In doing the research for our new exhibit, Tout de Sweet – All about Sugar, I have become fascinated with old sugar ads from the mid-twentieth century. One booklet in particular offers slimming recipes using sugar. The diet that it proposes is based on 1500 calories per day for women. The diet includes slices of pie and sweetened tea and coffee. No artificial sweeteners are even contemplated.
If these menus represent diet food, then what did people eat ordinarily? This prompted further investigation. I approached this investigation like a television procedural drama, looking to physical evidence to support conclusions. And my conclusions are not new. What I found has been discussed in scientific journals and the popular press. But having the physical evidence to support the conclusion makes the conclusions seem very real and not merely theoretical.
First I dug out plates from the mid-twentieth century. Dinner plates were much smaller then than the plates commonly used today. Juice glasses, filled with freshly squeezed orange juice, were only 4 ounces. But there was only a glassful in each orange. That was enough. Even martini glasses were smaller than the ones we use today. Our martini glasses today are almost a double. Custard cups and ice cream bowls were tiny. Setting the mid-twentieth century table was the first bit of evidence I gathered.
Next I pulled together home baking pans. Baking was still done at home. People hadn’t stopped using fats. But standard muffin tins made small muffins and cupcakes by today’s standards – not exactly mini, but not large. Cakes were 8 inches across and pie pans were small, making a slice of pie or cake smaller than what we might serve today. Popover pans and cornbread sticks made modest servings of bread.
Corresponding to the smaller baking pans and smaller plates, the recipes in mid-twentieth century cookbooks made smaller amounts of food. A recipe designed to serve four today might serve three at best. And even the recipe booklet that triggered this investigation – albeit written to encourage the use of sugar – uses less sugar per cup of flour in baked goods than is common today.
All of this was pointing to the conclusion that people in the mid-twentieth century ate less. Who would have thought? Of course the food was richer, but people were eating less of it. But this was only circumstantial. I needed more definitive evidence. So like a character beating pumpkins to determine blood-spatter patterns on a wall, I decided to actually cook food from the cookbook and serve it on a period plate. A serving of baked chicken (a leg without the thigh), about a half cup of scalloped potatoes, a half cup of spinach, a glass of lemonade and a piece of angel food cake with sweetened coffee. That was dinner and the dinner fit snugly on the plate. The glass was eight ounces and the coffee cup was also. The angel food cake was unadorned. A tiny full plate makes an enormous impact on the understanding of portion control.
And eating less is not the only thing. In the mid-twentieth century there were countless little movements and gestures all day every day that we no longer perform. Cars did not all have power steering and they had standard transmissions. Car windows were manually rolled down and locking the door was mechanical, not electric. One left the chair to change television channels. The phones were rotary and there was probably only one in the house, causing you to go to the phone in its little wall niche. Cans were opened with a manual can opener. Dishes were washed by hand. Two and three story buildings did not even have elevators, but grand staircases to be walked upon. There are countless other examples of the daily activity that caused people to burn many calories that we now only burn at the gym.
Putting together all of this evidence makes me think that the difference can be in the little things. Yes the larger answer is smaller portions and more activity. But a whole cupcake baked in a mid-twentieth century pan is more satisfying than a half of a giant twenty-first century cupcake. A half of a cupcake makes me feel deprived. It is a mind game, but it works. Both the theoretical advice and the physical evidence agree – eat less and move more.
Liz Williams is the President of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. She is a regular columnist for OKRA and author of The A-Z Encyclopedia of Food Controversies and the Law.