Life Food

30 Jun

The first issue of Life Magazine for 1955 was devoted to food, with articles on a variety of related topics from 30 foot lettuce harvesting machines that saved management money (“even with cheap labor”), to recipes, to ways to cut down kitchen work (presumably, this is where “labor” saves money), to bold plans for the future. There’s even a photo spread by Margaret Bourke-White, mostly aerial views. I found quite a bit of interesting material in this issue.

Since my last post was on sugar, let’s see what they had to say about the white magic powder:


The value of cheaper sugar certainly can’t be minimalized, can it? And Sugar Information, Inc. would be there to pass the word along. It’s fun to connect the dots.

Life shows you how you can use that sugar:


That pear compote may be “spicy” by the standards of the day, but it is guaranteed to spike blood sugar levels. Nobody cared. An awful lot of us don’t care now. But at least the recipe calls for butter – a rarity in this issue.

We ate things besides sugar; we ate more meat then than we do now. In fact, the then-Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, said in an article in this issue that “[The] Changing dietary habits of the American people, with greater emphasis upon meats, eggs, some dairy products and fresh fruits and vegetables, indicate that in the years ahead we may need substantially greater production of such foods.” But the low-fat diet would conquer America and make that prediction ring hollow. And it’s interesting to note that while the magazine has lots and lots of ads for vegetable oils/margarine, there isn’t a single ad for butter. So I suppose that’s why he said “some dairy products”.

Industry was preparing to meet the demand:


So the use of antibiotics to fatten livestock was known at least by 1953 according to this article, but it looks like they were getting ready to actually implement it. Today they have certainly progressed way beyond the state of 1955, making shopping for meat an interesting and expensive challenge. The paragraph also mentions the use of stilbesterol to increase calf size (further descriptions in the article, which I have omitted for brevity’s sake), so here are the beginnings of antibiotic and hormone usage in livestock production. I do wonder about that last sentence in the photo caption above and its “unidentified substance” named Vigo Factor.

There is a third leg to the tripod that today’s food processing stands on, and it was just in its infancy then. But here it is, looking a bit like a scene from The Bride Of Frankenstein:


Nobody ever thought that killing germs might destroy some aspects of the nutritional value of the food. But the big benefit is to processors, who don’t have to spend as much money keeping things clean. Why bother, when you can just nuke the salmonella? Save time, which means save money.

In this era everything was about saving time and by extension, money; this is an assumption that permeates the magazine. Life published an article in this issue that showed the homemaker how to create a complete meal using time saving techniques that would spare her “eight hours of labor”, reducing the time to twenty minutes. The article is fascinating (really worth its own blog post) but there’s just too much material to cover here; it’s an embarrassement of riches. In the end, the housewife has a meal that is created entirely from frozen and pre-fab products (as though Wonder Bread from Safeway is the exact equivalent of bread you might make at home) and in every single case I was left thinking “But I would rather eat the food you are not serving here.” Of course, Life’s preoccupation with material goods is on full display here, with three kitchens shown in order of their “utility” (ie, time saving ability and number of shelves and items on them). In the final dream kitchen they reduced the size of the kitchen windows by 75% “to make it easier to arrange equipment efficiently”.

And finally, because you just can’t make this stuff up…this isn’t food, but what were they thinking?


To be fair, this image came from the 1957 issue I was looking at last time, so in this context, it is from the future.

“I have seen the future, and it is Spud.”



Posted by on June 30, 2014 in Corporations, Health


Tags: , , , ,

4 responses to “Life Food

  1. Adele Hite, MPH RD

    June 30, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    Re: labor-saving meals in the kitchen – do you think this was still part of the post-war effort to lure women back into domestic duty? Maybe by portraying cooking as less day-long drudgery and more a process of speedy assembly?

    I get that you “would rather eat the food you are not serving here,” but would you rather cook it? 🙂 As a mother of 3, who spend 20 years slinging food onto the table 3 times a day, nearly every day of the week, sometimes that whole cooking thing sorta sucks. And yet, that’s supposed to be the answer to many of our current food system/nutrition problems. And I’m not saying it shouldn’t be, but I’m not eager to get back into that rut myself. (My husband does most of the cooking these days; it doesn’t thrill him either.)

