The Twentieth Century
Consumers certainly chose to eat the food sold by corporations such as Sizzler in twentieth-century America, but those choices were the product of constraint as much as freedom. Consumers and corporations became entirely dependent upon each other in the twentieth-century American food system, and this relationship was characterized by inherent inequalities of power. At the start of the century, vertically integrated corporations were just beginning to transform a food system still anchored by small businesses. As big businesses came to dominate America’s foodways from the Progressive Era through the New Deal, consumers found themselves increasingly dependent on – yet often mistrustful of – the corporations who processed and marketed the abundant foodstuffs that helped enable a high American standard of living. By the middle of the century, self-service shopping, chain stores, and giant food conglomerates hawking branded, packaged, nationally advertised foodstuffs made it possible for American consumers to enjoy unprecedented plenty at the table. Yet by the 1980s, when President Reagan’s Secretary of Agriculture unabashedly declared ketchup to be a vegetable, many Americans nevertheless remained wary of the power held by corporations in the food system. Were consumers serving themselves, or were they serving corporate hegemons, when they perused the offerings at America’s buffet? Such questions remained central to the political culture of American foodways throughout the twentieth century.