The exhibit What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet, opened June 10 at the National Archives downtown. That day and over the weekend, more than 15,000 visitors had the chance to see a poster with rosy-cheeked kids advertising vitamin-enriched doughnuts and a scone recipe sent from Queen Elizabeth to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The presentation of these and more than 100 other historical items seems better designed for someone hopping off a tour bus than anyone who knows the exhibit space as a stop on the Green Line. But beyond the gallery, local foodies and policy wonks can find plenty of eye-opening material here to ponder.

What’s Cooking comprises four color-coded sections related to farm, factory, kitchen and table in the compact Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery. On the walls and in display cases are posters, photographs, letters, political cartoons, and videos covering the United States’ history of food production, distribution and regulation. The exhibit begins during the era of Revolutionary War rations and ends around the time of the Reagan administration’s ketchup-as-a-vegetable debacle.

Though the exhibit does not use flashy media or a gripping narrative, virtually everyone can connect to something there.

For Louisiana nursery school teacher Janna Maggio, who came to the Archives with her husband and middle-school-aged son to see the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, the connection was to her students’ food preferences. “They’re so used to eating chicken nuggets at home,” Maggio says. “We’ll basically beg for them to try something else.” If nuggets aren’t available, the kids dip bread rolls in ketchup.

The exhibit shows that the tug-of-war between federal recommendations and Americans’ eating habits is “nothing new,” says Maggio.

“There’s lots of conversation going on about food policy and regulation, as well as just general interest in food and cooking,” says exhibition curator Alice Kamps. This created the perfect context for a show of food records, which Kamps began working on when she joined the Archives two years ago. And people responded—the Archives had almost 700 more visitors on opening day than it did on the second Friday of June 2010, and almost 1,500 more over the weekend.

Some D.C.-area residents were among them. “It’s interesting to see what happened before regulation started kicking in,” says Rockville resident David Driscoll, who came specifically for What’s Cooking at the recommendation of Kendra Scaman, who lives on Capitol Hill and heard about the show on NPR. Scaman was fascinated by a late 19th-century cartoon showing a woman trying to save herself as her ketchup bottles explode—a common occurrence before Henry Heinz started using a stabilizing agent and fresh tomatoes in the fermented condiment.

That cartoon sits in the “Factory” section, close to another from 1885 entitled “Our Mutual Friend.” The image depicts a sexton (whose main concern is preserving corpses) and a doctor eyeballing a gigantic stick of candy marked with the ingredients both men use: arsenic, chalk, chromium yellow and other nasty chemicals. These scenes, we discover, come from the dim days before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

The bulk of the Archives’ summer visitors are families and school groups, mostly from out of town, says Kamps.

Any local wonks who did wander in undoubtedly noted something odd. Except for a 1992 USDA food pyramid and a small poster of Michelle Obama breaking ground on the White House kitchen garden in 2009, the romp through food history stops in the ’80s. Those vitamin doughnut hawkers are long gone, it seems to say; deadly food additives were regulated away decades ago. Even the videos made for the exhibit have a sepia-toned 1930s look. Kamps points out a practical reason for this: The Archives does not receive most of its documents until 30 years after their creation.

That means the displays do not include ads claiming the health benefits of cotton candy-flavored yogurt, photos of Farm Bill protests or study abstracts linking cancer to perfectly legal artificial colors.

The events on the exhibit’s periphery have more than made up for any lack of Washingtonian attendance. Celebrated D.C. chef José Andrés serves as the exhibit’s chief culinary adviser. Andrés has written a book based on the exhibit and will open a pop-up restaurant called the America Eats Tavern near the Archives site in July. On the first evening of the exhibit, his lecture and book signing packed the Archives’ 290-seat McGowan Theater.

By the June 10 debut, the building best known for its yellowing parchment had already hosted White House chef Sam Kass, celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn, best-selling cookbook author Joan Nathan, and Gourmet writer Laura Shapiro. The presentations offered new recipes and pushes for healthier, more sustainable food systems.

“I’m a big foodie,” says Agnieszka Bolikowksa, who lives in Adams Morgan and came hoping to shoehorn into the Andrés event. “I’m here for him and then for the exhibit,” she admits. “He’s such a personality.”

Photo by Rhea Yablon Kennedy; poster image courtesy of the National Archives

What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? is free and open during Archive hours, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. through Labor Day, and then 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in the fall and winter. (Enter on Constitution Avenue, NW between 7th and 9th streets). The exhibit runs through January 3, 2012.

The America Eats Tavern, located at the former location of Café Atlantico at 405 8th St. NW, opens July 4.