The American supermarket is an archive and a changing exhibition of the goods we consume. Fragments of childhood resist obsolescence, remaining on sale for generations without retooling: Malomars, Hostess Snowballs, Ovaltine. Others have adapted: Uncle Ben’s has ventured beyond its Texas rice roots to instant Thai noodles and “Mexican Style Bowls”; Aunt Jemima is no longer mere maid, but now passes as a slightly stocky account executive. The elderly white man with blue eyes in Quaker’s garb shares shelf space with a black man in a chef’s toque and a red bow tie; the Quaker and the freedman.
Like Betty Crocker, many of these personalities sell intricately engineered food products. Their smiles spread a blanket of comfort over new ways of processing and packaging. In 1957, General Foods introduced Tang in a distinctive ribbed glass jar — not as orange juice but as “breakfast beverage crystals” with a natural taste. It was a modern product, catapulted to stardom on the basis of its new-tech appeal: “as drunk by the astronauts.” In the 1960s, suburban kids seated in Saarinen tulip chairs at pedestal tables had a moment in sync with the Age of Space.
Today, “progress” is less often sold as a promise than it was in the mid 20th century. More frequently science is a latent threat, a symbol of change portending a hard-edged future — conceivably better suited to ads for information technology than for family dinners. Historical theming, like a blue plate special of chicken à la king (albeit in boilable bags), offers the warmth of a familiar, natural world. The problem lies not with the mild fantasy of something like Tang or Pop-Tarts — the consumption of fantasy in all forms remains an American birthright — but with the calculated confusion of “flavor crystals” with actual flavor, the masking of a thing with a cartoon. It’s part of a larger wave of nostalgia that keeps us moving forward with our eyes fixed firmly behind.