“Silence never won rights. They are not handed down from above; they are forced by pressures from below.”
—Roger Baldwin, co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union
Disputes about labor—the length of workdays, time off for illness and rest, and salary—are as old as employment itself. But it wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the labor movement in America gained momentum and power, inching towards policies like eight-hour workdays and minimum wage laws. In 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. And by the early 20th century, strikes had grown increasingly common, and workers banded together to form unions.
Playwright Rebecca Gilman sets her play Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976 in the 1970s, a period when workers made significant progress, but societal changes—feminism, the Civil Rights Movement, technological advances and a shift from family-run businesses to conglomerates— modified the labor landscape. The play centers around the Durst family in fictional Reynolds, Wisconsin, a town whose economic stability relies on Farmstead, a cheese-packing plant. The father, Kim, has worked at Farmstead since he was 18 years old; his plans for further education or career development were foiled by the birth of his daughter, Kelly, now 16. Kim’s wife, Kat, stayed at home to raise Kelly, taking a few shifts at the factory during the Christmas rush each year. Though Kim feels trapped in his job, he appreciates how well the factory owners treat their employees, and he has eked out a middle class lifestyle for Kat, Kelly and himself. Now, however, owners of the factory are selling it to Consolidated Foods, a Chicago-based company. The new management aims to make the factory “lean and mean,” increasing efficiency and profits without regard to how these changes affect workers. Kim, who has spent his career toeing the line, must now decide whether to accept the situation or work to improve it. In the play, Gilman presents an average Midwestern family at a pivotal moment in the 20th century—when changing labor practices could cost them the only livelihood they’ve ever known.
Kim earns his living packing and shipping cheeses for national distribution; his occupation would have been unheard of a century earlier, when people mostly consumed minimally processed food from their immediate area. But early in the 20th century, entrepreneurs discovered there was money to be made in processing, mass-producing and distributing food products widely. By 1976, “big food” had replaced the old system, with corporations becoming ever more gargantuan as they bought and revamped smaller companies, often laying off workers or lowering their wages. Consumers, meanwhile, developed a taste for the food products that adorned grocery shelves, developing loyalties to brands like Kraft and General Mills that offered increasingly easy meal solutions, and shifted the American diet to rely on processed grains and sugars. (“So that’s us—processed corn, walking,” notes food writer Michael Pollan in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.) In Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976, the local factory, Farmstead, stands to lose its homemade flavor as big business swallows it whole—but perhaps more importantly, its employees stand to lose their jobs. Meanwhile, the women in the play are creating a recipe book which they plan to sell at an upcoming local festival. This book, entitled Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976, contains the lovingly tested ingredients and procedures for creating homemade food—a stark contrast to the automated packaging and profit-driven processes that dominate America’s foodscape.
In the play, Consolidated Foods, Inc. is a conglomeration that buys smaller companies and increases their productivity and profits. Although fictional, Consolidated Foods resembles real “big food” companies, which frequently own multiple brands, controlling the working conditions and wages of millions of people, as well as the ways that food is harvested, processed and packaged worldwide. Nestlé, for example, owns over 2,000 brands that bring in annual revenue of over $100 billion. Nestlé began in 1867 by selling only one product: an infant formula consisting of dried milk, wheat flour and sugar which its developer, Henri Nestlé, hoped would curb the high rate of infant mortality. By 1904, the company also produced milk chocolate, and in 1905 Nestlé merged with Anglo-Swiss, a condensed milk business. Growing steadily over the 20th century, Nestlé slowly diversified, expanding into ice cream and other frozen foods as home freezers grew in popularity. In the 1970s, Nestlé acquired frozen food giant Stouffer’s and canned foods producer Libby, McNeill & Libby, and became a minority shareholder in L’Oréal, which represented its first non-food business venture. In the 1980s and ‘90s, it expanded to include such varied brands as Carnation, Friskies, Perrier and Purina, and in 2006 purchased weight management company Jenny Craig. Nestlé now reigns as one of the largest food companies in the world, bearing little resemblance to the small business that sold a product designed to help infants survive their first year of life.
In Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976, Gilman allows us to glimpse the human impact of the actions of “big food” companies as they revamp workplaces and vie for ever-growing profits. Centered on ordinary people in a small town, this quintessentially American play explores how one family reacts to the ongoing changes in their working lives, their food supply and their nation.