along. Now you have the game, and then you have a salad course. Then you have cheese, then you have pastry or pudding. Then you are offered liqueurs.

Oh, and I forgot. I left out the fruit and nut course. How careless of me.

BRIAN: Now, there was nothing new in the mid 1800s about feast that involved insane amounts of food. What was new, at least to Americans, was that manners now really mattered. Every meal that’s a minefield rife with opportunities to make mistake after mistake in etiquette.

JOHN KASSON: There are many, many, many mistakes you might make. You might, in fact, bite off your roll and show the teeth marks of your roll as you put it back on the right.

ED: You might try eating an apple with your hands.

JOHN KASSON: Well, my goodness. We know then that you don’t belong, because you’re supposed to master even how to use the fork for this. You don’t talk about the food. You don’t say, oh, this is yummy. That’s just a little unseemly.

BRIAN: I have to say, Professor Kasson, that this doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. Why are people doing this?

JOHN KASSON: They don’t sound like a lot of fun, and that’s precisely because they sound like such an exacting performance. It’s a kind of trial by fork. And part of the notion of the performance is that we’re going to tell who belongs and who doesn’t. These dinners are already kind of rituals of exclusivity. And then even the dinner itself, it’s as if it becomes a test of how habituated you are to these performances of self-control.

We could have likened the dinner to a courtly dance of some sense. If you know the steps, then you can relax and enjoy it. But if you don’t, then you’re sweating all the time.

Brillat-Savarin, the famous French writer who wrote the physiology of taste, said, “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.” We might say that the correlary of this in the 19th century was tell me how you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are. And this sense of how people mastered the forms of dining, or what separated from simply people who fed.

ED: So as you recover from you Thanksgiving feast, on today’s show, we are going to give you all the historical knowledge you might need to survive your next family meal. We’ve got the story of America’s earliest restaurant chain. We’ll try to understand one of the least revolutionary aspects of the American Revolution– the food. And we’ll look at the political hotbed of American mealtime– school lunch.

BRIAN: Ed, you know I’m always thinking about food, and actually a lot of us are often thinking about food. But I have to admit, I have never considered food from the angle of the American Revolution.

ED: Yeah, Brian, that’s so brave for you to admit the one day Peter’s not here. But nevertheless, the fact is that we’ve looked into this, as you know, and it turns out that there are a lot of implications about food and the American Revolution.

BRIAN: That’s exactly what Trudy Eden showed us. She’s an early American historian, and she brought along an English cookbook from this period.

TRUDY EDEN: A popular cookbook in the popular press.

BRIAN: And in addition to the recipes you’d expect to see in a cookbook, it also contains a series of diagrams. So picture this. You have a bird’s eye view of the dinner table. It’s dotted with no less than 29 dishes, all laid out symmetrically. There’s some familiar items– pork, asparagus, turnips– and some less familiar ones, like orange pudding and roasted larks. You’ve had roasted larks recently, haven’t you, Ed?

ED: For lunch, actually, Brian. Yeah.

BRIAN: Exactly. We asked Trudy Eden to walk us through this meal.

TRUDY EDEN: I think maybe the best way to approach this is by thinking of yourself as a diner, and walking in. The table would probably have been set with all of the dishes. Not everybody ate everything that was on the table. And the hostess would not be offended if you had, say, four dishes next to you, and you only ate from two.

ED: But how to decide which two dishes to eat? Today we might think in terms of balance. You been eating lots sweets lately? Then maybe I’ll skip that orange pudding and go for an extra helping of the asparagus. And back when this cook book was published, they also thought about balance. Except for them, the stakes were much higher.

TRUDY EDEN: The 17th and 18th century, even the 19th century, was a very holistic world. So we aren’t just talking about somebody’s physical health. We’re talking about their physical health, their mental health, their level of intelligence, their level of morality. It includes absolutely the whole person, and it’s not just about the body.

BRIAN: Eating the wrong thing to degrade you, the thinking went, both mentally and spiritually. On the other hand, if you are well, you could become smarter, more cheerful, a better person all around. It was based on the theory that the body is composed of four basic humors. Each combining various levels of hot, cold, wet, and dry. The goal was to maintain a balance of all four humors.

TRUDY EDEN: If you had a cold and were an early modern person, you would say, oh, my gosh. My nose is running, I’m cold, I’ve got all this fluid coming out of my nose, and the best thing for me to do is to maybe exercise a little bit, get some of that moisture out of my body. And eat foods that are hot and dry, because that will reduce the amount of cold and moist in my system.

