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World War II: Food For Thought


The comparisons between American and French culture can be either shockingly different or comfortably similar. While both the United States and France are wealthy western countries with similar agriculture sectors and institutional food policy, the way in which these cultures interact with food are different today. However, these differences were not always recognizable; in fact, prior to World War II, the United States and France had very similar eating habits and methods of approaching food. With the development of technology and reconstruction after the war, the United States and France had very differing ways of handling this time period. By the 1950s, the fast food industry boom was in full swing in the United States with fast food franchises becoming popular from coast to coast. Meanwhile, the nuclear family unit dynamic and structure was the focal point of France’s reconstruction during the 1950s. With families torn apart by the war in a more directly impactful way, France’s economy and morale had to be rebuilt in an alternative way in comparison to the United States. While both countries felt the impact of the war in relevant ways, the lack of direct combat on U.S. soil allowed its economy and people to “bounce back”.

The aspiration of the “American Dream” and prosperity distributed to those that worked hard was likely the biggest factor in the American mentality of “go, go, go”. This aspect played a vital role in which simple Americans lived their daily lives - coffee on the go, breakfast in the car, lunch within the hour, dinner from McDonald's preferably in front of the TV just in time for the evening special. In fact, “the history of fast food in America was secured in 1951 when that year’s edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary included the term for the first time” (Beever) as well as McDonald’s becoming such a staple of the American diet that golden arches practically became synonymous with hamburgers. By the 1960s, the family-oriented culture in America focused heavily on children.

However, the adult obesity rate in the U.S. increased by 214 percent between 1950 and 2000, in large part due to the economic, technological, and cultural shifts rippling through America in the wake of World War II. The foods that make up the diet of the average American are processed, prepackaged items, including frozen entrees, snacks like chips or crackers, ready-made baked goods, lunch meats, processed cheeses and other dairy products and fast food. Typically, processed foods not only are high in calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium, they also contain a number of additives, preservatives and colorants. The French diet, however, is focused primarily on unprocessed foods prepared at home. The aspect of France’s community and family rebuilding post-WWII allowed for the nation to turn meal times into social dynamics and focus on the rebuilding of people’s general wellness. Yet in the United States, the focus on buying the biggest house, fastest car, and best devices all while having the ideal family life persuaded Americans to constantly be on the go and in search for the next big thing to reach their goals. There are several growing issues within the United States, however, as of lately obesity has been one of the top health concerns of this nation. And while there are several factors contributing to the ever-growing rates of obesity, it can be noted that the average restaurant meal is four times larger than it was in the 1950s. Similarly, the size of American-manufactured dinner plates has increased nearly 23 percent, from 9.6 inches to 11.8 inches, since 1900. Similarly, WWII left the government with a large quantity of unused chemicals that became America’s fertilizers and pesticides, creating a huge food surplus that allowed for a cheap market for high-calorie foods. The subsidization of farmers within the United States also aided in the food production industry, thus altering the eating habits of most Americans in comparison to the French.

With a hefty influence of fresh produce, fresh baked goods, and sociable mealtimes, not only are the French known to typically be “healthier” than average Americans but the quality of their food may be found in the greater appreciation of it. The social dynamic likely has a greater influence in French meals than may be recognized by other cultures. First of all, the social aspect of meals decreases the likelihood of watching television or eating in front of electronic devices, increasing the amount of food one consumes. Similarly, there is less snacking in French culture due to the extended amounts of time or even courses that may be involved in one meal that one leaves the table full and content. Meanwhile, American culture tends to be grab a small snack here, maybe a small meal here, extended dinner time may be added in if a television show or movie is playing simultaneously as a break from the extensive day that has been transpiring. Therefore, the fast-food industry had an economic boom post-WWII in the United States that never quite occurred anywhere else in the world, and the impact on everyday culture has been tremendous. However, the focus on family and social aspects increased in France post-WWII having an alternative effect on the meals and general food quality.

The fast food industry had a difficult time conquering France due to this mentality and cultural identity with fresh produce and family inclusive meals. Of course, fast food chains made an appearance in France, however, it was due to the influence of the United States corporations that sprung this phenomenon into the French culture. McDonald’s did not make an appearance until 1972 and while it was likely with cross-cultural intentions, it was on uneasy footing. While the French were wary of this American chain, the lack of competition McDonald’s had allowed for it to “prosper” so to speak, appealing to the French ideas of westernized American food (Wile). Again however, the concept of fast food was still seen as an American experience within France; similarly, the target also emphasized families within France and young adults with possible outreach towards sparking interest to visit the United States (Wile). The ultimate goal therefore was for American fast food companies to profit in international regions; the fact that French fast food chains have not sprung in popularity, particularly on an international level is overwhelming evidence that shows the “fast food” concept can be awarded to the Americans.

