Program Title: Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet
Guest: Amy Bentley
Program Date: January 19th, 2015
Location: Brooklyn Kitchen, Williamsburg

IMG_1028On an icy cold night in January, the Culinary Historians of New York ventured into Brooklyn to co-host “Inventing Baby Food” with the Brooklyn Kitchen, Williamsburg’s hotspot for kitchenware and locally sourced meat. Over canapés a la Mad Men and vodka martinis poured with a generous hand, NYU Professor Amy Bentley recounted to the packed room the genesis of American consumer society, its obsession with products of convenience, and how that all translated into the development of taste for children of this industrial society. Bentley explained that as the food industry took on the mantle and science of the wartime factory-based economy, the aisles of shopping markets began to evolve into the setup we are familiar with today. By 1948, in America’s 10 largest cities, baby food products were the most commonly purchased processed food, by more than double that of the runner-up, evaporated milk. Indeed, 90% of those babies born in the 1950s and 1960s–as the Baby Boom was taking off–were fed on commercial baby food.

image005Students from the New School and NYU attending Professor Bentley’s lecture were stunned to hear how the preservatives and emulsifiers—the triumph of food technology at the time—generated that “canned food” taste which, Bentley argued, dictated so many of the food patterns and obsessions of that time period. Consumers’ opinions of color, texture and seasoning (white, salty, and sweet please) were investigated by top brand researchers and advertising companies began to develop strategies to target the mother-consumer. And it worked. By the time the ‘80s rolled around, 2 out of 3 adults had been raised on Gerber. (It was clear that both the young and well-aged were present that evening, as talk of fruit cocktails generated a split room of chuckles, stemming from equal parts embarrassment and nostalgia. Were those chunks pear? No, peach! Let’s call the whole thing off.)

With striking visuals and survey results, Bentley painted a picture of a culture increasingly consumed by the desire to nourish the next generation with the best that science could offer it, leaving behind an era of rationing. Those trends continue today, as some mothers have sought to generate their own artisanal purees with the aid of top-end products from William Sonoma, and start-up food companies push wonder-drinks and juice packages loaded with vitamins on the newly-expecting. Indeed, the media continues to paint the ideal mother and baby, while some companies have even capitalized on the “mom wars” (see Similac’s “sisterhood of motherhood” commercial), to promote their products.

While we may no longer see “baby food desserts” on our shelves, the intersection of science, commerce, and motherhood remains poignant and the expectations it has produced are pressing. With Bentley, we learned just how much was (and is) packed into those cans and jars beyond the ingredients listed (eventually) on the label. Based on the variety of questions asked by the audience, from potential correlations between rising allergies in Asia due to Western baby-food imports to obesity in the aging Baby Boomers to fruit and vegetable requirements in food packages serving low-income families through WIC, it was readily apparent that Bentley’s work resonated with many that night. As a postpartum doula, I certainly ate up everything offered by Bentley, in addition to that monstrously delicious dish called the cheese ball, which loomed just within reach at all times.