ED: Now this so-called humoral, as opposed to humorous, theory could be very specific. It wasn’t simply eat more vegetables. It was eat more cucumbers with mustard, which meant that having a lot of dishes to choose from was a huge advantage.

TRUDY EDEN: The more variety you had, the more tools you had to put your body in balance. What you needed on Monday might not be what you needed on the following Monday. And what you needed in the spring wouldn’t be what you needed in the summer. But if you had all of this variety, you could manipulate yourself and keep yourself in balance.

ED: And Brian, this is how we connect up with the question with which we began this segment. How did food choices connect with the American Revolution? And the answer is that people who could achieve the perfect balance were seen as the most fit to rule. It’s obvious now that this way of thinking reinforced the status quo, because only the wealthy had access to the variety of food that was necessary to achieve that balance. Which, in turn, made them fit to rule, and maintain that access to food. The theory wasn’t as great for the lower classes, where it was really hard to get cucumbers and mustard.

BRIAN: But something interesting happened when English people started colonizing the new world. The soil in America was rich, and crops grew well. More people were able to own their own land and provide for themselves. While hunting had been off limits for all but the nobility in the old world, here in the United States, anyone with a gun could go off and stalk his own dinner. And this widespread food security, as Trudy Eden calls it, had surprising political implications.

TRUDY EDEN: It wasn’t just the wealthy people who were food secure, and who were there for the most capable of governing the country. It was a whole huge population of people. A large portion of the country had the kind of food security, had the kind of lifestyle, where they could govern themselves and be the best people they possibly could be. So if you want your rulers to be the best people, then why not a democracy?

ED: Here’s the thing the turn toward self-government wasn’t a rejection of the old world way of thinking. It was an extension of it.

TRUDY EDEN: What simply happened in the United States was that more people hopped over the line of food security, and so you had a larger group of people who were food secure, and were entitled to have a say-so in their society.

ED: So if we look at the American Revolution from the perspective of food, it doesn’t really look very revolutionary at all. In fact, even back in England, the ability to make correct food choices was called– wait for it, Brian– self-government. So when colonists in America started talking about self-government in a political sense, they weren’t subverting that older world view. They were actually embracing it.

BRIAN: Helping us tell that story was Trudy Eden, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Northern Iowa. Her book is “The Early American Table.”

ED: We’re going to take a short break. For some reason, I have a longing for roasted larks . But when we come back, we’ll look at what travel food would have looked like a century after the American Revolution, in 1870. Chances are it will be the first time you have ever heard the phrase “homicidal biscuits” on the radio.

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. We’re talking today about the history of mealtime in America. In the first part of our show, we talked a little bit about the moment in the middle of the 19th century when people here stopped eating off their knives and started using forks. Well, wouldn’t you know it? It didn’t take long before Americans started worrying if this whole manners thing was getting, well, a little out of control.

ABBY VAN SLYCK: There’s a critique that boys are not growing up into the kind of manly men that they need to be.

BRIAN: This is Abby Van Slyck, an historian at Connecticut College.

ABBY VAN SLYCK: Not only sort of a little bit of background homophobia there, but I think a concern– sort of what we would call a national security concern– that boys are not growing up into the kinds of soldiers that the country needs.

BRIAN: This is happening in the 1880, which, as it happens, is precisely when the first summer camps for boys come along. Van Slyck has written about the history of summer camps, and so we invited her on to share her thoughts about the importance of what, and how, summer campers have eaten.

ABBY VAN SLYCK: Part of what’s going on at summer camps is that they’re trying to get boys away from the influence of their mothers. In the imaginings of the time, mothers were keeping their boys in the parlor, keeping them clean, not allowing them to have any kind of rough and tumble play. So camp was the antidote to that. And one of the most common environments for camps to model themselves on in the late 19th century was the army encampment, the military encampment. And so mess hall, the military term, was the one that they picked up.

BRIAN: And with the boys help out in the kitchen? Would they help out with the cooking?

ABBY VAN SLYCK: Definitely. Often they’ve got a professional cook, either someone who has worked at a lumber camp, or come from another venue, and is cooking either in a tent or in a very rudimentary kitchen. Cooking over an open flame, so boys are collecting firewood, they’re peeling potatoes, they’re serving, and they’re doing their own dishes. So that the mealtime becomes sort of a major event.

