What’s on Your Plate and When?  

Different foods, changing tastes, intermingling cultures, as well as different technologies for processing and storing food has changed what we eat over time, making food cheaper and more accessible 

One of the biggest changes is how far food travels to get to our plates, increasing the distance from the source of our food. Today in New England, only about 5% of the land produces food, and only a small fraction of the population works in food production. Ninety percent of the food we eat comes from outside the region. The numbers are even smaller in Fairfield County, where land is more valuable for real estate than for farm production. 


A few moments in American food history... 

1775-1781: Rations were doled out to Continental Army soldiers raw: cornmeal, flour, and pieces of meat or fish. Men cooked it themselves, often sweetening their dishes with maple syrup or molasses.  

(Mostly) Local Food and Home Preservation:  
From pre-colonial times through the 1800s, people were physically close to the origins of their food. With a few exceptions (sugar, molasses, spices, tea), nearly everything was personally or locally raised, hunted, milked, or butchered.  

Autumn harvests brought in much of the food supply all at once, so a housewife’s challenge was to transform raw goods into foods that would last the scarce winter months. Preservation included salting, drying, freeze-drying, fermentation; suspending in fat, vinegar or sugar; cold storage and cellaring. In a prosperous colonial household, dried herbs, alliums (onions, leeks), and meats hung in the kitchen; pickles, dried beans, and potted meats packed closet shelves; pies and meats lined the outer walls of attics; and apple and potato barrels, squash and pumpkin, and casks of cider and beer hunkered down in the cellar. 


1847: Chinese food appears in the United States when Chinese immigrants (especially from Canton) begin settling in California. I the 1920s, Chinese food became popular with young cosmopolitans because it was considered exotic. It wasn't until after World War II that Asian cuisines (Chinese, Japanese and Polynesian) piqued the interest of mainstream America. 

Buying Food from Far Away: 
Canned food, which was prevalent by the 1870s, made it possible to ship food products safely a long distance. By the 1890s, refrigerated railroad cars revolutionized meatpacking, and enabled long-distance shipping, making it easier to buy vegetables that came from California, peaches from Georgia, and bananas from Latin America.   

1853: The potato chip is said to have been invented by George Crum, a talented chef of Native and African-American ancestry. A customer at a resort in Saratoga Springs, New York complained that the French fries were too thick, so Crum produced one too thin to be eaten with a fork.  

1861-65: Hardtack, a biscuit dried to prevent spoilage, was a mainstay of the Union soldier’s diet. The soldiers referred to the very hard biscuits as “tooth dullers” or “sheet iron crackers.” 

Hardtack Biscuit 
A – 1834 
This Civil War Hard Tack or biscuit is dated 1862, from Newbern, North Carolina. 

1871: Modern chewing gum was first sold, based on the “chicle” that exiled Mexican president General Santa Anna gave to his secretary in New York.  

1886: Coca-Cola was first sold by pharmacist John Pemberton. The popular soda got its name from its two main ingredients: cocaine from the coca plant, and caffeine.  

1900: Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a vegetarian and health food reformer, introduced a cold cereal to be eaten at breakfast in place of meat. Around the same time, C.W. Post started a rival health food company with a cereal called Grape Nuts.  

1904: At the World’s Fair in St. Louis, visitors were introduced to the hamburger (invented in New Haven), peanut butter, and the ice cream cone.  

Buying Food at the Market: 
With the growth of cities in the 19th century, markets became more popular. City households, with less storage space available, bought food in smaller quantities but more frequently and from further away. Farms specialized to serve cities rather than their own local markets. For instance, some farmers in Fairfield shipped their crops to be sold in New York and Boston. 

1905: The first pizzeria opened in New York City. Pizza, a regional specialty in Naples but uncommon in the rest of Italy, did not become widely popular in the U.S. until after World War II.  

1921:  Wonder Bread was introduced, and in the 1930sthe first to be sold pre-sliced. By the 1950s, an average American ate a pound and a half of white bread every week, and got nearly 30 percent of their daily calories from bread.  

Margaret Rudkin, Pepperidge Farm 

  • In 1926, Margaret and Henry Albert Rudkin moved to Fairfield onto their estate called Pepperidge Farm. Margaret started baking healthy bread to help her son’s allergies, and ended up creating the Pepperidge Farm company, which made its name by offering an alternative to highly processed bread. 

1930: The chocolate-chip cookie was invented by accident when Ruth Wakefield, owner of the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts, ran out of baker’s chocolate, and cut a bar of semi-sweet chocolate into pieces. In 1939, Nestle began marketing their morsels, making Toll House a household name.  

1945: The phrase “Tex-Mex” was first used for food based on Mexican traditions but adapted by Texas cooks. Nachos, chimichangas, and fajitas were invented in Tex-Mex restaurants, which also popularized more traditional foods like tacos and enchiladas.  

1955: Ray Kroc opened the first McDonalds franchise in suburban Chicago. His “All-American Meal” offered a hamburger, fries, and a shake for 45 cents.  

1965: Nuclear physicist Peter Buck gave college freshman Fred DeLuca the idea to partner and open Pete's Super Submarines to help finance his University of Bridgeport educationThey opened first in Bridgeport, serving made-to-order sandwiches. By 1974 they franchised the operation as Subway – and today is global with more than 40,000 locations.  

What’s on Your Plate and When?