National Archives Opens “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” Food Exhibit June 10, 2011
Press Release · Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Washington, DC

Groundbreaking exhibit explores nation’s love affair with, fear of, and obsession with food

Twitter icon Suggested Tweet:  National Archives to allow food in museum space? Only as theme of new exhibit, of course! "What's Cooking Uncle Sam?" #UncleSamCooks opens June 10, 2011.

Suggested Facebook Post: What’s Cooking at the National Archives? Tasty new exhibit on food opens June 10, 2011. Groundbreaking "What's Cooking Uncle Sam?" exhibit explores nation’s love affair with, fear of, and obsession with food

On Friday, June 10, 2011, the National Archives will unveil a delectable new exhibition, What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet. Unearth the stories and personalities behind the increasingly complex programs and legislation that affect what we eat. Learn about Federal government’s extraordinary efforts, successes, and failures to change our eating habits. From Revolutionary War rations to cold war cultural exchanges, discover the multiple ways that food has occupied the hearts and minds of Americans and their government.

Food-related holdings of the National Archives are surprisingly yet tastefully presented in this exploration of the government’s role in the American approach to food. What’s Cooking Uncle Sam? is free and open to the public, and will be on display in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, through January 3, 2012. The exhibition was created by the exhibit staff of the National Archives Experience with support from the Foundation for the National Archives.

The Government’s efforts to inspire, influence, and control what Americans eat have led to unexpected consequences, dismal failures, and life-saving successes. Records in the National Archives trace the origins of the programs and legislation aimed at ensuring that the American food supply is ample, safe, and nutritious. The records also reflect the effects the government has had on our food choices and preferences. At turns comic (blindfolded turkey tasting experiments) and tragic (lab notes on toxic candy), these records reveal the evolution of our beliefs and feelings about food. They convey the desperate voices of depression-era farmers, and explain how the government got into the business of publishing recipes for ham shortcake and teaching housewives to can peaches.

Dig into “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” to learn the fascinating history behind the government’s involvement with food, and discover answers to the following:

  • What made canned meat, ketchup and candy so dangerous at the time of the Industrial Revolution?
  • Why did Frank Meyer, foreign plant explorer, go from the vast grasslands of Manchuria to the tiger-patrolled mountains of Siberia in search of new foods?
  • What did President Lyndon Johnson serve at White House State dinners?
  • Why were some government volunteers called the “Poison Squad”?
  • How can donuts improve morale?
  • What was Queen Elizabeth’s recipe for scones?

“What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” offers visitors the chance to examine letters, diaries, photos, maps, petitions, films, patents, and proclamations from the food-related collection of the National Archives. Instead of a traditional chronological approach, the exhibition explores four broad themes: Farm, Factory, Kitchen, and Table.

Farm–Government has had a profound effect on the way farms are run and what they produce. The Department of Agriculture scoured the globe for new plant varieties, researched hybrid crops, distributed seeds to farmers, and controlled the prices of farm commodities. Learn how programs and legislation transformed agriculture in America.
Section highlights include:

  • A musical program in support of the Office of Price Administration performed by Pete Seeger and others.
  • Mug shots of the oleo gang.

Factory–Government’s attempts to ensure the safety of an industrialized food supply have changed the nature of foods, production methods, labeling, and advertising. Public outcry over swill milk, rancid meat, and substandard tea led to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the FDA. Food producers quickly capitalized on new regulations, touting their products as “pure,” “enriched,” and “unadulterated.” See how the government embraced advances in food technologies, performed research on food production, and secured patents for some of their methods.
Section highlights include:

  • Upton Sinclair’s original letter to Theodore Roosevelt on the hazards of the meatpacking industry.
  • Lab records and photographs of the “Poison Squad” research.

Kitchen–As scientists made discoveries about nutrition, the government sought to change the eating habits of Americans. Most efforts aimed to reform the homemaker through nutrition education and cooking classes.
Section highlights include:

  • Aunt Sammy’s (Uncle Sam’s wife’s) Radio Recipes.
  • “Overcooking Destroys Vitamins!” World War II poster.

Table–Although many of its overt attempts to change our diets were unsuccessful, the government did succeed in changing and homogenizing American tastes in other ways. Meals served to soldiers and school children instilled food habits and preferences that persist today. The diets and entertaining style of the Presidents and First Ladies were also influential, as many Americans wrote the White House for recipes and incorporated Presidential favorites into their family meals.
Section highlights include:

  • Jacqueline Kennedy’s menus for State dinners.
  • President Johnson’s famous Pedernales River chili recipe.

What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?–related products—including a special exhibition catalogue, recipe books, apparel, and dishware — will be featured in the Archives Shop. All Archives Shop proceeds support the National Archives Experience and educational programming at the National Archives.

The National Archives is located on the National Mall on Constitution Avenue at 9th Street, NW. Fall/winter Exhibit Hall hours are 10 A.M. – 5:30 PM daily, except Thanksgiving and December 25 (through March 14). Spring/summer hours are 10 AM – 7 PM (March 15–Labor Day).

# # #

For more information on "What’s Cooking Uncle Sam?" or to obtain images of items included in the exhibition, call the National Archives Public Affairs staff at 202-357-5300.

Follow us on:
Facebook:   US National Archives


This page was last reviewed on April 18, 2019.
Contact us with questions or comments.