Snapshots of Change in American Food Identity and the American Dream, by Caitlin Nettleton and Nina Bryce

By Caitlin Nettleton and Nina Bryce

Food is a key component of human identity. The photographs “Tenement Family, New York” (Lewis Hine,1910) and “Muscle Beach” (Max Yavno, 1949) demonstrate that not only what is consumed but how it is consumed can define us on a personal level, a cultural level, a social level,  and a national level. Each of a distinct American time period (pre-WWII and post WWII), these photos capture contrasting interactions between people and food, as the post WWII generation attempts, by means of consumerism, to distance themselves from the previous generation’s immigrant background. These contrasting interactions as seen in the photographs are re-created in the personages of Primo and Segundo in the 1996 film Big Night.Directed by Scott Campbell and Stanley Tucci and set in the 1950’s, Big Night is the story of these two Italian immigrant brothers who open a restaurant in New Jersey and struggle with the tension between food as a cultural and familial tradition and food as a means of achieving status in their new-found American home. The opposing forces of tradition and consumerism as seen in Big Night are representative of the differences between “Tenement Family New York” and “Muscle Beach.” When compared with the film Big Night, these two photos are seen to demonstrate the evolution of the American dream through the evolution of American food identity, as indulgence and consumerism replace family values and community. The motif of tables and chairs, or lack thereof, further underscores this evolution of the American dream.

The historical context of Lewis Wickes Hine’s (1874-1940) photograph “Tenement Family, New York” must be understood in order to evaluate the connection between the American dream and American food identity. The photograph depicts an immigrant family eating a meal together in their tenement. Considering the photographer’s preferred subjects and the historical backdrop of turn of the century America, this family is most likely a lower-class immigrant family struggling to survive in a poor neighborhood. The turn of the century in America “was a time in which the exploitative practices of the great trusts appeared to pose a serious danger for the American dream” (Steinorth and Bannon 15). Waves of immigrants were coming from Southern Europe, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, and more and more people were moving to the cities as American transitioned from a primarily agricultural to an industrial society. This population influx and lack of regulations on child labor and other exploitative labor practices caused the conditions of the lowest class of the new industrial society, like the family in the photo, to be substandard. Lewis Wickes Hine was central to a reform movement designed to call the United States government’s attention to the plight of the working class and immigrant families (Steinorth and Bannon 15). Described as a “pioneering social photographer,” his work includes “more than 500 silver gelatin photographic prints depicting American social conditions and labor,” such as photos of families in their tenements, and their attempts to pursue the American dream despite disparaging conditions (NYPL Digital Gallery).

Like the characters in the film Big Night, this tenement family’s pursuit of an American dream is centered around community and family, demonstrated by their communal meal. Like Primo and Segundo who come to America to pursue their dream of opening a restaurant, this family has immigrated to the United States to pursue their dreams. Primo’s definition of the American dream, though, retains his connections to Italy and to family through culinary tradition, unlike Segundo who is tempted to deny his family heritage and buy into a consumerist-American dream. The tenement family in this photo is similar to Primo and his attitude towards food. The entire family is seated around a table, and all of their plates encircle a single platter of meat. The matriarch and patriarch are sitting at opposite ends of the table – a traditional icon of a family dinner. Surrounding them are their children and one other adult member of the family, possibly an elder child, cousin or sibling of one of the parents. Their meal is thus a communal, family affair. In addition, they display their best in this photograph, in terms of dress and tableware. This demonstrates that family and family meals are not separate from an attempt to rise in social and socio-economic status. Their American dream includes family and good, nourishing food.

Their food identity and also their American dream is centered on family values, but also on the emphasis on food as precious and food as nourishment. In “Tenement Family, New York” each member of this family is fully-clothed and connected to one another by table and plate – food is a necessity but also a source of physical and personal nourishment. In addition, there is no dilemma of what to eat – there is only one dish (perhaps two) and what is provided is what you get. “Tenement Family, New York” demonstrates that what we consume hasn’t become as much of a cornerstone of American identity yet – identity is still much more centered around whether or not you have food to eat at all, how food is consumed and how it reinforces familial and communal ties.

As America developed, so too did the American dream and America’s food-based identity undergo a transformation. After WWII, Americans felt a great need for safety, comfort, and fun as a way to release the fear and struggle of the 1930s and 1940s. The 1950s American identity was just beginning to be visible and captured artistically in 1949, when Yavno captured “Muscle Beach.” In the photograph, the presence of consumerism is extremely visible. The background is lined with advertisements, and we see the backs of a sea of people being lured in by the magnetic pull of beautiful bodies, festive atmosphere, and tasty food. Iggers provides a very relevant insight on the notion of consumerism driving people’s values and identities, saying  “in our consumer society, consumption is no longer centered on meeting basic needs for food, clothing and shelter. Rather it is the way we create and maintain a sense of identity” (Iggers 105). The people in this photograph are all white, attractive, seemingly wealthy Californians – all of which characterize the new American homogeneous ideal that many aspired to in the 1950s – thus shaping their identity.

