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July 24, 2008
Contact: Lauren Beatty, University Relations, (785) 864-8856.

Recent KU grad finds favored foods change with the times

LAWRENCE — The 1950s were marked with extreme change in American living. The war was over, babies were booming and, perhaps most importantly, the TV dinner was invented.

Tim Miller of Holton, who recently earned a doctorate in history from the University of Kansas, researched the era for his dissertation, specifically looking at the the kinds of foods people ate and how they reflected the cultural shifts taking place in that time period. His findings squash the notion that food is just food.

“The foods we eat are connected to other aspects of our lives,” Miller said. “We saw the rise of convenience foods in the ’50s. That’s because more women were going to work. The middle class was growing. They didn’t have as much time, but they had more money.”

The idea to study how food intersects with culture was born when Miller discovered the Clementine Paddleford archive at Kansas State University. Paddleford, a Kansas native, was a noted food writer in the ’50s. Sandwiched in more than 300 boxes were Paddleford’s collection of menus, book manuscripts, cookbooks and newspaper columns. From digging through the treasure trove, Miller’s dissertation topic was cemented.

For a year and a half, Miller conducted his research. He found that barbecues and cocktail parties both saw surges in popularity during the ’50s — this because postwar houses were smaller, and it was easier to entertain guests out of doors than in cramped kitchens. He also wrote a chapter about ethnic foods. Miller found that many white people wouldn’t eat traditionally African-American foods unless they were called “Southern” foods. But they didn’t reject ethnic foods entirely — Italian cuisine was extremely popular with mainstream Americans.

“I’m a baby-boom kid myself, and I appreciated Tim’s curiosity about this crucial period in postwar American history,” said Karl Brooks, an associate professor of history at KU and Miller’s adviser. “With the food we eat becoming more important to our environment, as well as to our culture, Tim’s study will have wide influence on historians as well as the general public.”

Miller is married to Janet (Griesel) Miller and is the son of John Miller of Goshen, Ind. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Goshen College in 1992.

Miller hopes to turn his dissertation into a book, and he will teach courses on American history next year at KU. But his doctoral research has left him hungry for more: Miller’s next big project will be tracking the history of the chocolate chip cookie. Yum.

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