BRIAN: So I understand the camps started admitting girls. There were girls camps when? Would that be the beginning of the 20th century?


BRIAN: I presume they didn’t call them mess halls for the girls camps. Did they morph into dining rooms, or did they call them mess halls?

ABBY VAN SLYCK: They did call them mess halls, and I think particularly in the years around World War I, there was the notion that women, too, could contribute to the war effort. And so there was a tendency to still use that mess hall nomenclature. There was still, though, a very strong sense that, for girls, cooking and eating at summer camp was very much related to preparing them for their future roles as women.

So in the late 19th century, when boys did the kitchen labor, it was understood as just pitching into part of the adventure of camping. Whereas in the early 20th century, particularly the Girl Scouts articulated very clearly that this was about preparing girl campers to be more effective wives and mothers.

BRIAN: And when I think about my days at summer camp, I really don’t remember the kitchen. I remember a window opening into the kitchen, and the food would just come out of it. That’s a little different than what you’ve been describing in the first decades of the 20th century.

ABBY VAN SLYCK: Yeah. No, you are putting your finger right on the very nub of a really important change. So one of the things that happens there is that we have a shift over to a new building type called a dining lodge, moving away from the military analogy, and thinking more about the dining as an experience. A shift to round tables, smaller tables, so that now we have younger campers, and they’re sitting in their tent units, or their cabin units.

In some camps there were curtains in the windows. There was this notion that maybe you’re coming a little bit back around to the domestic dining room as the model there. But then the relationship between the dining room and the kitchen changes entirely.

So in the early 20th century, even back in the late 19th century, cooking had been very visible to campers. It had been either out in the open, or it had been at one end of the mess hall. By the 1930s, and then into the post-war period, when I assume you were a camper, you have now a very high-tech kitchen. And they are set up precisely so that it minimizes the campers’ involvement with a kitchen. In the ’30s and beyond, that the dining lodge, where you’re actually taking your meals, that room it’s very rustic, and in some places sort of exaggerated in its rusticity.

BRIAN: We had exaggerated rustic. That’s a good way to describe it.

ABBY VAN SLYCK: And then you’d go into the kitchen. It would be completely different world. You’d probably have a polished concrete floor. You’d have stainless steel fixtures. All the equipment could have come right out of an urban hotel.

BRIAN: Aside from just developments in kitchen technology, what was going on culturally?

ABBY VAN SLYCK: I think that what we’re looking at here is a tendency to try to create childhood as its own particular moment, and to really make sure the childhood is insulated from the adult world. So that in the late 19th century we had older campers, and camp was really envisioned and used as a way to help them bridge into adulthood. They were learning skills, they were learning self-reliance, in the 19th century, that would help take them into the adult world.

Beginning in the 1930s, and then really ramping up as the baby boom took on full flower after World War II, the notion is that camp is now for a much younger crowd, and that the activities there should be very, very distinct from what happens in the world of adults. And that one way of doing that at camp is to insulate kids from the work of adults. That kids play at camp, adults work camp.

BRIAN: Just to bring things up to these days, when I think of the evolution of meals in general, I think of the evolution, even in my own lifetime, from three pretty fixed mealtimes a day the power bar. There’s really not that many places left in American society where large groups of people can be expected to sit down. I guess the cruise ship is the other last–

ABBY VAN SLYCK: Or a prison.

BRIAN: Or prison, that’s right. So why do you think summer camps hold on to that? Is it that bonding experience?

ABBY VAN SLYCK: I think that’s a huge part of it. I think at most camps, it’s of the one time when the whole camp gets together. I think at most meal times, there’s a ritual beyond the meal, right? It’s the time for announcements, it’s a time for song, and it is really a time to reinforce really the collective identity of the camp.

Particularly the more conventional, more traditional, summer camps really think an important part of what they’re doing is helping people learn how to get along with one another. And I think in some ways they are bulwarks for the mealtime– understanding that mealtime is always more than just food.

BRIAN: Well, I want to thank you for joining us today. You’ve whetted my appetite, and it’s been very instructive.

ABBY VAN SLYCK: Thank you, Brian. I really enjoyed it.

BRIAN: Abby Van Slyck is a professor at Connecticut College, and author of “A Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth.”