The photographer, Max Yavno, was fascinated by L.A. life in the 1950s. On the blog “L.A. Observed,” Yavno is described as “the photographer who produced some of the most iconic images of Los Angeles” and as “an oddball, a recluse and a perfectionist” (Graeme). According to the photo curator Jennifer Watts, “he has become an artist whose work is synonymous with Los Angeles.” Yavnos personal and artistic history may help explain some of his love of L.A. 1950s society: he began as a photographer in New York City – he was hired by the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s to photograph urban New York scenes that could serve as models for theatrical stage sets .Then during WWII, Yavno was a photography instructor for the military. After his artistic focus had been during the Great Depression and WWII for the first decade of his career, it is understandable that he was drawn to focus on more hopeful subjects during the 1950s, when America as a whole was shifting towards a more optimistic perspective.

This photograph mirrors the process being seen in Primo and Segundo’s story, showing how America’s food identity and the concept of the American dream transformed in the 1950s —  from one based on family and community values to one based on status, leisure, and individual experience. Primo is more interested in preparing the risotto because it is part of his culture, yet Segundo is more concerned with whether it is a profitable item on the menu. Segundo is committed to the restaurant, but he easily gets distracted by the possibility of higher status (when he is lured in by the car salesman, he dreams of another life in which he owns the car). The cultural ethos conveyed in “Muscle Beach” is one in which food is a form of entertainment, not a grounding, centering, ritualized aspect of daily life. The absence of tables and chairs is significant, too. The people are all standing, milling around – there is no gathering place, no common ground, no suggestion of stillness and quietness. In comparison to the communal meal of the first photograph, which was centered at the table, the the concept of food in the second photograph is much more superficial and transient – food is advertised as novel (such as cotton candy, jumbo malts, and candy apples), portable, and cheap – not traditional, predictable, and nourishing.

This scene is a true “feast of the flesh” – the indulgence of food is just one other type of indulgence that goes along with indulgent vacation/leisure time, indulgent sexuality or exhibitionism, indulgent athletic training and body-building, and indulgent clothing and accessories. Food is a status symbol, a form of entertainment or recreation, and even a sexual symbol. The bodies seen in the photo could be seen as another meaning of the term “meat market” – shopping for food options echoes shopping for sexual options. After food shortages and rations of the Depression and the war, the abundance of food the 1950s was a large part of the overall image of leisure and glamour. It should also be noted that there are many food options available in this photograph– having choices of what to eat and being competed for by different advertisers was a relatively new phenomenon at the beginning of the 1950s. This 1950s group momentum towards a stimulating, fun food experience can also be seen in Big Night in Pascal’s restaurant – the customers who go there are pulled in by exciting demonstrations, lots of tasty foods to choose from, and of course, the other wealthy, sexually alluring people that go there.

With the film Big Night as a framework, the comparison of the photographs “Tenement Family, New York” (Hines) and “Muscle Beach” (Yavno) provide insight into the evolution of American food identity and the American dream throughout the 20th Century. Like the characters Primo and Segundo who highlight the transition from immigrant traditions to American consumerism through their understanding of their restaurant, so to do the photos illustrate the progression from a family and community focused, practical, nourishing relationship with food to a much more complex relationship with food — one based on status, sex appeal, consumerism, and fun.  In the Hines photograph it is a family around a table, seated and preparing to share one communal dish, whereas in the Yavno photograph the lack of a central eating location results in a fairly anonymous, unconnected mass of people, brought together by the lure of many different types of food, fun and beauty, all of which are being advertised to them by businesses. Some might say that this form of gathering around food is less authentic or less meaningful, some might say it is progress towards a wealthier, more sophisticated society. Neither qualifying statement would be objectively correct —  this contrast (between Hines’ and Yavno’s works) only provides us with evidence of the changing American food identity. It is up to the viewer to then decide for his/herself whether our national identity surrounding eating is shifting in a promising direction or in a destructive one.

Works Cited:

Big Night. Dir. Stanley Tucci. Perf. Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub. Rysher Entertainment, 1996.  Netflix Instant Watch.

Graeme, Judy. “Max Yavno.” LA Observed. August 5th, 2008. Web. 11 Oct 2010.              <http://www.laobserved.com/intell/2008/08/max_yavno.php&gt;.

Steinorth, Karl and Anthony Bannon. Lewis Hine : Passionate Journey, Photographs 1905-1937. Zurich: Edition Stemmle, c1996. Print.

Iggers, Jeremy. The Garden of Eating: Food, Sex, and the Hunger for Meaning. New York: Basic, 1996. Print.

“Lewis Hine Collection | UMBC.” UMBC | Digital Collections. Web. 09 Oct. 2010.             <http://contentdm.ad.umbc.edu/hine.php&gt;.

“NYPL Digital Gallery | Lewis Wickes Hine: Documentary Photographs, 1905-1938.” NYPL Digital Gallery | Home. Web. 09 Oct. 2010.              <http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/explore/dgexplore.cfm?col_id=175&gt;.

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