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'What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?'

An exhibit at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., featuring vitamin donuts and President Nixon's last White House breakfast shows the historic influence of the government on what we eat.

By Feasting On Art / June 16, 2011

A poster dating to 1925 that encouraged Americans to grow their own food to save money.

Credit: National Archives, Publications of the U.S. Government

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"What’s Cooking Uncle Sam" is the newest exhibition on view at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It is a show that traces the government’s role in both food production and consumption of the Unites States. The exhibition features a collection of office stationery ranging from posters and pamphlets to product labels and photographs of the various meals enjoyed by presidents. I asked the curator, Alice Kamps, a few questions regarding the National Archives collection and the exhibition which will be on view until January 3, 2012.

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Interview with Alice Kamps, exhibition curator

What do you collect today of the American food culture for the exhibitions and collections of tomorrow?

The National Archives keeps the documents and materials created in the course of business conducted by the United States Federal government that are judged to be important for legal or historical reasons. These materials are preserved because they are important to the workings of Government, have long-term research worth, or provide information of value to citizens. The records created in the course of Government initiatives, legislation, and programs that relate to food are among these records.

There are a number of advertisements for food and products in the exhibition, do you collect and document the digital advertising on the internet and through email?

The food advertisements and labels in the exhibition were submitted to the Government in the course of various government activities. The National Archives keeps digital and other advertising records from government files that are judged to be of historical value.

What about food blogs? Are you archiving any websites in their entirety in order to preserve them for future generations?

The National Archives archives blogs and other electronic records created in the course of government business.

How did you approach curating this exhibition? Are there any predominate themes running throughout the collection?

After surveying food records from a variety of different government agencies, I decided to narrow the scope by focusing on those that tell interesting stories about how Government affects our food supply and food choices. These included things like agricultural activities, nutrition education programs, food safety regulation, school lunch, and military food service. Many of the themes in the exhibit echo today’s concerns about food: the safety of additives, the diversity of plants, and the nutritional quality of the foods we eat.

Looking at the food and nutrition of yesterday, have you learned any important information that is relevant today?

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