Therefore, how do the effects of World War II influence the eating habits in these two generally similar countries in drastically different ways? The first indicator can be boiled down to the simple notion that the United States was on the “winning” side of the war, whereas France was associated with the “losing” side. The morale boost in the United States was build on the foundation of bringing prosperity and wealth back into the nation whereas France was solely focused on the literal reconstruction of their country. The optimism in the United States was much more apparent in the tactics utilized during the post-World War II time of focusing on the “American Dream” and the flood of jobs that were the consequence of the war. Yet in France, the general focus was on merely putting food on people’s tables and while it was evident in the United States too, the amount of families torn apart because of the War were of greater significance in France than in the United States. The effects of the internment camps directly impacted the French as well as many other European countries, whereas the Americans had their own camps for the Japanese. The cost of many soldiers lives were high in most countries, but the impact on families in France was more significant thus the process of smaller community building and focal points on quality family time post-World War II.

Understandably, World War II affected much more than just the eating habits of nations. This notion can be traced through the economies and social dynamics in both countries. Other than the obvious consequences of the war, the perspectives and cultural differences in the United States and France are rather apparent however arguably subtle. Another varying effect World War II had in a miniscule way on both countries was the perspective of dating and the opposite genders in general. Once again, the focus of the American Dream lead many Americans, especially after the war, to marry early and young. For the few that were lucky enough to have soldiers return from the war, marriage was practically inevitable and thus the baby-boomers of the 1950s surfaced. However, the disturbances geographically (i.e. the literal boots-on-the-ground effects of war) in France caused many women to resort to prostitution and sex-work to gather the bits of money they could to feed their children, families, and selves. Hence, the dating habits after World War II were forever altered in minor ways in today’s standards but drastic terms comparatively.

Many women were robbed of love during World War II internationally and plenty of families lost their loved ones. In fact, the result of baby boomers in the United States was rather odd compared to the numbers and disproportional ratio of women to men. However, the focus on family life was accentuated in the United States on both men and women. Yet in France, many women also lost their loved ones as well as whatever job that had prior to or during the beginnings of the war. Thus, with the influx of international soldiers in their country, many women resorted to sex work in order to put food on the table for their families. After the war, many of these women but especially ones that had relations with German soldiers, were publicly ridiculed and shamed. As if they were in medieval times, these women would have their heads shaved, be brutally beaten, and paraded in the streets seen as “whores” and “disgraced” during post war liberation parties. However, many of the young women were single mothers whose husbands were in prisoner of war camps, and the general public is now deemed to have been disgusted with these acts after the war ended (Beevor). The dynamics of dating were forever altered after this time. For one, women in France were much more open to free dating after the war due to their experiences during the war with the freedoms they had to be with whomever they pleased. Meanwhile in the United States, many women were faced with freedoms of introduction to the workplace and educational trainings due to the lack of men that were around during this time. Therefore, the general dating habits that still occur today in both countries as comparatively different approaches can be thoughtfully traced back to the effects that World War II had on the population of both these countries.

While both these nations can be seen as relatively similar Western cultures with frequently overlapping aspects, the general and popular mannerisms involved in partaking in seemingly simple tasks such as eating and dating. However, the impact of wealth and prosperity versus rebuilding and loss had strong overarching effects on the United States versus France in minor ways that can be depicted in the ways we eat and interact with opposite sex. While these can also be seen as generational disparities, there are still traditions that are typically passed on from generation to generation. One could even argue that the millennial perspective of dating today in the United States can be traced to World War II with the baby boomers marrying young and having children right off the bat influencing the young marriages and pregnancies that are occurring today. Similarly, the off-hand dating and interactions of opposite genders in France are often seen as particularly flirtatious in many American eyes, particularly with the kissing of each cheek cultural tradition of the French. Having strong ties since the creation of the United States itself, it is easy to say that both nations have influenced each other throughout their histories in significant ways.

The focus on rehabilitation of the French peoples allowed for social interactions to become more casual with emphasis on reinstituting the French identity; hence, market places and local shops became a staple of French culture throughout the entire country. Whereas the individualistic perspective in the United States to prioritize success and working allowed for determination to work it’s people to endless lengths, building a nation of deceiving prosperity but with little time to enjoy the little things. The fast food industry took advantage of this time to advertise and appeal to families with creations of “kids meals” and “family deals” influencing the general health of many Americans, leading us to today’s obesity epidemic. Meanwhile, the amount of wealth in both nations are now measured in momentously varying terms. Are we measuring wealth by happiness or success? Ultimately that was the greatest effect of World War II on both nations - distinguishing between the two ideological perspectives.

Works Cited

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Crum, Madeline. “How World War II Changed The Ways Americans Ate”. The Huffington Post.

03 April 2012.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/03/wwii-food-america_n_1398132.html

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http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodfaq7.html

Wile, Rob. “The True Story Of How McDonald's Conquered France”. Business Insider. 22

August 2014. http://www.businessinsider.com/how-mcdonalds-conquered-france-2014-8

#opinion