April 17

Accurate food predictions from 80 years ago

16  comments

ny-future-blog-size.jpg
The above comes from the October 1927 issue of Popular Science, (Click
here for larger, readable view) and proves to be remarkable prescient in terms of food.
The article overestimates the population growth, predicting for New York City proper

a population of 13,948,000. In the area described as “Greater New York” there will be 17,797,000 people; and in the suburban area the total population, according to figures based on the law of growth described in the June Popular Science Monthly, will be 28,705,000.

If I had to guess, I would figure that they would underestimate the population growth, but they didn’t. The latest data show that New York now has a population of a little over 8 million with the surrounding Greater New York (including the burbs) housing about 20 million people.
The article predicts, as all non-aviation experienced futurists do, the notion that everyone will have flying cars and that the buildings will all have landing pads on the roofs. It ain’t going to happen unless some heretofore unknown means of keeping airplanes aloft is invented, and that is highly unlikely. The idea of our all having flying cars is a fun one, but one clearly not based on the laws of gravity. Nor on the realization of just how complex aviation is.
What I found most interesting about this old article was the prediction made about what people would be eating in New York City in the year 2000. Other than the idea that milk would be piped in through some kind of a dairy aqueduct, the prognosticating was pretty much on the mark.

…Professor Edgar M. East, of Harvard University, points out that foods will probably be much less varied fifty or seventy-five years from now than today. There will be a wider use of cereals [my italics], but not so many kinds of cereals. The same will probably be true of vegetables. Fruits will have tended to “standardize,” with a few varieties like apples and oranges, or possibly coconuts or some other tropical product, far outstripping all the rest.
The use of meats, fish and other sea foods will probably have diminished greatly. Seventy-five years ago, in the period before the Civil War, New York menus, Professor East points out, listed a variety of game that would make an epicure’s mouth water today—some fifty varieties. Food is most varied when a country is new; as the population increases, certain staples of diet come to be more and more widely used. The New Yorkers of 2,000 A.D. will probably eat quantities of a prepared food made from some such cereal as Egyptian corn [my italics], that can be grown cheaply and brought in large quantities from lands now only partially productive in the South. Or perhaps it may still be wheat.

They certainly hit the nail on the head with the grain consumption estimates. And they were right in spades on the corn.
They were also correct in their claim that meat consumption would change in that there would be many fewer choices. What can one get in New York (or any major city) these days? A steak, pork chops, lamb chops, duck, turkey, salmon, Chilean sea bass, lobster, shrimp, oysters and, occasionally, wild game that’s usually farm raised.
I’m currently reading a wonderful book about the doomed Franklin Polar expedition of 1845, Ice Blink. The author has a copy of one of the provisioning lists for the ships. I’ve divided it in half so the items can be read. Look at what was commonly available in London in 1845:
franklin-menu-1.jpg
And
franklin-menu-2.jpg
Quite the difference, I would say.
You would think that as cities became larger there would be more variety, not less. But, it’s pretty obvious that the predictors in 1927 were a lot smarter about all this than I am.