    Perhaps you’ll do a future post on that article in particular? I’m enjoying this peek into our past food culture.

    • tyrannocaster

      June 30, 2014 at 5:54 pm

      I don’t think it’s part of a post-war effort, but any speculation about that is just…speculation. I’m sure not in any position to know what “they” were/are planning. 🙂 So your guess is as good as mine. I think that if you look at the media from this era you will see (for once) a sort of equal opportunity treatment of the genders at work with respect to this issue. So here it manifests itself as “save eight hours of kitchen drudgery” for women, but as I mentioned in the post, elsewhere the issue also talks about the benefits of machines in speeding up the harvest; that article was, at least in my opinion, directed at men. I think that in the Fifties everybody was supposed to save time, live electrically, drive scenically, and raise children and keep house and work and play sports and watch television and – it sounds a lot like now, doesn’t it? We are still crunched for time but I think we have fewer illusions about how much we will actually save. Of course, in the Fifties, they didn’t know about multitasking. [sarcasm/off]

      With respect to the question of eating vs cooking, my wife and I both thought the estimates of time saved were off, and we unanimously rejected the results. And I could very easily write an article whose slant is “Save eight hours of drudgery by making a meal with foods that are easier to prepare”, which may not be the story they wanted, but I think it is the story they should have written. In the end, the food should be good for you, and I don’t think that was possible then by assembling a meal of dehydrated onion soup, frozen trout casserole, frozen potato puffs (appears to be mashed potatoes mixed with pâte à choux, then baked – if you make it yourself, and IF I understand the abbreviated instructions for cooking the real thing), canned string beans and canned mushrooms, frozen (but unbaked – you bake it) bread, and commercially bottled brandied fruit.

      Yes, you do save a lot of time if you don’t make broth. (But then, you don’t get any broth for other projects, either.) No, you don’t get anywhere near the nutrition from your dehydrated onion soup that I would get out of my home made version, of course. But you can’t have it both ways. If you don’t have the time to make something complex, I think you have to make something simpler rather than relying on Life Magazine’s approach. Understand that I’m not aiming that comment at you specifically, it is the second person plural I’m using, so we can blame the English language for any misunderstandings. 🙂

      We are luckier than the readers in 1955 in that now we can actually buy a considerable quantity of pretty good stuff that’s ready to eat in the stores now – things have improved a lot since then – but I still think these concepts remain true. And buying truly high end ready-to-eat food is expensive, of course; some of us don’t have the money. Those of us who have neither the money or the time are in an even less enviable position. But I would look to European cooks for inspiration there; French cooks have been making awfully simple food for centuries and yet managing to do it quickly and with great results, often with very simple ingredients. More Americans are actually learning to cook now, but it seems to me that at the same time more Americans are also losing any ability (or even desire) to do the same thing. That both should be happening at once is fascinating but what a shame…there are so many people now who literally do not know how to cook. We go to extremes again, I guess, accompanied by Trader Joe’s.

      • Adele Hite, MPH RD

        June 30, 2014 at 6:05 pm

        Y’know it true that when I was doing the bulk of the cooking, I was trying to make it home-made AND low-fat AND mostly vegetarian–and it was a big pain. My husband’s approach of meat plus veggie is much simpler. Perhaps I would not have grown so frustrated with cooking if I’d been doing that all along.

        It was interesting, in my MPH/RD program, how few of the women (we only had 1 guy in our program) knew how to cook. And this in a population of people who were tremendously interested in food.

        It will be interesting to see what develops from this. I’m teaching one of my sons how to cook this summer. I told him it will make it easier for us to “marry him off” 🙂

  2. tyrannocaster

    June 30, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    ” My husband’s approach of meat plus veggie is much simpler.” Probably, although that is pretty much how we eat and fixing the vegetables still takes time if you want something more interesting than steamed broccoli. Since we don’t eat a lot of starches, we always have multiple vegetables and my wife scrambles not to repeat favorites yet still have the result as good as the favorites. We roast a lot of them with oil when we don’t know what else to do. And if you ferment them (sauerkraut, kimchi) although there is some prep time initially, once that is out of the way you get the results for a considerable time. That’s one case where I don’t think there is any comparison between home-made and commercial products at all.


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