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We Americans eat differently than we once did, and most culinary anthropologists (yes, there are such people) believe the big change took place right after World War II.

That's when many packaged food products began to come into their own. Nobody had ever conceived of something like Hamburger Helper back then -- ah, those were the days, my friends. And nobody could even imagine Pillsbury refrigerated biscuits or Mrs. Paul's Fish Sticks, either.

The American packaged food industry was born, some experts say, from necessity. After the war ended, canned, freeze-dried and dehydrated products, developed to feed the armed services, were left moldering in food warehouses.

But there was also something more.

During the war, another army -- women who left their homes to work in war industries -- were no longer interested in fussing over home-cooked meals. (That's what they were told anyway.) That's according to author Carolyn Wyman in her new book "Amazing Foods that Changed the Way We Eat." (Quirk Books.)

And, remember this is America.

No industry worth its stockholders could ever ignore marketing opportunities like these.

Not everything that turned up on the shelves was terrific. And that's an understatement because most of the rejected products were awful. Wyman is really enthusiastic about products like Cheez Whiz for example. Maybe she's writing tongue in cheek -- "where cheddar and brie are strongly flavored and smelly and offer no consistency, every jar of Cheez Whiz is the same," she says. I beg to disagree.

I also have a lot of trouble thinking anything good about things like Shake 'n' Bake, Bac-0s, Lipton Cup-A Soup, Kellogg's Pop Tarts, Swanson's TV Dinners and squishy Wonder Bread (which was forced to cut back on its deceitful overwhelming nutritional claims by the Federal Trade Commission).

But everyone has his own pantry of horrors.

I think products like these destroyed the palate of the American people. And, in some cases, gave them a good dose of possibly harmful preservatives, as well.

But other foods did make positive contributions. Birds Eye Frozen Vegetables, for example. No, not as tasty as well-cooked fresh vegetables but they have encouraged Americans to eat more vegetables year round.

Minute Maid Orange Juice -- the frozen concentrate that company developed now accounts for 70 percent of the orange juice consumed in America. (At least we're drinking orange juice.)

And Philadelphia Cream Cheese (the one without the gelatin) which is really pretty good.

The one really interesting aspect of all this? Even the most committed food purist is addicted to some some secret packaged food, I believe.

I went through college eating Velveeta (I kept it on the window sill and indulged during all-night study sessions.) My son was crazy for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese -- he knew the stuff so well that he could even tell when I tried to pass off another brand.

My daughter still loves Pringles even if they did provide a new use for old tennis ball cans, as Wyman says. And my husband is famous for his inexplicable love of canned green beans. (Say canned "gray" beans and you're closer to the truth.)

So, you win a little -- you lose a little (maybe you lose more than a little), but change is inevitable. We all just have to be a tad more discriminating.


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