ED: As it turns out, I eat a lot of meals outside of the home, because I travel a lot. But a strange facet of modern life is that those meals have a strange consistency to them. Actually, a reassuring consistency. Wherever I am in the country, I know that I can go to Panera and have the Sierra Turkey Sandwich, and have the chicken with wild rice side. And wash it all down with an iced tea that I know is going to taste exactly the way it did the last time I went there.

Now, a lot of people would probably peg the beginning of the standardized way of eating to the middle of the 20th century, with the advent of fast food. But those people would be wrong.

BRIAN: I’m one of them.

ED: Reporter Meg Cramer has the story of America’s first chain restaurant, an innovation of– get this– the 1870s, known as the Harvey House.

MEG CRAMER: In its early days, railway travel out West was an unpleasant business. People were treated a lot like cargo. Railroad companies just kind of put them on the train and sent them off. Trips could take up to week. But of all the indignities of rail travel– smoke and dust in the cars, cramped quarters, dizzying climbs through the mountains– the most miserable part was the food.

STEPHEN FRIED: It might disgust your listeners I described it really well, because honestly, in those days, the railroads only grudgingly carried passengers. Their motto was “freight doesn’t complain. ”

MEG CRAMER: This is Stephen Fried, author of “Appetite for America.”

STEPHEN FRIED: And basically the food that people in the West on trains– there were no dining cars in the West, just restaurants at the train stations. It was considered so terrible that the “New York Times” suggested at one point that there was more danger eating the food than there was from train wrecks of fires in the West.

MALE SPEAKER 2: The Exasperating Coffee, which, naturally unfit for a Christian to drink, is served so scalding hot as to make that feat impossible.

MEG CRAMER: This is how the “New York Times” describe rail food in 1873.

MALE SPEAKER 2: The leathery beef steak swimming in grease. The homicidal biscuits. The antediluvian sandwiches. The indescribable pies. All these inflections the traveler has endured until a trip of any length through this happy land has come to present to his desperate mind the alternative of dyspepsia or starvation.

MEG CRAMER: Under these circumstances, anyone with a halfway decent biscuit recipe could have run a profitable restaurant. But there was one guy who made it his business to do it best– Fred Harvey. Harvey worked in a Kansas railroad office, but he also had experience working in restaurants in New York and New Orleans, so he knew what a good meal could be.

In 1876, Harvey opened a small lunchroom for passengers on the second floor of the train depot in Topeka, Kansas. He shipped in specially roasted coffee and fresh ingredients, and cut bigger slices of pie than anyone else. It was a success, and a few years later, he cut a deal with the Santa Fe Railroad to run all the restaurants along the line. Passengers could get a Harvey House meal every 100 miles, and Fred Harvey could expect to train full of customers, right on schedule.

Now, if what you’re imagining is a folksy Old Western kind of place, like Cracker Barrel, you’re totally wrong. The Harvey Houses had class.

STEPHEN FRIED: There was a white tablecloth dining room with imported linens. Crystal, silver. Perfect, hand-done service, attached to what would look to you today like a diner, with curved counters and stools, and some tables where people ordered a la carte. And then takeout coffee.

MEG CRAMER: When the Santa Fe Railroad opened service to Los Angeles in 1887, it advertised meals by Fred Harvey all the way. Whenever a new Harvey House opened, it changed the character of a town. This might be the first restaurant that anyone in that town had ever been to. Harvey Houses hosted parties and Friday night socials, and one of the biggest changes was that every restaurant came with a new team of Harvey Girls.

JUDY GARLAND: (SINGING) First comes the plate, then cup and saucey, the knife and fork, and here’s your spoon. The nappy by the glassy.

MEG CRAMER: That song is from the 1946 Hollywood musical The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland as a waitress in one of Fred Harvey’s restaurants.


Beginning in the 1880S, thousands of single white women were recruited for this job. They traveled hundreds of miles from Eastern and Midwestern states to work in Harvey Houses. In a lot of frontier towns, men outnumbered women two to one. A train full waitresses was a big deal. Here’s Fried again.

STEPHEN FRIED: Think of any social situation you’ve ever been where everybody’s already dated everybody in the social situation. When somebody new comes into that social situation, it’s really big news. Whether it’s an office, or at school, or something like that. So imagine a regular system that delivered new, single people to these towns– in many cases, very small towns. There was an incredible amount of expectation when the new Harvey Girls came to town.

