Understanding Our Culinary Past

Well, we are still waiting on baby number three, but fortunately the warmer weather has brought a renewed sense of vigor to all of us lately.  Anselm (4.5 yrs old) suddenly and quickly learned how to ride a real bike this weekend and set off cruising down the riverside trail today while the rest of us walked along and looked for bald eagles. We found two eagles, though could only see them from a distance. It was so wonderful to be out in the sunlight!

Waiting for a baby to be born can be a real drag; I find myself feeling so tired and a bit anxious. Yet, I’ve been trying to embrace it lately as one of the few mysterious bodily experiences left to us, when no one can say exactly when and how each woman’s body determines the proper time. I’ve been considering how, for so much of human history, the inner-workings of the body and mind in general were quite mysterious, and how differently people must have experienced such things as birth. Of course, there always have been explanations for these things, though perhaps more metaphysical or cosmological.

Nowadays we rely so heavily—almost to our detriment—on the explanations of science and medicine to tell us why we feel and experience anything, from sickness to health, pleasure to pain, happiness to dejectedness, love to hate. This can both be the source of real confidence and helpful knowledge, but also of anxiety and confusion, as we wade through the ever changing and oft-poorly reported/understood theories and results of studies, products being marketed, and medicines prescribed.

This ties into my theme for this month’s post: food! Eating seems to be one of the bodily phenomena which causes the most anxiety in our age and culture and is highly subject to conflicting theories and trends. It is something that I am very interested in, as I love to cook and eat, but am very aware of the possible medical and ethical issues at stake in what I buy, make, and ingest.

I was listening recently to an interview on food waste with food historian Rachel Laudan, who noted that the anxiety surrounding food today is very much the result of the unprecedented amount of choice that we exercise over our eating habits: we are probably only the second or third generation that has had to choose from so much variety for every meal of the day, every day of the week. This breadth of choice is not just due to the surplus and cheapness of food relative to the past, but also to the access to so many kinds of cuisine and the loss of widely held beliefs of what was good to eat based on certain understandings of the body, social hierarchy, and religious practice.

In this and other interviews with Laudan, I have come to appreciate her thoughtful perspective as an historian on these issues. Laudan’s opinions about the state of modern food are unorthodox among the educated elite (praising, for example, industry as a democratizer of food rather than as the ruination of it); frankly, I think it’s because she is actually informed enough about the history of food to avoid the typical myths and prejudices of today, which I myself have been prone to adopt.

Especially in college, when I was very involved in the university gardens and the farm-to-fork and slow-food movements, I held several unexamined beliefs about what food used to be like compared with what it is now. Granted, I was motivated by a concern for health and goodness, which is honorable. Yet, when one holds one’s own food preferences up as categorical imperatives (believing everyone should adopt the same choices), it’s dangerous to base those on naive assumptions…which is what I did. Just to give you a sense, some of those assumptions were: 1) people (including the poor) ate more wholesomely in the past 2) people used to be more connected to the land and enjoyed more local varieties of fruits and vegetables, which would have been more delicious and nutritive than what we get from the grocery store today 3) mealtime used to be more special and central to family life.

Having recently finished Laudan’s fascinating book, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, I thought I would try to distill some of her historical observations that I found most helpful, in part because I know that many other people struggle with the same stress about food choices as I do. I can’t say that her book has necessarily settled for me any of those contemporary questions, but I certainly do look at them differently because she has rid me of my nostalgia for some mythical, more wholesome culinary past.

Pardon the lack of elegance, but I am just going to list some of the main, overarching points that struck me.

– First, beliefs about eating and diet were, for most of human history, governed by cosmological beliefs about the order of the world and universe, in which certain foods corresponded with different orders of animals and people, including social classes. Everyone, even the leader of society, was highly limited in what they ate based on ritual and social rank. The majority of populations were limited to simple grain diets in the form of breads and porridges. To process grains well enough to make them digestible took a lot of manual work, the burden mostly falling on women. The poor not only experienced severe rationing of food, but sometimes even of wood for cooking fuel such that they could only bake every few months.  Ironically, diets for the urban poor were often better (especially with industrialization) than for the rural poor, who one might have thought would have had more access to harvests, livestock, and hunting game.

– Even among the wealthy elite, fresh, raw foods were seen as unhealthful. Processing and cooking was what made food healthful, carefully balancing the bodily humors with the proper concoctions. The more processed, the better; for example, white bread, rice, pasta, sugar etc was seen in every society as the most healthful and virtuous, symbolizing purity and cleanliness. Although the scientific revolution spurred a new understanding of food, one based on chemistry rather than on the more ancient beliefs of the bodily humors, it only reinforced the bias towards careful processing. This chemistry paradigm led to the development of French high cuisine, which was the dominant cuisine of the entire European elite until the twentieth century. It still emphasized elaborate cooking and processing techniques which were totally inaccessible to most of the European population.

