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UW-Madison exhibit showcases 100 years on the art and science of eating.

Trust humans to make something as simple as eating complicated — and controversial.

Choosing what to eat and how to eat is downright stressful these days. Butter, margarine or Crisco? Meat protein, carbs, or greens? Even the experts keep changing their minds. Our official food pyramids are crumbling every few years, it seems. To make matters worse, today it’s not just Mom, but Michelle Obama, admonishing us to eat right.

Our country’s obsession with food is nothing new, as a fascinating exhibit at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Ebling Library, in the Health Science Learning Center makes clear. “It’s Good for You,” which closes April 6, traces the history of our food and diet fads through a thoughtful compilation of books, magazine articles and photos from university libraries and archives that both amuses and surprises. Who would have thought that food guru Michael Pollan was beaten to the punch more than a century ago by a gynecologist named Florence Dressler, who in her 1903 manual Feminology: A Guide for Womankind, Giving in Detail Instructions as to Motherhood, Maidenhood and the Nursery, advised Americans to eat local, eat plants, eat in moderation, and to enjoy it?

Or that as early as 1907 a Mrs. S.T. Rorer in Ladies Home Journal advised her readers to slow down in “this age of American rush”: “Perhaps the most monumental of our dietetic sins is hurried eating and lack of mastication.”

Other articles and books on display tout the merits of green vegetables and fruits and the dangers of eating what once were called “flesh meats,” a movement that gained force with the rationing of meat during WWII. In that era, the kitchen was called a “combat zone” and toiling in victory gardens patriotic duty.

Decades ago, a pinnacle of a woman’s success was feeding her family well, whatever it took, right on down to flirting with the local grocer. “Give your Grocer a Wink, and See What You’ll Get,” advised one old ad.

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Speaking of flirting, over the decades, our preoccupation with looks and beauty hasn’t changed one whit, either, and somehow it keeps getting wrapped up in food. An entire display case is devoted to the array of diet fads. At least cigarette companies can no longer get by with ads claiming that a Lucky Strike is a helpful dietary aide, better for a young woman’s looks and health than “a sweet.”

What emerges from a visit to the exhibit is the realization that our love-hate affair with food and diets hasn’t really changed a whole lot over the past century, even if we’re a little less worried about mastication and constipation than we used to be. As the introduction to the exhibit aptly puts it, eating is “one of the most anxiety producing events in our modern age.”

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