Prohibition and the Transformation of American Food

In our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, “How American Food Got Bad,” Tyler Cowen gives some specific, surprising reasons why  food got so bad. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or read the transcript here.)

One big historical factor: Prohibition. Restaurants that relied on alcohol sales closed their doors, often replaced by diners, soda fountains, and candy shops. This new breed of restaurant served hot dogs, hamburgers, chop suey, and what we now know as classic American fast food. We traded quality for speed and convenience. Here are some photos of that transformation, when cheap food outlets popped up to meet the demands of our growing consumer society.

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All photos from The Library of Congress, except Oyster Bar 2009 from Jazz Guy.

Mike B

I don't know about that. There's an amazing brew pub down near where I live and I feel far worse after downing a couple of pints and eating an order of garlic fries there than I do after going to Subway or eating at home. However I can see that when you can't take your kid out to eat (cause you plan to get smashed) you aren't going to end up eating kid's food.

Neil (SM)

That's today. Pre-prohibition the food quality wasn't related to the alcohol per-se, it was just that restaurants were more about fine dining and made most of their money from beverage sales. When they couldn't sell alcohol, the restaurants had to start selling cheaper food -- which apparently caught on to the extent that you can now buy both booze and cheap food at today's establishments.


How do we control for the Depression that occurred at same time, roughly, as Prohibition? I can't listen to podcast at work. Seems like two things happening at once.

Neil (SM)

Prohibition was 1920-1933. Great depression began in 1929. The majority of prohibition occurred during relatively good economic times.