Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Dining du Jour: American Food Fads in the 20th Century

June 22, 2023 Archive Insight

Roast chicken. Mashed potatoes. A simple chocolate cake. Some foods have a sense of timelessness about them — they are reliable standbys that seem or stand the test of time with little to no alteration. Other foods, however, drift in and out of the public consciousness — and our refrigerators and stomachs. These foods are fads — practices followed for a time with exaggerated zeal, per the Merriam-Webster dictionary — and they reflect the values and preoccupations of the times in which they were popular.

As the 19th turned into the 20th century, domestic science and home economics arose as formally taught disciplines. Many domestic scientists espoused a view of women and women’s work that emphasized “feminine virtues” like beauty and daintiness. This changed the way women were expected to cook, as more emphasis was placed on presentation and nutritional value, rather than on creating culinary experiences that delighted the senses and filled the stomach.

This emphasis is readily apparent in the popularity of aspics — gelatinized dishes — in the first decades of the 20th century. Recipe booklets — most often produced by gelatin companies like Knox Gelatine and Jell-O — gave home cooks a myriad of ways to incorporate gelatin into their meals, in ways both savory and sweet. These dishes were often served on beds of iceberg lettuce, or in hollowed-out halves of fruit, providing a compact way of serving all of a meal's component parts in one tidy package.