MEG CRAMER: And what the Harvey Girls were serving was incredible. Rare steak, Blue Point oysters almond souffle pudding, and the perfect cup of coffee. Some of the best food you could find anywhere in America was being served a Harvey Houses in places like Dodge City, Kansas, a town with more cows than people.

The Harvey House system was the first chain of anything that spread across America. His infrastructure was ready-made. Hundreds of miles of track delivered lobster, steak, and fresh fruit right to his kitchens in refrigerated cars. Nobody else in the business could operate on this scale. In one year alone, he used 88 train cars just to move potatoes.

He served thousands of customers every day– basically every passenger on the Santa Fe Railroad– and every meal had to meet the Fred Harvey standard.

STEPHEN FRIED: Their goal was to be really high end, to have everything perfect, to have the service be perfect. And perfect service was not something that was really available much in America, except to rich people. And part of what was interesting about the Harvey story, in many ways, is that he was really the first person to serve democratically, in that the people on the trains came from all backgrounds. First class, second class, all classes.

They had to serve people who couldn’t speak English. They had to serve people who had never eaten a restaurant meal before, as well as people who had had chefs taking care of them their whole lives.

MEG CRAMER: Fred Harvey’s service was legendary, and railroad travel throughout the Southwest became a lot easier to stomach. But Fred Harvey did more than just serve good food. He helped to make the frontier a nice place to be. Americans started going on vacations not to Europe, but to Arizona.

STEPHEN FRIED: There’s something very perfect about the idea of building a train line to the edge of the Grand Canyon, so instead of having to hike there, you could take a train there, and you could sit in a four star restaurant right at the edge of the Grand Canyon. And that’s very much what the Harvey Company always stood for, so that people could have that experience of the unfolding West in comfort.

MEG CRAMER: Fred Harvey saw a whole nation on the move, and he knew that when people left home, they wanted more than the basics. They wanted comfort, a decent meal, and a good cup of coffee. And that’s what we expect now when we travel throughout America, that wherever we’re going, we can find everything we need along the way.

BRIAN: That’s reporter Meg Cramer. You can have a look at some Harvey House menus on our website, backstoryradio.org.

ED: Yeah, Brian. I feel really vindicated that almost everything significant about the 20th century began in the 19th. And as soon as people are leaving home and looking for comfort, looking for a little bit of certainty. Standardization emerges as a result. In the 21st century, it’s coming full circle. It’s not enough to have standardization, which we’ve grown to distrust. Now it has to be standardization that bespeaks the language of the locale.

So Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Boston Market. We create little micro environments. A little bit of Seattle in every Starbucks, a little bit of Tennessee in every Cracker Barrel. So the Harvey House, the whole idea of a guaranteed experience, is the beginning of what we live for today, is that we know not only what the food’s going to taste like, but what it’s going to be like. When we get out of our car, get off the train, get off the plane, and walk into one of these restaurants, and it’s a dirty little secret of the modern era that we like that.

BRIAN: You know, Ed, listening to that piece, I was thinking about my own experience with expectations for food. And we came of age in a generation where everything standardized. That’s just what we expected. You had your McDonald’s, you had to Howard Johnson’s. And so by the time I was an adult, when I went a traveling, I was looking for local color, that diner that had the Blue Plate Special.

ED: So authentic.

BRIAN: Exactly. And I remember traveling as a young adult– actually your neck of the woods, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina. I was traveling with my friend, a Japanese-American, Kuniko, and her British husband. And they kept vetoing all my spots that I thought I’d find local color.

And I finally said, hey, what’s up? And Kuniko said, we’ve had some really bad experiences at these local restaurants. And of course she wasn’t just referring to the food. What she meant was that she hadn’t been served. She had actually been insulted in another one, and to her, standardization meant not only predictable food. It meant predictable service of that food, and it meant a kind of social norm that these chains really needed to pursue that transcended local social practices. And I really learned a lot from that moment.

ED: We’re going to take a quick break. When we get back, we’ll try to figure out when Americans has been most neurotic about the way their food was prepared.

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute. We’re back with BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. We’re talking today about the history of mealtime in America. And now we’re going to take the show to school.

BRIAN: Last year, the National School Lunch Program served more than 31 million children a day. But looking at the program’s origins, it’s clear that children’s interests haven’t always been what’s driving the program. During the Great Depression, farm prices plummeted. Corn, hogs, wheat– the prices just kept going down, down, down. So one of the things the government did was take crops and livestock off the market. It was called buying surplus.

