Convenience May Have Done It!

In my library is a book entitled The Robert E. Lee Family Cooking and Housekeeping Book by Anne Carter Zimmer. Many years ago I found it at the book store in the Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park near Charleston, SC. The Battle of Fort Sumter was the first battle of the Civil War.

My maiden name is Lee and legend in my family, possibly myth since I’ve never researched it, is that Robert E. Lee is my 7th great uncle. My only claim to fame. When my eyes lit on that book, nothing would do but I had to have it.

The book does give some nice history on Robert E. Lee and the family, primarily as context. But the true emphasis is on food, highlighting the money and extraordinary amount of labor required to provide food to a household in the early/mid 1800s. In other words, the economics of capitalism and food about 200 years ago.

Chapter 4, The Last 100 Years, in my book, It’s All about the Food, outlines the same economics for the last 100 years. Over the last 200 years a lot has changed.

Over 200 Years

In the 1800s and before, there was no refrigeration. To some degree what you made today needed to be eaten today or soon thereafter. When the chickens stopped laying, which they do, eggs could be stored by sinking them in sodium silicate. I still haven’t figured out how they got their hands on sodium silicate.

If you get your eggs straight from the chicken and don’t wash them (washing removes the natural “bloom” nature provides to keep them fresh while the chicks grow) they will last a good bit of time sitting on the kitchen counter. I’m told that coating eggs with mineral oil helps store them as well, even without refrigeration.

Cows were milked, the milk left to sit until the cream came to the top. Cream was described as “gloriously” thick. It was churned by hand until it turned to butter, preserved by covering the whole thing in brine. That means it could be salty unless washed really well. When rotary eggbeaters appeared in the later 1800s there was much happiness.

Vegetables and fruit were available when they were in season. So the next happy thing was the screw-top canning jar, all the easier to “put up vegetables” for the off season.

Sugar, originally a luxury, came in “cones,” hard as a rock and hung in the closet. The sugar had to chipped off and then pounded and rolled until reduced into powder. Sugar didn’t spoil and lasted forever. How nice when someone else ground it for you, for a small fee.

Wheat and corn were available when the season provided. The tastiest, most nutritious parts of grain kernels are the bran and germ layers, but those are the part prone to becoming rancid. Whole and dried, both grains would (and will still) store for a long time. Ground up, the storage suffered with rancidity, Therefore in the early days it was grind and eat, not store.

This link, gives the amazing history of wheat milling. In the interest of preservation, commercial mills learned in the later 1800s how to remove the bran and germ, leaving only the endosperm (sugar) interior. It was many years before science figured out how much nutrition was lost in that process.

At any rate, back in the day, the wheat was low-gluten and rising in baked goods was largely accomplished by beating in eggs. Much sadness when the hens stopped laying, much happiness when baking soda/baking powder presented themselves in the mid/late 1800s.

The fireplace was the place where cooking (and home heating) occurred until the introduction of cast-iron cook stoves. One of those was installed at Arlington, the Lincoln home, in the 1830s. In both cases, however, wood had to be chopped, carried in, and fed into the fire. Tending the fire was a big deal since it was 1925 before even half of American homes had electricity.

Household help, sometimes slaves in the south, provided most of the substantial labor required to keep a household going.

Technology and commercial innovation occurred during this time period but note how both were directed toward time saving ingredients and tools. In the end they still had to cook the food. And it was the 1930s before refrigeration became available.

In the late 1940s my dad’s parents, as described in my book, were still using a cast-iron stove, a true ice box, growing and canning vegetables from their garden, butchering and storing their meat, and pumping water from a well. A scar on my head attests to a misadventure with the axe used for chopping wood.

As people began moving from subsistence living in the countryside to the cities, the rural resources were no longer available. What was available were jobs and conveniences that were paid for with money from the jobs. The conveniences became minimum standard (everybody ought to have that, whatever that is) and families that survived with one “bread earner” in the old days often required two to pay the bills.

Electricity, refrigeration, etc. first became common in the cities. Still I’ve seen a video of New York City in 1939 where the streets were lined with tiny food market vendors and slender people. Eventually the first restaurants showed up, willing (for a fee) to provide a meal for you. In time the tiny food vendors disappeared.

A New Phase of Capitalism

Capitalism (which is not a bad word) transitioned into a new phase.

Innovators figured out how to use the ingredients and tools to create the food themselves and sell it to people. Thus arrived restaurants, frozen dinners, bottled dressing, packaged bread/donuts/chips – essentially anything that could be made with wheat, corn and soybean oil not to speak of sugar.

The Cheapest Ingredients

When it comes to food, in today’s world the cheapest ingredients are wheat, corn, soybeans, and sugar, all of which can be grown on a massive scale, be subsidized by the government, and stored big time before they are processed. That explains why the commercially processed foods at the super market contain at least two if not all four ingredients. Capitalism makes its way by reducing cost, creating convenience, and selling more. Convenience means I don’t have to do much work, at least in theory.

Capitalism also has to deal with taste, color, and preservation in food, very difficult to accomplish cost effectively in natural form. Thus arrived chemical ways to add flavor/color and defeat spoilage, both of which contribute no nutrition and, it turns out, can have health penalties.

Solving and Creating Problems

Capitalism and technology solve and create a lot of problems. Financial transactions via the internet solved a lot of problems before the penalties showed up. The food industry always discovers how to solve problems (that they sometimes create) and save money before the penalties are identified.

Medical science always seems to be 50 years behind the innovations in food manufacturing. Thus along with white bread, came high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils (trans fats), food dye yellow #5 and 6, and red #40, etc., each initially thought to be just fine and then – not so much. The consumer ultimately pays the penalties.

The Price You Pay

Remember those slender people in the 1939 video on the streets of New York City? Take a look in your mirror or that line of prescription bottles on your counter. What do you see? You may be paying the price for food convenience three ways, in your health, to the processed food manufacturers, and the health care industry. The latest and greatest in capital opportunity is in health care and medication, both of which are considered part of the minimum standard.

Turn the calendar around. Eat whole natural food, not processed food. Cook it yourself. Spend less time in your recliner and more in exercise.

Pat Smith is the author of “It’s All about the Food,” a book that guides nutritious food choices as the way to avoid illness and maintain a healthy weight. Proceeds from her book benefit the Montgomery County Food Pantry. Her website is She can be contacted at, 870-490-1836. Her Facebook page is