Food is tradition. We cook and eat what our parents made, and what their parents made before them. But since the dawn of the 20th century, when it became easier for both people and information to travel throughout the world, Americans have been exposed to all kinds of new cuisines. From one decade to the next, the country experienced rapidly changing food trends, from the tasty to the healthy to the bizarre. The well-off usually decided what was fashionable - on plates and otherwise - for better or worse.
The times we live in influence how we perceive beauty, and they affect the foods we love, too. It's impossible to predict a culinary trend, but once it hits, the whole country just has to try it. Some last forever; others fade quickly. Either way, they remain indelible markers of our cultural history - and might even serve as inspiration for the next swanky restaurant.
American diets during the first half of the 20th century were heavy on meat, thanks to both its filling nature and its growing reputation as a "manly" dish. Exotic meats like bear and caribou were popular choices at trendy restaurants, although they were cheaper in the Midwest, where the animals were easier to find. Chicken pudding - a chicken-filled pastry similar to a quiche - was another hearty choice, and had been a part of the American table since the 18th century.
Sugar was already big business by the 1900s, with the average person consuming around 60 pounds annually. One of the most beloved and decadent desserts at New York restaurants was the ice cream "bombe," a layered treat with a core of ice cream.
The 1910s saw the peak of an oyster craze that permeated American food culture for years. In the early 20th century, oyster prices were half the price of beef. Whether raw, baked, or boiled in a stew, oysters were part of many peoples' breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Many oyster-centric restaurants opened their doors, including New York's trendy Grand Central Oyster Bar. Rising prices and the closure of oyster bars during Prohibition quickly curbed the craze in the '20s, however.
Another popular dinner choice was roast beef with Franconia potatoes marinated in the meat juices. Strawberry sponge cake was a frequent choice to close out the meal.
During Prohibition, which lasted the entirety of the 1920s, nightlife lovers had to go underground for their booze. Speakeasies didn't want guests getting too drunk and blowing their cover, so they served patrons small finger foods throughout the night. One of the most popular small plates was stuffed mushrooms, which began to appear in cookbooks of the era.
The Hollywood elite also took Tijuana getaways to escape Prohibition, which often included trips to local restaurant Caesar's Place. During his Fourth of July party in 1924, proprietor Caesar Cardini was short on ingredients and used what he had on hand to make the now-classic Caesar salad. The dish was such a hit with the celebrities in attendance that they made it a nationwide trend, bucking the then-popular perception that salads were too effeminate for the average American.
Swanky dinner parties in the 1920s often included Chicken à la King (a cream sauce-covered chicken with vegetable pasta) and pineapple upside-down cake.
The Great Depression took a toll on most Americans during the 1930s, but the rich continued to eat decadently at banquets and restaurants around the country. Lobster had gradually increased in popularity since the 1880s, and while its high price meant most Americans couldn't afford the crustacean, the wealthy ate their fill.
Chicken dishes were popular, with roasted capon (a castrated and fattened male chicken) becoming a particularly trendy choice. Potatoes rissole - small, whole potatoes fried crispy brown on the outside - were popular as a side.