ED: But what do you do if you’re the government and you have all this extra food? Well, as we know, in the Great Depression there were also a lot of hungry kids in America, so why don’t you just send the food to their schools? And it sounds like a great idea, but historian Susan Levine told me that, from the children’s perspective, there was a small glitch in this wonderful plan.

SUSAN LEVINE: Part of the glitch is that only certain foods are declared to be surplus. And so you got, in the ’30s, a real imbalance in what kinds of foods were available. So for example, one year schools might get a ton of apricots or almonds, and the next year they might get a lot of eggs or olives. And there are really very entertaining stories from the school lunch coordinators about how there’s so many apples, they wouldn’t eat them, and they’d end up in the toilet. And the kids won’t eat these olives, and kids won’t eat certain kinds of food.

ED: What’s the matter with kids today? They won’t eat olives? Who wouldn’t want to have, like, five hard boiled eggs every day?

SUSAN LEVINE: One of the things that the Department of Agriculture did– at that time there was, within the Department of Agriculture, a section called the Bureau of Home Economics. And this was the bureau that developed all the recipes for the school lunch programs, and they would develop eight kinds of different egg dishes that you could serve to 300 kids. And they worked very hard at figuring out the menus and the recipes to use a lot of these commodities.

ED: So after World War II you have this and sort of newly born system, with a huge bureaucracy behind it, an expectation that the federal government’s going to help supply the foods for our children. But what happens the decades after World War II?

SUSAN LEVINE: Well, let’s back up a little bit, because the school lunch becomes a federal program in 1946. But really, before the war was over, there began to be a debate in Congress about what to do after the war, what to do with these programs. There’s several different plans that come forward. One is to run it through the Commissioner of Education. There wasn’t a Department of Education.

The Department of Agriculture, of course, didn’t want that. They wanted to keep control of the program, as did a lot of Congressional representatives, especially from the South. And the guy in Congress, Richard Russell, who I’m sure you’re familiar with.

ED: Yeah, from Georgia.

SUSAN LEVINE: From Georgia, a senator from Georgia, considered himself to be the father of the school lunch program. He was a conservative Democrat. He was a segregationist. And one of the things about him that was interesting was that he actually understood poverty, and he understood the plight of farmers, in a certain sense, both black and white. And so it didn’t bother him that the federal government should aid in the farm economy.

But if you start to get into the schools, then you really go to the heart of Southern segregation. And this is where the states really drew the line, and they didn’t want the federal government to come anywhere near the schools, because they really feared, and I think rightly so, that the federal government would begin to dismantle their system of segregation. It would begin to demand some kind of equality.

ED: So The USDA would have been seen as a relatively benign force by the advocates of states’ rights, because it was basically agriculture?

SUSAN LEVINE: Right, exactly.

ED: And the Southern conservatives were right, that this was a kind of an entree, in a way, of the federal government to have leverage over the schools of the South.

SUSAN LEVINE: Right, exactly.

ED: So in the late ’60s or early ’70s, things began to change, is my understanding.

SUSAN LEVINE: Right. Under Nixon, the school lunch program expanded, and there was a federal mandate that all poor kids had to get free lunch. And that meant that the local school districts had to supply free lunches. Now, they still got federal free food, but the food was not the only cost of the lunch. You have to cook it, and you have to have kitchens, and people to cook it. And this caused them considerable problems, because the way that they had been financing free lunches up until then was to basically charge kids who could afford it, and use that with the federal subsidies.

But they couldn’t raise the prices too much, or kids would stop buying the lunch. The kids who could afford it would stop buying, and then their whole budget would collapse. So there was a big debate in the ’70s about how to pay for the free lunches. And the states were supposed to put in matching funds. That was part of the original legislation. But now the states actually had to kick in their own matching funds.

ED: And so how did people respond to that tension? I mean, if it’s a federal mandate, you have to do it. You can’t say there’s no such thing is a free lunch. There has to be, right?

SUSAN LEVINE: Right. it’s not free. And one of the interesting things is that then the school lunch reformers start to think about, well, maybe we should bring in a private food service companies to fix lunches, because they’re offering to do it for less. And in fact that’s largely what happens, is that these major national food service corporations, which are just beginning to expand in those years, they begin to operate school lunch programs.