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  1. Actually, the columnists were being as short-sighted as futurists almost always are.
    Sure, there are fewer kinds of meat available…but frankly, oxtail, hare, and turtle aren’t worth the effort to cook. The meats that dominate are the ones that are both easier to produce, AND better tasting and more versatile overall.
    What’s more important is that the /overall/ variety of foods has increased hugely, not decreased. The column was suffering the normal lack understanding about what’s actually important and practical, and how those factors will change things. It looks at one less important thing, never guessing (although the hints were already there) how much more diverse food would be in a different way.
    Note that the lists they cite are all of unprepared food. Most people’s lifelong culinary experience was limited to the recipes they, their family, and sometimes their friends new. And the occasional restaurant, of course. Today, you might be limited to beef, pork, several kinds of fowl, a dozen kinds of fish, and a bunch of invertebrates for meat, but you can buy those meats prepared (I am tempted to write pre-prepared, but that’s actually redundant) in dishes of more kinds than most people even realized existed in the first place. There’s a whole section of oriental foods…hell, nowadays there may be a separate section for Chinese/Japanese and then Thai/Indian. There is, inevitably, a latino section (or whatever they’re calling hispanic cultures in the Americas today), a vegetarian section, an “organic foods” section or three, et cetera.
    Oh, and note that the list of fruits and vegetables available back then is probably smaller, not longer, than today. I can buy, fresh at stores, more cultivars of any one of those veggies up there than the entire list of veggies, itself. I sometimes cook stir fry, with fresh ingredients, using only items which, going by those lists, were not available at all. Snow peas, water chestnuts, bean sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, any of eight different kinds of mushroom…maybe snap peas, leeks, shallots, actually, the list of ingredients I consider normal for a stir fry is quite long, almost all of which were probably unheard-of back then, and yet I can buy them at any normal grocery store.
    It’s also easier, thanks to ebay, for me to grow my own veggies. This year I’m growing purple tomatoes in two varieties, as well as white ones, garden peach tomatoes (they are yellow, fuzzy, and have a hint of citrus), tomatoes striped in two-tone green (yes, they are green even when ripe), sausage-shaped tomatoes, and more. In all, something like fifteen kinds of tomatoes, at least as many different kinds of peppers, and a dozen completely distinct cultivars of basil. All ordered from the convenience of my home, without having to track down some farmer’s seed exchange catalogue (and I still probably have more options than those did, back then).
    No, I think it’s simply a lack of /interest/ in eating goat loins and roasted pigeons. I mean, all the cows they kill have tails and brains; we just don’t WANT them, so they’re hidden in sausage as “beef parts”. The net result of the intervening years is /greater/ variety, but lack of the stuff that’s just not worth having.
    Good grief, there are something like fifteen kinds of peanut butter at the local supermarket. That’s probably more than every single variety of spread most people knew EXISTED back then.
    Hi Kaz–
    You’re indeed correct about the prepared/packaged foods: there is much more variety now than the 1927 futurists imagined, but maybe not as much as you might think. Buried within the article is the following sentence:

    Our children and grandchildren, he predicted to me, will be eating food not particularly different from much that is found in the world today; but in the preparation of that food there will be a great difference [my non italics].

    And a great difference in preparation there is. Like then, we (as a nation) eat a lot of corn, but now it’s in a much different form. Back then they ate ice cream, cakes, cookies, etc. but the preparation of those foods now is not the same. Who would have thought back then that corn would be in virtually all processed foods as HFCS and the dozens of other additives it is used to manufacture?
    One point I think the 1927 futurists failed to calculate was the huge influx of immigrants in the ensuing years bringing their native foods, i.e. Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Ethiopian, etc. Although there had been a huge influx of emigrants by 1927, most were from Europe where the stock of people already here had come earlier, so their menus were pretty much the same.
    And I’m sure that many of the same parts that find their way into sausage now did so in 1927. But they were available as stand alone products as well, which they aren’t really now.
    Cheers–
    MRE

  2. “knew”, not new.
    I am knot prone two phonetic spelling errors, aye swear.
    Alright, I’ll bite.  Where is the ‘new-knew’ screw up in this post?
    MRE 

  3. That menu makes my mouth water. I would love to have more choices like that – although tongue is not high on my list 🙂 And initially I would react the same as you – that variety would increase – but logically thinking it through, variety decreasing and moving toward easy, packaged food makes sense for larger populations (and has panned out).

  4. Sir if you daily take in betwixt 30-5o5mgs of carb, roughly, do you take pottassium everyday please ?
    If not why not ?
    Hi Simon–
    I take a potassium occasionally.  The real need for potassium supplementation on a low-carb diet comes in the early days when the rapid drop in insulin is causing the kidneys to ditch a load of excess fluid.  Along with this fluid goes potassium.  For that reason I like to supplement to replace the loss.  Once I’ve stabilized and am not continuing to diurese, the low-carb vegetables I eat provide plenty of potassium.  I supplement, as I say, from time to time – maybe once every 10 days or so – just for the hell of it.
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  5. Hrm,
    As a person who has spent a majority of my life in big cities (19 in NYC, 5 in LA, 4 in St. Louis, 3 in Austin Tx, and now 1 in Wash DC), I dunno.
    I think there’s more variety due to immigration (we have a super market here called GrandMart that is pretty much like 15 aisles of the Ethnic Food Aisle, and two aisles of non-food with labels in english, spanish, chinese, korean, japanese, thai (pretty), Viet and portugese). The meat aisles at GrandMart are always interesting and occasionally confusing (just what would I use cow eyes for?).
    But, yeah, grain commodity, yeah. Less variety in grain, unless you go to Whole Foods or something. But isn’t this just the market in effect? How much demand for ox cheeks was there (FWIW Bruce Aidell’s likes the beef cheeks for stewing like oxtails)? or Black Game (second sheet, first column, under Game)? Cow is good. Black game? I dunno.
    Meanwhile, I saw a beef oxtail superpack at Costco the other day. First time I’ve seen that. Was almost tempted, since Aidell’s has recipe(s) in the All Meat book. I’m thinking I want to work with some cheaper cheap cuts first though. *shrug*
    Explanation & recipes using black game would be appreciated.
    Goona look for this at:
    digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks
    The Michigan State U’s Historic American Cookbooks Project.
    Will report results of Black Game hunt.

