CDC exhibit dishes on Uncle Sam’s table

Attention, food nerds: If you have an hour to kill, then I wholeheartedly recommend you view the current exhibit at the David J. Sencer CDC Museum.

Titled “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet,” it features a hundred or more objects — documents, photos, posters — from the National Archives that show how policy and regulation determine what ends up on the plate.

The museum is located on the main campus of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is open to the public, and is a mere three-minute walk from the General Muir, where you can stuff your face afterward with pastrami and corned beef. You’ll want to.

The subject may sound as dry as leftover toast but proves to be an appetizing romp through decades of shifting conventional wisdom about nutrition, taste and home economics. The exhibit organizes the objects into four illustrative groups.

“Farm” depicts governmental efforts to re-engineer agricultural production. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sent plant hunters around the world to “skim the earth in search of things good for man,” and they came back with soybeans, pistachios and, in the case of one Frank Meyer, the lemons that bear his name.

The USDA also published materials to educate farmers on new scientific breakthroughs in hog nutrition, and illustrated their work with a photograph of one animal going through the “pig cafeteria” with a tray in his cloven hooves and a napkin tied around his neck.

“Factory” examines how the government began protecting consumers from contaminated foods during the first decades after the Industrial Revolution, focusing on landmark food safety legislation passed in 1906. Among the artifacts on display is a facsimile of a letter written by labor activist Upton Sinclair to President Theodore Roosevelt that helped shift the conversation.

In “Kitchen,” we begin to see the rising science of home economics and propagandistic attempts to change eating habits at home — campaigns that promised nutritional benefits while conveniently promoting the American dairy and wheat industries.

One object here — and, of everything in the show, this is the heart-stopper — is a three-page report written by anthropologist Margaret Mead, who in the early 1940s served as executive secretary of the National Research Council’s Committee on Food Habits.

In it, she details a weeklong trip through Georgia and Alabama and expresses barely concealed shock at the state of race relations, which reminded her more of those in New Guinea than the Northern United States. “[N]either white man or Negro ever forgets race, and the inclusion of one’s racial status in the definition of one’s humanity adds an extra tension, an extra watchfulness to living,” she writes.

Yet, she concluded that Southern food culture crossed the racial divide, and therefore any new policies would have to as well.

The exhibition concludes with “Table,” an appropriate dessert featuring menus from presidential dinners decades ago that now read like bad continental food. Other images show President Bill Clinton dining at the Varsity with Zell Miller, and President Ronald Reagan reaching into a jar of jelly beans. A facsimile of a handwritten note from Queen Elizabeth II to President Dwight D. Eisenhower with a scone recipe is tasty stuff, indeed.

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