Fashion is often thought to be the defining quality of a generation. But what many people don’t realize is that the dinner table can give just as many clues about a period in time as clothing. Sweet and savory gelatin-based foods were as characteristic of the 1960s as bell-bottoms, go-go boots, and drop-waist dresses. Low-fat diets and farm-to-table foods represented the ’70s as much as peasant blouses, military surplus clothes, and frayed jeans. In the ’80s, aesthetics-obsessed Americans sipped on Diet Coke and snapped up Lean Cuisine from grocery shelves, all while wearing skin-tight Spandex aerobics gear, power suits, and eye-catching jumpsuits. Food and fashion truly go hand in hand.
Unlike the cyclical nature of fashion, which repeats itself over and over again, food innovations tend to build upon one another. We probably wouldn’t have the Big Mac if the Whopper hadn’t come out more than 10 years prior. Food fortification, which started in the 1920s, continued to progress well into the late ’90s, making each generation of Americans a little bit healthier. And food preservation and safety advanced from a relatively simple state into flash-freezing, controlled-atmosphere packaging, irradiation, and even bans on certain food dyes—evidence of growth over the decades in both food technology and in our interest in what we eat.
To learn about the biggest moments in food history every year between 1921 and 2020, Stacker took a look at a variety of news outlets (The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Smithsonian Magazine, Business Insider, etc.), food-specific publications (Eater, Kitchn, Taste of Home, The Daily Meal), and history-focused media (History, Biography). We also looked at notable studies, important food and agriculture policies, and other major changes documented by academic researchers and government agencies. Finally, we read into the histories of major food corporations like Kraft Food, Pepperidge Farm, McDonald’s, Mars, and The Coca-Cola Company to learn about their contributions over the last century.
Grab a snack, then read on to learn more about food history every year since 1921.
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