  6. Found it:
    http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/display.cfm?TitleNo=48&PageNum=83
    Black Game is Black Grouse. No recipes from Black game or black grouse in the library, but this idea for Blackcock, Grouse et al. Little carby for my taste (currants and fried bread crumbs), but probably nice. Currants probably help cut the “gameyness” of it. Nice.
    Hi Max–
    Thanks for looking this up.  I particularly like the following instruction in the section about Woodcocks and Snipes:
    …they should be tied on a small bird spit, and put to roast as a clear fire; a slice of bread is put under each bird, to catch the trail, that is the excrements of the intestines; they are considered delightful eating… 
    I wonder if we’ll ever see this on Martha Stewart?
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  7. Hi Mike–thanks for another interesting history lesson. Ever see the menu for the last dinner on the Titanic? Course after course of mouth-watering animal flesh. I don’t know where the media gets the idea that people today need to “cut down on saturated fat.” With all the processed, vegetable oil laden foods most people eat, where is the saturated fat?
    I also liked the prediction about corn. One interetsing factoid in The Omnivore’s Dilemma is just how much food in the US today is made with corn, when you add up corn meal, corn flour, corn starch, maltodextrin, corn syrup, and corn-fed meats.
    Hi Paul–
    The 1927 futurists hit the nail on the head when they wrote that

    Our children and grandchildren will be eating food not particularly different from much that is found in the world today [corn]; but in the preparation of that food there will be a great difference.

    Cheers–
    MRE 

  8. Re: coyotes, I grew up on an upscale cul-de-sac in the Hwd. Hills. Coyotes were incredibly common in our neighborhood. We later found out that the woman across the street fed them every night. She felt bad for them because they looked “skinny.”
    I promise you that you have neighbors that are doing the same.
    Mike, what do you make of the following post on Seth Roberts’ blog? (sethroberts.net)
    http://www.blog.sethroberts.net/2007/04/14/omega-3-and-arithmetic-continued/
    Further, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Roberts’ beliefs about drinking oil to suppress hunger. He calls it a diet (“the Shangri-La diet”), but it seems to me it’s more of a tool to be added to a real eating plan. (Ideally very low carb, so the fat isn’t immediately stored by the body.)
    (BTW, if you haven’t tried it, it works shockingly well.)
    Hi John–
    As to the Seth Roberts’ post to which you linked…
    I don’t think it’s a particularly good experiment, and here’s why.  A few years back I ran across a fairly simple calculus problem that I tried to solve.  I had taken 5 calculus courses in engineering school and had always considered myself a pretty good basic mathematician, but I had a hell of a time trying to solve this problem.  I decided to go back and relearn calculus and work my way through a workbook of problems, which I did.  It took me a couple of months of fiddling with it a half hour or so every day, but at the end of that time I was cranking through the problems like I did back in school.  Confident that I could pick calculus back up if I really needed to, I quit and went on to other pursuits with my spare time.  Now, if I had started taking DHA at the start of these exercises and had timed myself on the problems I would have produced a graph much like Roberts’.  But I would also have produced the same graph without taking the DHA in increasing doses simply because my skill and speed at doing the problems increased with repeated practice.
    I went through the same process with sudoku a year ago.  A friend got me hooked on sudoku puzzles, which, when I first started working them, took me forever.  Over a couple of months I got to where I could bang them out in a heart beat.  Same thing.  If I had started taking increasing doses of DHA at the start, I could have attributed my increase in speed to the oil, but the reality is that the increase came about because my daily practice made me more adept.
    To make his study valid you would have to get two groups who had never done sudoku (or whatever), start one group on increasing doses of DHA, the other on placebo, and let them have at it for a month.  A comparison of the speed at which the subjects in the two groups worked the puzzles would eliminate the practice variable and could show a difference caused by the DHA, if any.
    Drinking oil suppresses hunger, of that there is no doubt.  When the oil hits the first part of the small intestine, it stimulates the release of cholescystokinin, which causes the gall bladder to contract, the pancreas to release its secretions, and feeds back on the satiety center in the hypothalamus telling us we’re full.   Such a strategy  works,  but I would rather simply eat my fatty foods a little more slowly while sipping some good wine and accomplish the same thing.
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  9. My daughter spent a month in Jamaica over Xmas 2005. She stayed with a poor family (poor by Jamaican standards)
    Xmas day consisted of lots of meat (first catch one of your goats, then….etc) pork goat and chicken. But she couldn’t face either goats head soup, or chicken feet soup.
    On a trip through Sicily a few years back I was presented with a halved lambs head as part of a tasting menu I had ordered.  I sucked up and ate it, but I didn’t like it.  It tasted okay, but the thought of what I was eating – actually, it wasn’t the thought, it was the sight; the thing was right there in front of me – made me a little squeamish.  I understand how you’re daughter felt.
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  10. The new-knew error was in my first comment, not your post, or I would’ve sent the suggestion to be read off-line.
    I didn’t even notice it in your comment.

