What takeout food reveals about U.S. history

From fast-food restaurants to pizza delivery, the history of takeout food can tell us plenty, because how and what Americans eat often reflect the changes taking place in society at any particular time.

“You can learn a lot from food,” says Emelyn Rude, a food historian and author of the book Tastes Like Chicken. “Everyone eats, and it’s one of those unique ways in which agriculture, science, health, nutrition and culture all come together in one single plate.”

Take pizza, for example. Americans were initially suspicious of dishes favored by Italian immigrants, in part because some of the ingredients were foreign to them.

Fast forward to after World War II, when American soldiers returned from Europe raving about the Italian food they’d eaten there. Once a box was invented in the 1940s to keep pizza hot, the flat, round cheesy pie was on its way to becoming a staple in the U.S. diet. Today, 1 in 8 Americans eats pizza on any given day.

Takeout food also can teach about darker periods in U.S. history.

Jim Crow laws, enacted by Southern states from the 1880s to the mid 1960s, legalized the segregation of blacks and whites. If African Americans wanted to eat at a particular restaurant that didn’t designate a section for people of color, they’d go around back and see if the restaurants would give them food to go.

In 1849, during the California Gold Rush, enterprising Chinese food entrepreneurs set up near where prospectors were searching for gold. As Rude says, the fortune hunters didn’t make any money, but the people who fed them did. One of the first American restaurants to offer food delivery is believed to be a Chinese eatery in San Francisco that began offering the service in the 1920s.

TV and cars make impact

Cars parked in circle at drive-in restaurant in 1949 (© AP Images)
Hungry motorists are served by electrically controlled cable car at The Track, an advanced type of drive-in restaurant in Los Angeles in 1949. (© AP Images)

Everything changed for restaurants when television was invented and, by the 1950s, had infiltrated millions of U.S. homes.

Almost overnight, people became more interested in staying home and watching TV, rather than going out to eat. When restaurants experienced a dramatic drop in sales, they knew it was time to adapt or die.

“They all started developing these take-home menus and delivery,” Rude says, “just so people wouldn’t have to leave their homes. They could do both: eat restaurant food and watch television.”

Then, once everyone had cars, fast food became the next big thing. “The car really revolutionized how everyone eats because we could get food conveniently, we could get it super cheaply,” Rude says. “And so, yes, we owe fast food to cars.”

Today, roughly 6 percent of Americans eat takeout food on any given day. For the first time in U.S. history, restaurant spending is higher than grocery spending for the average American.

The internet age has given more obscure restaurants increased exposure and access to potential patrons who might not have found them otherwise, but the actual food consumed hasn’t changed much. The most popular food ordered via apps or the internet is — you guessed it — pizza.