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Before There Was Chili’s

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Before There Was Chili’s"

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After scarfing down a quesadilla from the Chili’s Too (which apparently is what Brinker International calls Chili’s outlets that don’t serve babyback ribs) between flights at the Milwaukee Airport yesterday evening, I was all prepared to start thinking up a post on the baleful impact of travel on the American diet. Then I got on the plane and read this in Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848:

The American of 1815 ate wheat and beef in the North, corn and pork in the South. Milk, cheese, and butter were plentiful; potatoes came to be added in the North and sweet potatoes in the South. Fruits appeared only in season except insofar as women could preserve them in pies or jams; green vegetables, now and then as condiments; salads, virtually never. (People understood that low temperatures would help keep food but could only create a cool storage place by digging a cellar.) Monotonous and constipating, too high in fat and salt, this diet nevertheless was more plentiful and nutritious, particularly in protein, than that available in most of the Old World. The big meal occurred at noon.

This is a far cry from the Pollanesque wonderland of good eating that we’re sometimes told existed before fast food and microwaves ruined everything. I wonder if this doesn’t kind of run in cycles with income. You start out very poor, eating crap. Then as the country gets richer, you start eating better stuff. But then you get rich enough to hire other people to cook for you, but the best way to make that economical is to make the food crappy. But then if incomes continue to rise the quality improves again.

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