Everything You Wanted to Know About 1900s Food

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What was 1900s food like?

It’s hard to believe that there was a time where food could not be found simply by running through the drive-thru of a fast-food restaurant, the employee handing you your bag full of your desired food within only a few minutes from having ordered it in the first place. There was, in fact, a time when the industrialization of food was actually quite new, and this novelty was not that long ago. The 1900s was a time when people were slowly beginning to shift from the ways of the old world into the ways of the comparably modern 20th century. Food was certainly not spared from this gentrification.

It was in the 1900s that the canning industry picked up speed. This was great news as it meant that flood could last much longer than it could otherwise, even when placed in an icebox. Canned food also made food much more easily portable, and, because of its long shelf life, many people were able to obtain nutrients they weren’t able before, and at different times such as winter when food had been scarce in the past. More than that, canned food was quite the savior a bit more than a decade later when World War I exploded into action. Soldiers isolated in trenches for long periods of time were able to get just the nutrition they needed to continue fighting their battles. On a more basic level, canned food allowed families to rely far less on farms and the quality of harvests, now having security when it came to their food.

1900s food
Photo by edwin josΓ© vega ramos from Pexels.

Because of all these benefits, people in the 1900s likely viewed canned food much different than we do today. We must not forget that the 1900s was a time when people were, for the first time, moving away from food made from scratch and rocketing into the world of prepared and processed foods. Today, attitudes are much different, with the words “from scratch” being nearly on par with “gourmet.”

1900s Food

The 1900s was not all just about canning, however. Previous to this time period, restaurants were not how we know them today. There was no such thing as fast food or being able to go to the grocery store and pick up a ready-made frozen pizza or TV dinner. Restaurants back then were often for the wealthy and going out to eat was quite the event as most people did not do it very often. More than that, going out to eat was a much slower process than we have today.

But what was food itself like in the 1900s? How different was it from the food we are familiar with today? While obvious things like potatoes, noodles, and butter hardly changed over the years, popular meals and food combinations have certainly changed and gone out of fashion. For example, celery and radishes was apparently a popular dish in the 1900s, along with smoked beef tongue and something known as “chow chow” which was a pickled relish of vegetables (Swanson, 2016). We also should not ignore the boiled ham and cabbage, the boneless bacon with Brussel sprouts, the ability to often order cigarettes off the menu, and ham in aspic (a gelatin dish that is savory and full of meat and vegetables rather than sugar and deemed quite terrifying by today’s standards).

Eggs in aspic - Marions Kochbuch

As a matter of fact, gelatin (which had only just recently been invented during this time and which I discussed in an earlier blog post) was very popular in the 1900s and beyond, although, back in the good old days, it wasn’t always the sweet treat we’re familiar with today. Gelatin was the perfect vehicle for savory food and was quite popular at dinner parties. It wouldn’t have been at all unusual to find oysters, fish, lamb, tuna, cheese, mayonnaise, pimiento-stuffed olives, sweet pickles, nuts, beans, mushrooms, or turkey all floating about in a translucent, shivering mound of gelatin somewhere on some esteemed person’s dinner table. While such food combinations may sound appalling, the obsession with gelatin was likely an excited reaction to its invention. Who wouldn’t want to try their hand at cooking an impressive dinner with a strange, edible semisolid?

Beyond these strange foods, some things have hardly changed. Coca-Cola and popcorn were both popular during the 1900s and remain so to this day, as do hotdogs and ice cream. As time went on, food continued to evolve, becoming easier to find and often easier to make. With food being so different only 120 years ago, it’s even harder to imagine what food might have been like thousands of years in the past.

References:

Swanson, Ana. (2016). “The Strange Foods That Americans Loved A Century Ago.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/26/the-strange-foods-that-americans-loved-a-century-ago/.

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