ED: Is that kind of where we are today?

SUSAN LEVINE: That’s pretty much where we are now, yeah. And now you’ve got an even newer– the food movement, which is questioning a lot of the infrastructure of the school lunch programs, and whether these food service corporations can really serve healthy meals. Are the McNuggets really healthy, and so forth. But one of the things that I think a lot of food critics now don’t question is how the whole system is funded, and who pays for it. So that if you decide you want to get it out of the Department of Agriculture, say you think the Department of Agriculture really only has farmers’ interests at heart, not kids’ interests, where are you going to put it? Who has the political clout to really keep this program going? And that’s a serious question.

ED: Susan Levine is a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She’s the author of “School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program.”

If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory, and we’re talking today about the history of American meal habits.

As we do each week, we’ve been fielding questions from listeners on backstoryradio.org and on Facebook. Today, we’ve invited a few of those questioners to join us on the phone. Our first question comes from Mike in Washington, DC. Mike, we’re talking about meals and eating today. You have something to put on the menu?

MIKE: I do indeed. My question is when and why in American eating culture did we switch from having the major meal of the day in the afternoon to having the major meal of the day as dinner?

ED: Good question. It’s a very gradual change. It begins in the 19th century, but it would have persisted, really, into the 20th century, depending on what kind of work people are doing. Historians make a distinction between two basic kinds of work– task-oriented and time-oriented. Task-oriented, you do the work. When you’re done, you’re finished. Time-oriented, you just keep working as long as the clock is running, right? And so on the farm it’s task-oriented, which means it’s highly variable across the year. And it means also you would start very early, because the livestock need to be fed or milked early on. So it’s because of the task.

As a result of that, very often you would get as much of the work done as you could while you were into it, and then have your main meal of the day after that. There would still be chores to do after a meal, and I’m talking mainly about a family-owned farm. You move to town, either into an office or to a factory, it’s a different animal. You are judged by the clock, and you are not going to be able to determine when you eat, and you’re not going to be able to determine how long you eat. You are fitting into a larger machine.

BRIAN: And you’re going to have your family around you, right, Ed?

ED: Exactly. And you’re not going to have access to a kitchen, so you’re going to be bringing your food with you, and it might be something you could fit into, say, a lunch pail. It would be something that you can bring with you, that you could be relatively quickly, and then get back to work. Now, that’s a kind of very logical and unromanticized interpretation. What would you think of that, Mike?

MIKE: Actually, yeah, that makes a lot of friends. The change of demographic.

BRIAN: When do you eat your– do you have a major meal today? And if you have one, when do you eat it?

SUSAN LEVINE: I actually eat mine in the afternoon, just because of how my work schedule works. It’s actually easy for me just to eat it in the middle of the day, because my nights are pretty crazy.

ED: So what is your work, if I may ask?

MIKE: I work for Voice of America. I actually work in the Mandarin department, so my day starts pretty early when things are closing down in China, and then I spent a lot of the night trying to keep up on stories, so when I come in the next morning, I know what’s going on.

ED: What you’re doing is– it’s funny. You’re so cosmopolitan that your old fashioned. This is what we call task-oriented rather than time-oriented organization of your day, right? Because you’re living in two different time zones, you’re actually structuring your consumption of food around the work that you need to do. And throughout human history, this is the way things would have been done. We eat when it’s appropriate to eat. We don’t eat when it’s your lunch break, when it’s been orchestrated.

BRIAN: And what’s more, Mike, you’ve proven that radio is a pre-industrial technology.

ED: We really appreciate you calling us, Mike.

BRIAN: Thank you, Mike.

MIKE: Hey, my pleasure. Thank you guys.

ED: Bye-bye.

MIKE: Bye-bye.

BRIAN: Our next question comes from Brooke in Chicago.

BROOKE: Hi. So my question is I feel like industrialization, and globalization, of information age have all collided to make eating vastly more complicated than it used to be for my grandma’s generation, and for generations before that. When I’m going to the grocery store, I’m thinking about so many different things. BPAs, factory farms, pesticides, is it locally grown, does it contain whole grains, does being certified organic really make a difference. And I’m wondering if all those sort of ethical and political implications are a new thing.

ED: I certainly think in the way that you described them, Brooke, they are. So let’s think about it. Did it used to be simpler to consider what we ate? What do you think, Brian? How recent is this that we’ve considered the sort of things that Brooke’s asking about?