  •  The eating of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as the drinking of fresh milk, was not widely promoted until the discovery of vitamins (and thus, vitamin rich foods) in the early twentieth-century and safety measures such as pasteurization.
  • Fruits and vegetables have changed dramatically with cultivation and modification. We should not assume anything about what they were like in the past based on their current quality. For example, when potatoes were first brought to Europe from the New World (the Andes), they were bitter, did not keep well, and were forced on the poor, resentful populations as a cheap crop. Over time, they have been bred and modified to be more palatable, such that they have become staples in many modern diets, especially after the French developed a method of delicately frying them (hence “French fries”).
  • Many fruits and vegetables were introduced and popularized as canned items once modern hot water bath canning was developed in the 1800’s. Canned corn, peas, and tomatoes are examples of this: “sweet kernels from young field corn were so popular that maize was bred to produce cobs that were sweet when mature. Something similar happened with the pea and the tomato, whose success owes much more to the canning industry than to the beefsteak tomatoes in Grandmother’s backyard” (Laudan, 296).

– Beginning in the 18th century, “middling” cuisines began to develop that incorporated some of the principles and ingredients of high cuisine with peasant cuisine, and coincided with the growth of the bourgeoisie and republican government. The Dutch Republic was home to one of the first middling cuisines, and it was there that the housewife was first celebrated as the primary cook and the family meal as paramount to the upbringing of children. Through colonial influence, America would absorb these traditions in its own national cuisine and identity, as well as foods like waffles, donuts, and cookies.

– Such middling cuisines now characterize the diets of most developed countries. Laudan notes, “Those lucky enough to eat middling cuisine, with plentiful meat, fat, and sugar, are probably about one in three of the world’s population, a higher proportion than ever before. Those in this group enjoy hot meals at least once a day and often more.” Because of our health obsessions, we take for granted what a diet rich in fat, meat and sugar symbolizes for most people, who until the last century, were relegated to simple grain diets. This also explains, for example, the revolution of McDonald’s not only in our country but worldwide: offering a safe, freshly cooked beef patty on white bread with some lettuce and tomato accompanied with French fries—hitherto a delicacy for the rich—encapsulates the dietary aspirations of generations of people who couldn’t get white bread or fresh meat and vegetables.

– Also, “fast food” is nothing new. Most urban people did not (and in many places, still do not) have kitchens. They relied on food that could be gotten on the street. Going back to the Dutch Republic, one of the main features of that middling cuisine was the development of “commercial processing of fish and dairy to make easy meals affordable by most of society” (Laudan 228). Pickled herring and cheese with bread was the common meal, “enabling the whole nation to eat fast, tasty, nutritious, and relatively inexpensive preserved food” (Laudan 229). When one considers the economies of scale that make it easier and cheaper for such things to be mass produced, as well as the price of cooking fuel (including fossil fuels which made modern kitchens possible), refrigeration, and appliances, even modern day fast food or street food is an economical choice for many people. (I saw this when I lived in Thailand for a summer, where few people in the city had kitchens and most could be seen getting Pad Thai from noddle shops on the street for their main meals.)

– What we know today as national cuisines primarily developed along with the rise of industrialization and nation-states. New nations, seeking their identity, embraced and cultivated certain foods as part of what set them apart or told their national story. Most of these did not take shape until the late 19th or 20th centuries, making them relatively new in history.  For example, Italian pasta and tomato sauce, one of the most famous and quintessential cuisines, was popularized in the late 19th century after the unification of Italy and was made possible by the new affordability of industrially produced dried pasta and canned tomatoes. Before then, most Italians ate bland polenta (from maize, which, like tomatoes, was brought over from the New World). There were not many Italian peasants making their own pasta and cooking sauce from their own homegrown tomatoes. In fact, the cultivation of Italian cuisine owes much to Italian immigrants in places like America and Argentina, who could better afford these quick and easy ingredients.

I could go on and on because the book is densely packed with fascinating facts. I haven’t really touched at all upon the interwoven narratives of Islamic, Christian, and Buddhist/Hindu cuisines with one another and with later colonial discoveries, which forms a major focus of Laudan’s work. These stories are very interesting and worth reading, though she treats them in a relatively dry way that can make for a slow rather than adventuresome read.

I found the book most challenging in its exploration of the accessibility and perceived healthfulness of foods throughout history and of real historical trends in diets. In her discussion of modern cuisines, Laudan readily admits problems in our current eating habits, including obesity and other health concerns, but she also emphasizes the danger of trying to control people’s eating choices. She concludes:

Good food, food freely chosen, is part of living your own life. Although this choice brings with it the responsibility of choosing your food wisely, the alternative is a world where the powerful constrain what you can eat, in the name of health, religion, or political and economic expediency.

The challenge is to acknowledge that not all is right with modern cuisines without romanticizing earlier ones; to recognize that contemporary cuisines have problems with health and equity without jumping to the conclusion that this is new; to face up to new nutritional challenges of abundance without being paternalistic or authoritarian; to extend the benefits of industrialized food processing to all those who still labor with pestles and mortars; and to realize that the problem of feeding the world is a matter not simply of providing enough calories but of extending to everyone the choice, the responsibility, the dignity, and the pleasure of a middling cuisine” (Laudan 359).

I find that to be an inspiring and balanced approach to our current food debates, and even in my own food choices, I am more at ease with taking the approach of moderation and appreciating the modern conveniences that we enjoy.

If you would like to listen to some interviews with Laudan:

Laudan on Food Waste

Laudan on the History of Cuisine

And here is an interview with food journalist Tamar Haspel that I appreciated:

Tamar Haspel on Food Costs, Animal Welfare and Honey Bees

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