Every Fourth of July, Americans are bombarded with advertisements about red and white products — it almost feels patriotic to spend money. Oftentimes, these companies advertise food sales — five dollar watermelon or hot dogs on a stars-and-stripes background — and imply that these items have some inherent patriotic identity. All-American men eat meat, a Costco ad might urge you.
Most of us don’t truly believe that we are performing our civic duty when we buy a hot dog; however, there was a time in American history when one’s diet was directly tied to their love and devotion — or lack thereof — to America. To understand American patriotism as it relates to food, we must go back to British Colonialism in the early 1600s.
White colonists enjoyed a fairly free and independent food economy during the 1600s and early 1700s. It would have been costly and wasteful for Britain to ship food across seas to its American colonies, and as such, Britain mostly left American food trade and production alone to fend for itself. Without much British interference upon the colonial food market, colonists were able to create and sell surpluses in regional markets. Success in regional markets eventually gave colonists the opportunity to take part in the transatlantic economy, providing them with access to products like cod, tobacco and wheat. This booming American economy allowed white colonists to enjoy “something that their ancestors could only have dreamed of enjoying: [T]he ability to eat and drink more or less what they wanted, when they wanted it.” Additionally, a national cuisine, which combined both Indigenous and European cooking practices began to emerge, likely solidifying a new colonial identity separate from its British roots. Colonists had begun to distance themselves from the homeland — thus, culinary freedom became synonymous with American independence.
The British government, upon seeing the Americans’ economic success, quickly recognized an opportunity: The British saw a “healthy, interdependent economy that had grown into a fat target to tap for some extra cash.” Around the 1760s, after the Seven Years’ War, Britain was desperate for extra funding and thus heavily taxed American foodstuffs in its “most egregious taxation schemes.”
Yet the colonists were not willing to give up their newfound gastronomical liberty easily. Food, which had grown into such a symbol of autonomy and self-reliance for many colonists, was now under the control of the oppressor. One of the colonists’ only means of asserting their American identity was being infringed upon, and the resulting outrage grew into a decades-long movement for change: The American Revolution. Though food was clearly not the only reason for going to war with Britain, it was a significant catalyst. Our cuisine, and the way we produce it, came to represent American ideals of freedom, prosperity and justice, and Americans would go to war before they gave up these liberties.
Food’s connection with patriotism did not stop after the American Revolution, however. Similar themes prominently resurfaced during the World Wars.
Prior to World War I, white bread was coveted by many Western populations, including most Americans. However, the process of creating white flour is inherently wasteful. A wheat kernel contains three components: The husk, bran and endosperm. White flour is created by stripping the kernel of both the husk and bran before the exposed endosperm can be milled. The husk and bran are then discarded, as they have no use in white breads. Whole wheat bread, on the other hand, makes use of all three parts of the wheat kernel.
During the First World War, multiple government campaigns urged Americans to turn to whole grain breads in an effort to reduce food waste and reserve white flour for troops overseas. Joanne Lamb Hayes, author of Grandma’s Wartime Kitchen, states the “troops deserved white flour,” and American civilians at home “could add cornmeal or rye flour” to their bread to bulk it up. Though many Americans did not particularly enjoy the taste of bread made with substitute flours like buckwheat, barley or rice, they continued for the sake of supporting their country. Whole grain loaves were even called things like “war bread” or “victory bread” in an attempt to make tough breads seem more exciting and appealing to the average American. Additionally, newspapers like the Oregon Evening Herald emphasized the importance of modifying their diet in favor of supporting the war effort. On May 10, 1918, the newspaper told its readers that Americans who consume war bread — a loaf containing 40 percent flour substitutes — were “15 percent more patriotic” than those who ate bread containing a lower percentage of filler flours.
Victory gardens also grew in popularity during World War I; these were small, household gardens, which civilians began cultivating with the goal of becoming more self-sufficient. If Americans in the homeland could begin consuming their own home-grown fruits and vegetables, more food would be available for troops overseas. The push towards creating victory gardens was largely successful, and by 1918 more than 5.2 million victory gardens had emerged in the United States.
During World War II, victory gardens cropped up again with even more prominence than before. By 1944, almost 40 percent of all fresh produce consumed by American civilians was grown in a victory garden. This movement “served as a successful means of boosting morale, expressing patriotism, safeguarding against food shortages on the home front and easing the burden on the commercial farmers working arduously to feed troops and civilians overseas.” Victory gardens allowed Americans to feel connected to the war and their country. Exactly how early colonists felt a sense of pride in their own self-sufficiency, so did victory gardens help the American civilian to perform an important role in keeping their country independent.
Home-grown food also helped ease the burden of rationing on American families; President Franklin D. Roosevelt first introduced food rations when he created the Office of Price Administration on August 28, 1941. Rations were described as “democratic”; as FDR states in his “Cost of Living” message to Congress in 1942, “those who can afford to pay for [a scarce] commodity should not be privileged over those who cannot.”
Again, this leads us towards the recurring theme of this article: Food, especially during times of struggle and scarcity, represents much more than nutrition alone. It communicates equality and the right to life that every human being is entitled to.
However, rations are not always readily accepted by civilians as ways of showing their intense patriotism. They can just as easily become tools for rebelling against an oppressive government. Mohammad, an American who grew up in Iran until his teenage years, recalls years of rationing. He points out that refusing to partake in rationing can symbolize one’s refusal to comply with governmental orders. To say that every American felt proud to ration and create a victory garden is likely false; instead, we must recognize that we often learn only what powerful governments want us to. I do not know how many Americans secretly disagreed with their country’s orders, as most of their stories were likely never written down. When we look at history with a critical eye, we notice blind spots like these.
So, how does all of this relate to our modern Fourth of July celebrations? Remnants of past wars and patriotic ideals exist everywhere around us, and I would be willing to bet you could find them in your local newspapers this weekend. How many products are advertised as “American-made” or local? Could this have anything to do with the yearning to represent our own independence through food, like the early colonists? Does throwing a street-wide cookout for all of your neighbors (prior to COVID-19, of course) feed into our deep-seated need to support those around us, like American civilians pooling their resources together to aid troops overseas?
Fourth of July foods are meant to embody powerful American ideologies of community and freedom. In modern-day America, however, we are far from reaching true equality and justice for all. Protests shine all over the country as proof that we will not settle for anything less than what America was founded to be: The land of the free for all, regardless of race, gender, economic status, or sexual orientation. As we strive towards achieving a country liberated from prejudice and oppression, let’s use food as a stepping stone to bring us closer to this ideal. On the Fourth of July, even though I, and many other Americans, disagree strongly with the state of our government and how people are being treated, we can still cook and eat together to remind us that we are never alone in fighting for a better world.
Amelia Clute is a rising junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.