Food for thought

It was hard to narrow down the materials for the Crerar Library exhibit, You Are What You Eat: Nutrition and Health, to four glass cases, says Reed Lowrie, AM’87, a science reference librarian who helped write the exhibit notes. Yet in that small space Lowrie, science library director Kathleen Zar, and reference librarian Barbara Kern fit in a feast of old cookbooks and guides, contemporary magazines and diet fads—the history of U.S. food practices from colonial America to the modern day.

The first case includes the first cookbook written and published in the United States, and it’s a mouthful: Amelia Simmons’s 1796 American Cookery; or, the Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards, and Preserves, and All Kinds of Cakes, from the Imperial Plumb to the Plain Cake, Adopted to This Country, and All Grades of Life. (Crerar has a 1963 special limited edition.) The case also offers a taste of 19th-century nutrition reformers Sylvester Graham, the Kellogg brothers, and C. W. Post—who all believed a scientific diet rich in grains and nuts would promote health and even cure physical and mental ailments—and Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catherine Esther Beecher, who wrote The House-keepers Manual in 1874.

The exhibit next highlights storing and shipping advances—the ice box, canning, railroads—which accompanied some food-production shortcomings, creating the unsavory conditions detailed in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) and eventually new laws. Then it’s on to nutrition today, including diet books contributed by library staff members. While the Kellogg brothers were the first to exploit Americans’ desire for healthy living, the notes say, fads such as the Atkins diet and the Coconut diet, published in January, continue to be big business. Finally the exhibit offers a practical discussion on body image and portion size, with help from BSD nutrition teacher Mindy Schwartz. Six dice, for example, equal one portion of cheese, and a deck of playing cards measures three ounces of meat.

The exhibit ends June 11.

By A.M.B.

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February 23, 2005