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How World War II changed American food

Nov 18, 2014

Thanksgiving Feast
Credit Flickr user hildgrim

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, a holiday based around food and our American roots, we decided to take a look back at how American food and eating has changed throughout the 20th century. 

Chris Cook, chief restaurant and wine critic at Hour Detroit Magazine, joined us to talk about how Americans have gone from the simplistic food of the 1930s to the sophisticated restaurant scene of today.

During the 1930s and throughout World War II, Cook says the United States relied on uncomplicated foods like sandwiches and canned vegetables to make it through shortages and rations.

He says the limited diversity of food and bland choices created a yearning for different options. 

After the war, Cook says Americans' palates changed, with many young soldiers returning home from deployment after being exposed to food from around the world. Soldiers’ families were also privy to more travel due to a boom in disposable income in post-war America. And he says the children in these post-war families discovered new ways of cooking and eating, creating the foodie culture that remains today.

Cook says these experiences lead us to becoming "a culture that no longer just simply wants to eat for the sake of replenishing our energy. We are now interested in having experiences."

For southeast Michigan, Cook says this meant people who came to the area and brought their traditional cooking with them experienced more success. Some of these establishments are still around today, such as Cafe Roma near Eastern Market.

The change in attitude – from food being thought of as fuel, to being thought of as an aesthetic choice – came during the late 1960s and remains today, Cook says.

Now, he says there's a re-emerging trend taking place with more small  restaurants popping up that focus on a limited menu in order to perfect a few dishes.

This approach is similar to many restaurants  in post-war America. The Detroit area includes TorinoMarais, and Cafe Muse that abide by this strategy. Cook says these new restaurants are creating the American menu and that's what's truly exciting.

*Listen to our conversation with Cook at 3 p.m. on Stateside