  11. Interesting comments on variety; makes me rethink it some. Could it be that with population growth came less variety (figure out how to feed the masses quickly and cheaply) but now with “globalization” we are finding an increase in variety (especially fruits and veges – I really don’t see a lot of weird meat at my Giant grocery)? I was thinking more of the meat variety in my comment, but the grain/corn issue is interesting as well.
    (Thanks for all your interesting posts!)

  12. Well, since I offer “helpful corrections” regarding other people’s more glaring or obscure-yet-interesting errors, I figure I should be even quicker to correct my own.

  13. Definitely interesting post. Made me dig out the link to the cookbook collection at MSU. Always a fun trot.
    “hey should be tied on a small bird spit, and put to roast as a clear fire; a slice of bread is put under each bird, to catch the trail, that is the excrements of the intestines; they are considered delightful eating… ”
    I’m thinking this is juices from the innards rather than bird poop. Although, who knows. If they eat nothing but berries and nuts, might be flavored very nicely.
    I suspect there will be a movement among gourmands to bring back recipes from the earlier years. I had a professor at B-school who had a collection of 1000 antique cookbooks, and every semester except the one I had her, she would prep something from her archive for the class every session (taught at night, one per week, nice tenure gig if you can get it). Saw in a random magazine at my doctor’s a page about old virginia cooking (where I got the MSU link). And even Joy of Cooking talks about old recipes vs current ones. Lemme play futurist: In the next 2-3 years, there will be an old timey cooking show on somewhere (older than Paula Deen). Possibly in the next 3-7, there will be a set of cookbooks distilling old recipes (like the link) into modern format without altering content. This will coincide with current movement towards traditionally raised foods (buying clubs, sustainability, polyface, organics & beyond organics, etc). Butter, cream, etc will make a huge comeback. McDonald’s will co-opt the movement somewhat. I could see an offering of “Original Fries” cooked in the 90/10 tallow/cottonseed oil. They might even be puzzled when it doesn’t work (the original fries were better, I’ve had them abroad, and might get them in Italy if they do em the old way there).
    Anyrate, thanks Mike. This is the kind of top notch interesting stuff that keeps me reading.
    Hi Max–
    Thanks for the kind words about the blog. 
    Maybe MD and I should do the TV show on pioneer cooking.  We could call it Low Carb CookwoRx, the Early Years.
    Cheers–

    MRE

  14. I can’t help wondering if part of the problem with lack of variety that we have today when it comes to meat is that eating certain animals has fallen out of favor. I grew up eating duck so it’s no big deal to me, but offer some to hubby and he acts like you just handed him Donald Duck on a platter. Leg of lamb was an Easter staple for my family but he won’t eat a “cute little lamb.” I’m sure if I suggest rabbit to him, he’d tell me that he doesn’t eat Thumper. Venison? Heck no, that would be like eating Bambi.
    Traveling in foriegn countries does test one’s intestinal fortitude. In China, chickens are fried whole, the heads and feet are still on them. The restaurant we frequented most while there offered fried pig penis and duck beaks. It was an interesting place, about a half block long with little glassed in kitchens lining the back wall. Each kitchen specialized in different dishes and there were color pictures of all the offerings attached to the glass. A hostess would walk with us along the windows and we’d point out what we wanted from the pictures. After the first visit, we learned not to not look too closely at some of those pictures. That aside, I had some of the best food I’ve ever eaten there.

  15. Duck is good. Lamb is good when done well (fat is like flavor free wax though, so well means lean). Venison & rabbit not my palate (no disney related reasons, just not my taste).
    Pig penis is right out. If that’s diversity, I’m happy to be monoculture. Sorry, just not into it. And I eat a lot of pork.

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