The Government Taste Testers Who Reshaped America’s Diet | History
Lucy Alexander boasted one of the strangest jobs on the federal payroll. Her official title was the innocuous “chief poultry cook” for the Bureau of Home Economics, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture, and Alexander was a veteran of the government taste testing landscape. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, she ate thousands of pieces of meat from various breeds as part of a program to bring overlooked agricultural goods into the American diet. By 1931, according to the Chicago Daily Tribune, Alexander had “tasted and tested the left hind legs of more than 2,300 lambs.”
The tests were designed to sleuth out the tastiest versions of meats or crops that were raised at far higher rates than they were consumed. In addition to testing whether characteristics like age or breed impacted the taste of an animal, Alexander and her assistant cooked the meats using a variety of methods—roasting, frying, boiling, or braising—to see which was the most appealing. She and her team raised the animals themselves at a network of 25 USDA “experiment stations” set up across the country, often offering them specialized feed to see how it affected their flavor. Alexander then relayed her findings to the farmers themselves, so they could then adjust how they raised their crops or livestock.
At the time, U.S. agriculture was diverse and unwieldy. Today the agricultural system centers around a few heavily subsidized crops. Farmers at the turn of the 20th century grew all sorts of crops and raised many different livestock without much attention paid to the consumer marketplace. Lamb, for instance, wasn’t very popular, even though many farmers raised them largely because their families had historically done so. Alexander’s job was to coordinate with farmers to create a market for their unpopular meats. If her testers found that younger lambs tasted better than their older counterparts, then the Bureau of Home Economics would in theory tell farmers to wait those extra months before putting their product on the market.
That drive to smooth out the farm-to-table pipeline stemmed from a larger desire, as Megan Elias, a professor of gastronomy at Boston University, puts it, “to make American agriculture the most advanced in the world.”
“There was a big imperative that the U.S. government and all state governments had to improve farming, to suggest crops, to suggest foods,” says Elias, who wrote about the Bureau of Home Economics in her book Stir It Up.
Although largely forgotten, taste testers served as the gatekeepers in a larger federal project that, since the founding of the USDA in 1862, has attempted to influence what food winds up in American kitchens. Throughout the 19th century and up until 1996, the FDA employed expert tea tasters whose job it was to analyze teas that passed through the border and root out the samples they feared were contaminated. But the Bureau of Home Economics, founded in 1923, oversaw one of the most extensive programs of federal taste testing in U.S. history.
Alexander became the Bureau’s point person on all things meat. The taste tests she organized were particularly well choreographed: They began, according to a 1931 Chicago Daily Tribune article, when a volunteer wheeled a set of lamb chops into a makeshift kitchen located in one of the USDA’s 25 experimental labs. There, a group of five testers, all USDA employees, were waiting. So as not to bias the testers, Alexander had covered the lamb with a white sheet—“clothed in as much anonymity as any girl entering her photograph in a beauty contest,” according to the Tribune. These meats were from animals that differed in age, sex, feed or breed, and they were either prepared either roasted or braised. Of the several dozen meats she’d prepared, Alexander wanted to narrow down the most beloved combination of variables.
When the lamb was served, the tasters first lifted up their plates and sniffed. Per the test, they had to judge the scent along several different axes, including “intensity” and “desirability.” Next, they cut their lambs into squares, which they scored on texture, tenderness, “flavor of fat and of lean,” and “quality and quantity of juice.” They also noted the meat’s color, placing it on a scale from light red to dark brown, before finally tasting it.
The taste testers that Alexander enlisted were a mix of USDA secretaries, executives, and lab workers whom Alexander had selected to take an afternoon off their regular work in order to spend it, blindfolded, tasting dozens of different meats. Numbering around 20 in all, they were chosen because they were exceptionally familiar with whichever type of food the Bureau of Home Economics was testing that day. One 1937 consumer guide published by the USDA noted that, “if the aim is to find the better of two methods of making jelly, then judges are persons acquainted with standards of jelly excellence.”
Even for subject matter experts, the Bureau held a careful vetting process to establish who made the cut. According the Asbury Park Evening Press, taste testers first had to go through a USDA employee named Nicholas G. Barbella, who fed them sucrose, salt, caffeine and tartaric acid in order to elicit their reactions to the “four primary taste sensations.” If Barbella judged that their taste sensations were “not too sensitive, not too dull,” they would be approved for the job.
In a 1937 test covered by the Washington Post, three men and three women sat in front of an array of turkeys. Between bites, they sipped coffee or ate a piece of an apple or a cracker. As they were chewing, the Post diligently noted, their “eyes would look off, searching, again meditatively and discerningly,” before they went through and ranked the tenderness, texture, and other descriptions according to their checklist. (Among their array of possible answers: desirable, neutral, tough, very pronounced, moderately pronounced, very coarse, fine, good and poor.) In a final survey, the testers were asked to decide “which of the birds was best in the mouth.” Those findings were then taken back to the farmers who raised the turkeys; what the data said, however, wasn’t mentioned in the news reports.
“The eating of turkey can make you tired of turkey,” said Rob R. Slocum, an executive at the USDA who had been recruited for the test. “It keeps you from wanting dinner; it is also very tedious when you just sit to eat turkey for many hours.”
When it wasn’t coordinating with farmers, the Bureau also attempted to advertise these re-engineered surplus meats and crops to American consumers themselves. Selling Americans on soy, for instance, became a particularly important directive. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the agency organized taste tests designed to bring soybean oil into American salad dressings, and it published recipes for soy-bran muffins and “spice pie with soybean pulp” that it distributed through a patchwork of newspapers and radio shows.
“They’re not trying to invent new kinds of foods,” says Elias. “It’s just them saying, ‘Make your muffin with soy! There are more kinds of proteins!’”
Outside of lamb, turkey, and soy, products like mung beans wormed their way into Bureau taste tests. By finding the right way to raise and cook these products, the Bureau was betting it could convince Americans to buy them.
And in some cases, their vision seemed to materialize. Elias argues that the Bureau was responsible for bringing food products like soy into the American mainstream. “The culinary use of soy does not come from them”—the use of soybeans in food was pioneered in China—“but their work with soy helped to convince the USDA that it was a viable crop in the U.S.,” says Elias. Trade groups like the National Livestock and Meat Board also got on board, often lobbying in favor of more taste tests.
Taste testing has not been a significant part of federal work since the Bureau lost its funding in 1962, but the use of tax money to pay for taste tests is still a regular facet of American life. Many local governments continue to organize tests of school lunches, part of a larger effort to engineer new meals out of surplus agricultural products. And that partnership between agricultural trade groups and the federal government has remained unbroken ever since: During a milk surplus in the 1990s, for instance, the USDA and the dairy industry partnered to sell Americans on the “Got Milk?” campaign. Such attempts to rebrand surplus crops to consumers have the defunct Bureau of Home Economics—and its soy-bran muffins—to thank.