Why Americans started eating kidney and brains

by Charles Duhigg in Uncategorized
Offal Meats - Photo courtesy of Charles Haynes

Hungry? Photo courtesy of Charles Haynes

A few people have emailed me to ask about a reference in my last post to the post-WWII era, when Americans started eating more organ meats, like kidney and tongue.

Here’s how I describe what happened in my (forthcoming) book:

In the early 1940s, the U.S. government began shipping much of the nation’s domestic meat supply to Europe and the Pacific theater to support troops fighting in WWII. Back home, the availability of meat began to dwindle. By the time the U.S. entered the war in late 1941, New York restaurants were using horsemeat for hamburgers and a black market for poultry had emerged. Federal officials became worried that a lengthy war effort would leave the nation starved of protein. This “problem will loom larger and larger in the United States as the war goes on,” former President Herbert Hoover wrote to Americans in a government pamphlet in 1943. “Our farms are short of labor to care for livestock; and on top of it all we must furnish supplies to the British and Russians. Meats and fats are just as much munitions in this war as are tanks and aeroplanes.”

Concerned, the Department of Defense recruited dozens of the nation’s leading sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists– including Margaret Mead and Kurt Lewin, who would go on to become celebrity academics – and gave them an assignment: figure out how to convince Americans to eat organ meats. Get housewives to serve their husbands and children the protein-rich livers, hearts, kidneys, brains, stomachs and intestines that were left behind after the steaks and pork loins went overseas.

At the time, organ meat wasn’t popular in America. A middle-class woman in 1940 would sooner starve than despoil her table with tongue or tripe. So when the Committee on Food Habits met for the first time in 1941, they set themselves a goal of systematically identifying the cultural barriers that discouraged Americans from eating organ meat. In all, over 200 studies were eventually published, and at their core, they all contained a similar finding: to change peoples’ diets, the exotic must be made familiar. And to do that, you must camouflage it in everyday clothes.

To convince Americans to eat livers and kidneys, housewives had to know how to make the foods look, taste and smell as similar as possible to what their familiesexpected to see on the dinner table each night. For instance, when the Subsistence Division of the Quartermaster Corps – the people in charge of feeding soldiers – started serving fresh cabbage to troops in 1943, it was rejected. So mess halls chopped and boiled the dish until it looked like every other vegetable on a soldier’s tray – and the troops ate it without complaint. “Soldiers were more likely to eat food, whether familiar or unfamiliar, when it was prepared similar to their prior experiences and served in a familiar fashion,” a present-day researcher evaluating those studies wrote. The secret to changing the American diet, the Committee on Food Habits concluded, was familiarity. Soon, housewives were receiving mailers from the government telling them “every husband will cheer for steak and kidney pie.” Butchers started handing out recipes that explained how to slip liver into meatloaf.

A few years after World War II ended, the Committee on Food Habits was dissolved. By then, however, organ meats had been fully integrated onto the American diet. One study indicated that offal consumption rose by 33 percent during the war. By 1955, it was up 50 percent. Kidney had become a staple at dinner. Liver was for special occasions. America’s dining patterns had shifted to such a degree that organ meats became emblems of comfort.

Since then, the U.S. government has launched dozens of other efforts to improve our diets. For example, there was the “Five A Day” campaign, intended to encourage people to eat five fruits or vegetables, the USDA’s food pyramid, and a push for low-fat cheeses and milks. None of them adhered to the Committee’s findings. None tried to camouflage their recommendations in existing habits, and as a result, the campaigns failed. To date, the only government program ever to cause a lasting change in the American diet was the organ meat push of the 1940s.

This is part of a larger chapter about how companies – like giant retailers and radio stations – seek to change (or manipulate) shoppers’ habits in order to sell products. It’s an interesting science, and one that’s intruding more and more into peoples’ lives (even if they’re not aware of it.) And it’s not all bad, as the liver-and-kidney example demonstrates.

If you’ve seen any examples of companies trying to play with your habits lately, I would love to hear about them.

3 Responses to “Why Americans started eating kidney and brains”

  1. My German relatives here in the US had cooking beef tongue as part of their heritage, not a new idea.

    • srid har says:

      Juxtaposing your point with Charles post, it appears that to make a habit mainstream across the masses, it needs to be something one has heard of or it already exists; i.e. a new habit and an old one both need to come from the known space.

  2. Margo Reischl says:

    My family and I are going on sort of a “Diet Challenge.” We’re all going to put money in a pot and we’ll weigh in each week and if we gain we have to pay $1 per pound (if we lose we pay nothing) and at the end of 6 weeks, whoever has lost the most weight gets the whole pot. I’m hoping that the Lemonade diet will be my way to all that money and a healthier body.