Photograph courtesy the National Museum of American History, American Enterprise exhibition
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A 1975 sign for a Japanese McDonald's in Japan is instantly recognizable.
Photograph courtesy the National Museum of American History, American Enterprise exhibition
The Plate

‘American Enterprise’ Shapes the Way the World Eats

Want to talk to a farmer? Watch someone grind chocolate? Sample Georgia barbecue?

Head to the Smithsonian.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has launched a new permanent exhibition celebrating American business. But sprinkled among innovations such as Thomas Edison’s stock ticker, the Laffer Curve napkin and a rack of computer servers used to create Google, American Enterprise” also features mundane kitchen items: a refrigerator; orange juice; a Velveeta box.

But what does chili con queso have to do with business?

“Food is central to American history,” says Susan Evans, program director for the museum’s American Food History Project. “When Americans see a problem or an issue, they innovate … Many times the challenges that impact us directly center on what we eat and how we eat it.”

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A Hotpoint refrigerator, 1959-61 model. Photograph courtesy the National Museum of American History, American Enterprise exhibition

The exhibition offers copious narrative and more than 600 objects to examine America’s journey from a small, agrarian nation to the world’s leading economy. An electric toaster from 1909 represents the infancy of durable goods, a sector that grew on the promise of saving homemakers labor. A shout out to advertising agency N.W. Ayer & Son for creating a slogan and packaging for the National Biscuit Company—aka Nabisco—heralds the advent of branding and its impact on American consumption. A Chinese Coca-Cola ad from 1935 and a McDonald’s sign in Japanese represent the United States’ emergence as an international economic and cultural power.

A 1960s vintage Hotpoint refrigerator, stocked with Birdseye frozen collard greens, Velveeta, a Swanson TV dinner and Hershey’s ice cream represents the advancement of technology and agriculture and the new affluence it created.

“There are so many stories that refrigerators can tell,” Evans says.

“American Enterprise,” which opened July 1, is not the first time the museum has called on food to amplify history. In 2012, curators launched “Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000.” Positioned around a large communal table where guests are invited to gather and share food experiences, the 3,800-square food exhibition uses objects such as a microwave, Fritos and a food processor owned by Chuck Williams (as in Williams-Sonoma) to examine the way technology, immigration and shifting cultural norms of the 20th century changed the way we eat.

“There are so many stories that refrigerators can tell.”—Susan Evans, program director for the Smithsonian’s American Food History Project.

Food is so central to the Smithsonian’s mission the museum has unveiled a fully functioning demonstration kitchen and a roster of programs to fill it. That’s where the farmers come in.

“When we opened the Food exhibition in 2012 people kept telling us how much they loved it,” Evans says, “but almost every sentence ended with ‘But where’s the food?’ It’s almost a tease to talk about food but not let them experience the smells and tastes associated with it.”

The demonstration kitchen sits just outside “American Enterprise” and from now through December, visitors will find roundtables with farmers, chocolate-making sessions and “Food Fridays” featuring cooking demonstrations on themes such as summer seafood, Hispanic and Native American heritage, and harvest season cooking. Ticketed evening programs will add food and drink to conversations about American brewing, seed technology, and other topics. In October, the first annual Smithsonian Food History Weekend will explore the role of innovation in American food with a fair, a symposium, and a gala fundraiser.

“By connecting with the history of American food, our audiences can understand more about the history of America and the American experience,” Evans says.

Visit the Smithsonian’s website for more information on Food Fridays, Food in the Garden, American History (After Hours), and the Smithsonian Food History Weekend.

Michele Kayal is the co-founder of American Food Roots. Follow her on Twitter @hyphenatedchef.