“When you think of cultural identity, the last thing to go—even after language—is ideas about food,” he explained. “It’s one of the most deeply culturally rooted sets of ideas that anyone could have, the relationship to food itself.”
Up until that point, food-related war propaganda—as with World War I’s “Food will win this war”—had largely pinned its messages to ideas of patriotism, encouraging the public to use vegetables from their Victory Gardens, Can for Victory, or otherwise do their part in the kitchen to support the men on the front lines.
Mead and Lewin, though, had other ideas. Using patriotism as an incentive was all well and good, they argued, but it wasn’t the most effective means of steering eating behavior. A better method, they believed, was to focus on barriers over incentives—the question at hand wasn’t “What would convince you to eat organ meats?” but rather “Why don’t you eat them in the first place?”
One of the major reasons, they soon found through their research, was organs’ unfamiliarity—people balked at the idea of serving something without knowing its taste or even how best to prepare it. In response, the committee urged the government to produce materials that couched the new meats in more comfortable terms.
“One of the first interesting things they found was, you don’t go to people and say, ‘Look, eat beef brains every day,’” said Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University, in his 2002 paper “Changing Eating Habits on the Home Front: Lost Lessons from World War II Research.” “The first thing they did was say, ‘Let’s have a much smaller ask. Let’s ask people to occasionally try an organ meat. Insert organ meat into your meal planning.’ What was very clever about the way they did this, is they said, ‘Just try it for variety.’”
And thus, “variety meats” were born. Butchers, who already sold organ meats for fewer ration points than premium cuts, were encouraged to adopt the new term with their customers; so were reporters with their readers.
“Variety meats: They are good, abundant, highly nutritious,” chirped an article in the January 1943 issue of LIFE magazine:
For no good reason most Americans wrinkle their noses at the idea of any of the functional organs of otherwise edible animals. Yet tripe, kidneys, tongue, heart, liver, and the other “variety meats” shown on the following pages are not only rich in nutritive value but, when properly prepared, are among the tastiest dishes known.
Community groups held “variety” cooking classes; publishers released cookbooks instructing people how to make hearts filled with stuffing and chicken and how to prepare kidneys for meat and vegetable stew. Slowly, organs became, if not enthusiastically embraced, than begrudgingly accepted into the mainstream diet—and as their ubiquity grew, their stigma began to fade.