BRIAN: I think we’ve been worrying about our food and its sources for at least a century, Brooke. And I hate to tell you, but I think about your hometown, Chicago, Illinois, when I think about people worrying about the food. The whole movement for pure food centered, in many ways, in Chicago. Why? Because that was the heart of the meat packing industry.

That novel by Upton Sinclair, “The Jungle,” during what was known as the Progressive Era in the first decade of the 20th century, those folks were very worried about what people were eating, and what corporate America was trying to do to cut corners, save money. And you know, the verb they used was “adulterate.” They were worried about adulterated food.

It wasn’t just– I don’t mean to pick on the meat packers. It was people who sold margarines. What was this kind of artificial product– the Velveeta of its time. Margarine, oleomargarine, was that really healthy?

ED: Yeah, and that resulting act from that fear of adulteration, Brian, is called the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

BRIAN: That’s right.

ED: Which, by its very nature, suggest there was a time when food was pure. Let’s think about when that might’ve been. It was any time that you could basically look the food you’re ready to eat in the eye before you slaughtered it, because as soon as it starts being remote, who knows where that food has been. So in many ways, the evolution of transportation went hand in hand with the distribution, and a little suspicion, about food.

Even before this in the antebellum period, before the Civil War, they’re worried not so much about unpure food as unhealthy food. When you can eat as much as you can in this country, and we’ve been virtually unique in world history in having so much to eat, you begin to worry– are becoming indolent? Are we becoming corpulent? Are we becoming really just sort of clogged up with all this meat that we could be eating?

And so the idea comes. You what we really need to really turn things around? Graham crackers. That’s one of the early great health foods is the graham cracker. I don’t know if it’s the kind with the sparkly sugar on it. I’m guessing it was a more standardized sort of thing.

So it’s ironic that as soon as we have the technology to bring ourselves other kinds of food, we start worrying about it.

BRIAN: So Brooke, why do you worry about food? What actually brings you to this question?

BROOKE: You know, it actually stemmed in part– and I think you sort of answered my other question– was that my grandma passed away earlier this year. And we all gathered over the summer to celebrate her life, and we were going through her recipe book. And my grandma grew up in Nebraska during the Great Depression. So casseroles where essentially 90% of what they were cooking at that time, and her recipe books definitely reflected that. And at some point, we noted that every single recipe seemed to involve a can of mushroom soup.

And we came across a recipe for something called China burger. And I thought, here at last is a recipe that won’t involve a cream of mushroom soup. China burger. But even this one was ground beef, onions, celery, mushroom soup, rice, soy sauce, put Chinese noodles over the top.

ED: I love that dish.

BROOKE: And that was as complicated as it got.

BRIAN: So Brooke, I’m guessing that cream of mushroom didn’t play a role in desserts, I hope.

BROOKE: No, no. That was Jell-o.

BRIAN: Describe some of those Jell-o molds for us.

BROOKE: I don’t recall the molds, but I do recall, from my childhood, grandma making something that we called Midwestern salad. I don’t know if that’s what she called it. And it was green Jell-o which cheddar cheese shredded on top.

BRIAN: Oh, my god. I’m sorry, that sounds really terrible. Are we allowed to say that on radio, Ed? Green Jell-o with cheddar cheese? I’m afraid we’re going to have to edit that out.

ED: So I hope that this has given you some sense that we’re going to always be worrying about this in different kinds of ways, and there are worse things than worrying about what’s on the back of a label. Other part might be on how do you actually snap the neck of that chicken. So this is a product of our own time.

BRIAN: Brooke, you can rest easy knowing that I will be worrying about green Jell-o and cheddar cheese for the rest of the day. Thank you so much.

BROOKE: I’m glad I’ve given you that image to grapple with.

ED: Thank you so much, Brooke.

BRIAN: Bye-bye.

SUSAN LEVINE: Thank you. Bye.

BRIAN: Well, that’s about all the show we’ve got room for today. But if you’re still hungry, there’s more on today’s topic at backstoryradio.org. You’ll also find all of our old shows there, including one on the history of Thanksgiving itself. We’ll be back next week, and Peter Onuf will be back with us, so don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Jess Engebretson, Eric Mennel, and Allison Quantz.

BRIAN: Our staff also includes Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, and Emily Charnock. Jamal Millner is our technical director. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

ED: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel. History made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER 1: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.