The shaping of American cooking has been dependent on various factors - cooking technologies and available ingredients, and the variety of ethnicity of its people. The Industrial Revolution brought about a series of revolutions in food production, distribution and supply. In the American melting pot - numerous immigrant cuisines have influenced, and then been changed by America's diversity.The Development of The Food Industry Originally, the first settlers used the English style of cooking. Cooking was done on the hearth over smoky open fires. The diet was mainly meat and grain (breads and porrage). The more well-to-do had servants to prepare and serve meals, and sometimes this was done in a separate cookhouse. Food preparations were labor intensive and many households had servants to gather ingredients, and to prepare and serve meals, as well as do laundry and other household chores. Prior to 1870 90% of Americans lived in rural settings and most raised their own produce, grains and livestock. See The Way We Ate: Pacific Northwest Cooking, 1843-1900 by Jacqueline B. Williams for more on life in the early pioneer and settlement days of the Pacific Northwest. Cities were smaller, and often had farmer's markets, but many city dwellers ate out much of the time. The industrial revolution made it possible to grow, harvest and ship food on a much greater scale, as well as created a demand that especially the potato helped fill. Farm machinery, including tractors (1920's) and reapers (McCormick, 1834), and harvester combines increased production, by gradually small farms were replaced by larger farms and corporate farming. Roads were poor and often muddy and deeply rutted (made much worse by heavy frieght wagons) - making any transport of crops difficult until canal systems or turnpikes were developed. The railroads could transport livestock and produce rapidly across the country (refrigerated cars were put into use after 1867), and with the development of the the trucking industry which increased dramatically with the creation of the Interstate Highway System, and now, even air freight, we have a truely international supply of fresh foods. Most fruits and vegetables are usually available year round on supermarket shelves - it is not unusual to have fresh produce from South America available in wintery North America.
See Agribusiness: Corporte Farming, Industrial Agriculture, and Factory Farming. Agricultural Marketing. and the Globalization of World food systems.Food preservation is another issue. Fresh food could be eaten in season, but from medieval times, drying, salt and smoke were used to preserve food out of season. Refrigeration, commercial canning and frozen food have made possible the supermarket and increased home storage of meat and produce.
The Food Processing Industry has learned how to preserve food, and make it attractive and tasty. Today, most of the food energy consumed by the world population is supplied by the food industry operated by multinational corporations using intensive farming and industrial agriculture methods. Agribusiness. Food Manufacture
However, there are issues.Food Safety is a major concern among consumers, recent nation wide recalls of products that have been contaminated by E coli or Salmonella; "Mad cow" scares.
Processed foods are often high in Sodium and High Frutose Corn Syrup which have contributed to increased obesity, heart desease and diabetes.
With increasing concern in agribusiness over multinational corporations owning the world food supply through patents on genetically modified food, there has been a growing trend toward sustainable agricultural practices. This approach, partly fueled by consumer demand, encourages biodiversity, local self-reliance and organic farming methods.
Some interesting reading can be found in A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil by Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton, Wendell Berry's essays in Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food and The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell BerryFrom Trading Posts to MegaStores: The Evolution of America's Grocery Industry in the Pacific Northwest
The community I live in at one time had many "Ma & Pa" grocery stores - the neighborhoods of Everett are dotted with buildings that used to be Corner Stores, usually family owned, serving mainly people within walking distance. These stores carried basic grocery items, perhaps they might have a meat counter, seasonal produce, or milk. They often ran credit tabs for regular customers, and sometimes delivered as well. Some of these still exist, but the few that do are mainly independent Convenience Stores or Mini-Marts: small stores or shops that sell items such as candy, ice-cream, soft drinks, lottery tickets, cigarettes and other tobacco products, newspapers and magazines, along with a selection of processed food and perhaps some groceries and usually a few hot food items. Even these are dominated by chains like 7-Eleven. These can often be found combined with a gas station or a fast food outlet, and are located on intersections or freeway exits.
In the 1920's and 1930's the Supermarkets: defined by "self-service, separate product departments, discount pricing, marketing and volume selling." came into being. Supermarkets proliferated across Canada and the United States with the growth of automobile ownership and suburban development after World War II. Most North American supermarkets are located in suburban strip malls as an anchor store along with other, smaller retailers. They are generally regional rather than national in their company branding. Most Supermarket chains have their own distribution centers, and many manufacture produces under their own brands names.
Hypermarkets are very large stores combining Grocery and Department Stores. Fred Meyer (f. 1922 in Portland, Oregon) opened its first one-stop shopping center in 1931. This marketting concept remained in regional use only until in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the three major discount store chains in the United States — Wal-Mart (founded by Sam Walton, 1962 in Roger's Arkansas). Kmart (originally Kresge's 1962) and Target (originally Dayton's 1962) developed discount stores in the hypermarket format. They typically have business models focusing on high-volume, low-margin sales. Because of their large footprints and the need for many shoppers to carry large quantities of goods, many hypermarkets choose suburban or out-of-town locations that are easily accessible by automobile, often to the regret of smaller stores in town which can't compete. Traditional supermarkets face intense competition from these discount retailers, aka "box stores", which typically are non-union and operate with better buying power.
Warehouse Clubs such as Costco offer savings to customers by buying and selling in bulk quantities, also compete with supermarkets. Customers often pay membership fees and are required to buy large, wholesale quantities of the store's products. Warehouse Clubs are able to keep prices low due to the no-frills format of the stores.
When a small grocery store is in competition with large supermarkets, the grocery store often must create a niche market by selling unique, premium quality, or ethnic foods that are not easily found in supermarkets. Supermarkets have to do the same to compete with the "box stores." Examples of these Specialty or boutique stores are Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's. Both target a suburban demographic concerned about "green living" and healthy organic foods. Sadly, these usually locate themselves and price their merchandise for this wealthier demographic.In some places, food cooperatives or "co-op" markets have been started, owned by their own shoppers, Puget Consumers Co-op: PCC Natural Markets) is a food cooperative based in Seattle, Washington, with over 45,000 members, it is the largest consumer-owned food cooperative in the United States. Both members and non-members may shop at the retail locations, but members receive certain discounts. A number of smaller Co-ops, such as Sno Isle Natural Foods have been started as well. These usually carry natural, organic, pesticide free foods, and other items wanted by members, and are supplied by local small producers and growers helping to support sustainable farming.
There are also efforts underway to revive local farmer's markets, often open one day a week during the growing season at specific locations. Local, fresh, and organic food is sold directly by growers to the public, and helps maintain small, sustainable farms on the fringes of urban environments. Pike Place Market on the Seattle waterfront was founded in 1907 and continues to be one of the best in the country. Farmers' markets in the US have grown from 1,755 in 1994 to 4,385 in 2006 to 5,274 in 2009. Upscale restaurants too, have realized the value of fresh local ingredients, and often buy directly from those who produce them.
Elliot Essman's articles on The Food Processing industry and The Grocery Industry are helpful, he also covers Food safety, organic and genetically modified foods and the Trans-fats controversy, see the America Eats index.
For some interesting reading on the history of food and how it has shaped civilizations...