Flipping through the pages of an old cookbook is like stepping back in time. The recipes and mealtime traditions reflect cultural trends that offer a glimpse into people’s everyday lives. Post-war attitudes and technological advances influenced food choices in the 1950s, while an urge to break free from tradition influenced experimentation with vegetarian and ethnic cuisine in the 1960s.
Fast Food Revolution
The desire for convenience pushed the development of the fast food industry during the 1950s and 1960s. McDonald’s streamlined food service in the early 1950s and several other entrepreneurs jumped at the opportunity to follow the hamburger franchise’s lead. The first Burger King opened in 1954 and the first Pizza Hut opened in 1958.
Growth of Corporate Farms
The number of U.S. farms decreased by half during the 1950s and 1960s. The remaining farms grew in size and became more productive. Farms also started specializing in certain crops, in part because the manufacture of specialized farm equipment accelerated once the material shortages of World War II came to an end. Fewer local farms were producing a variety of crops, so fruits and vegetables had to be shipped greater distances; this increased the expense of fresh foods and encouraged producers to freeze or otherwise process their products. These new, corporate farms drove food preferences toward frozen produce and pre-packaged convenience foods.
Manufacturing innovation was present not only in the farming industry, but also the household appliance industry. New technology in the kitchen was changing the way people cook; freezers became larger, barbeque grills moved dinner parties outdoors and microwaves simplified cooking dramatically. The frozen and pre-packaged foods fit well with these new appliances, and the trend away from neighborhood markets toward large supermarket chains allowed people to shop less frequently. Casseroles made with canned soup and frozen vegetables made quick and convenient dinners.
Soldiers returning from World War II brought with them the flavors of faraway places; Polynesian-inspired sauces, sukiyaki and chow mein became more common at the table. The post-war economy was booming, so U.S. residents had more money to spend on exotic ingredients. A curiosity about other cultures and a willingness to experiment in the kitchen continued into the 1960s, when buffets with an international theme were often the focus of parties.
References and ResourcesFood Timeline.org: 1950s Foods
Food Timeline.org: 1960s Foods
Joy of Cooking: The History of the Joy of Cooking
Wessel's Living History Farm: Farming in the 1950s and 60s: Fast Food
Wessel's Living History Farm: Shrinking Farm Numbers
Encyclopedia of Chicago: Grocery Stores and Supermarkets
ResourcesSmithsonian National Museum of American History: FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950 - 2000
History.com: The 1950s