Natural and artisanal food is a myth and here’s why…
The obsession with eating natural and artisanal is ahistorical. We should demand more high-quality industrial food, argues Rachel Laudan, a historian and philosopher of science and technology and author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History.
MODERN, fast, processed food is a disaster. That, at least, is the message conveyed by newspapers and magazines, on television cooking programs, and in prize-winning cookbooks.
It is a mark of sophistication to bemoan the steel roller mill and supermarket bread while yearning for stone ground flour and brick ovens; to seek out heirloom apples and pumpkins while despising modern tomatoes and hybrid corn; to be hostile to agronomists who develop high-yielding modern crops and to home economists who invent new recipes for General Mills.
We hover between ridicule and shame when we remember how our mothers and grandmothers enthusiastically embraced canned and frozen foods. We nod in agreement when the waiter proclaims that the restaurant showcases the freshest local produce. We shun Wonder Bread and Coca-Cola. Above all, we loathe the great culminating symbol of Culinary Modernism, McDonald’s — modern, fast, homogenous, and international.
Like so many of my generation, my culinary style was created by those who scorned industrialized food; Culinary Luddites, we may call them, after the English hand workers of the nineteenth century who abhorred the machines that were destroying their traditional way of life. I learned to cook from the books of Elizabeth David, who urged us to sweep our store cupboards “clean for ever of the cluttering debris of commercial sauce bottles and all synthetic flavorings.”
I progressed to the Time-Life Good Cook series and to Simple French Cooking, in which Richard Olney hoped against hope that “the reins of stubborn habit are strong enough to frustrate the famous industrial revolution for some time to come.” I turned to Paula Wolfert to learn more about Mediterranean cooking and was assured that I wouldn’t “find a dishonest dish in this book . . . The food here is real food . . . the real food of real people.” Today I rush to the newsstand to pick up Saveur with its promise to teach me to “Savor a world of authentic cuisine.”
Culinary Luddism involves more than just taste. Since the days of the counterculture, it has also presented itself as a moral and political crusade. Now in Boston, the Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust works to provide “a scientific basis for the preservation and revitalization of traditional diets.
Meanwhile Slow Food, founded in 1989 to protest the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome, is a self-described Greenpeace for Food; its manifesto begins, “We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life, which disrupts our habits, pervades the privacy of our homes and forces us to eat Fast Foods . . . Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer.” As one of its spokesmen was reported as saying in the New York Times, “Our real enemy is the obtuse consumer.”
At this point I begin to back off. I want to cry, “Enough!” But why? Why would I, who learned to cook from Culinary Luddites, who grew up in a family that, in Elizabeth David’s words, produced their “own home-cured bacon, ham and sausages . . . churned their own butter, fed their chickens and geese, cherished their fruit trees, skinned and cleaned their own hares” (well, to be honest, not the geese and sausages), not rejoice at the growth of Culinary Luddism? Why would I (or anyone else) want to be thought “an obtuse consumer”? Or admit to preferring unreal food for unreal people? Or to savoring inauthentic cuisine?
The answer is not far to seek: because I am an historian.
As an historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by Culinary Luddism, a past sharply divided between good and bad, between the sunny rural days of yore and the gray industrial present. My enthusiasm for Luddite kitchen wisdom does not carry over to their history, any more than my response to a stirring political speech inclines me to accept the orator as scholar.
The Luddites’ fable of disaster, of a fall from grace, smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast: artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated and fatty. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.
That food should be fresh and natural has become an article of faith. It comes as something of a shock to realise that this is a latter-day creed. For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad.
Fresh meat was rank and tough; fresh milk warm and unmistakably a bodily excretion; fresh fruits (dates and grapes being rare exceptions outside the tropics) were inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Even today, natural can be a shock when we actually encounter it. When Jacques Pepin offered free-range chickens to friends, they found “the flesh tough and the flavour too strong,” prompting him to wonder whether they would really like things the way they naturally used to be. Natural was unreliable. Fresh fish began to stink. Fresh milk soured, eggs went rotten.
Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger when the days were short. The weather turned cold, or the rain did not fall. Hens stopped laying eggs, cows went dry, fruits and vegetables were not to be found, fish could not be caught in the stormy seas.
Natural was usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied from fifty to ninety percent of the calories in most societies have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible. Other plants, including the roots and fibers that were the life support of the societies that did not eat grains, are often downright poisonous. Without careful processing green potatoes, stinging taro, and cassava bitter with prussic acid are not just indigestible, but toxic.
Nor did our ancestors’ physiological theories dispose them to the natural. Until about two hundred years ago, from China to Europe, and in Mesoamerica, too, everyone believed that the fires in the belly cooked foodstuffs and turned them into nutrients. That was what digestion was. Cooking foods in effect pre-digested them and made them easier to assimilate. Given a choice, no one would burden the stomach with raw, unprocessed foods.
So to make food tasty, safe, digestible and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission.
To lower toxin levels, they cooked plants, treated them with clay (the Kaopectate effect), leached them with water, acid fruits and vinegars, and alkaline lye. They intensively bred maize to the point that it could not reproduce without human help. They created sweet oranges and juicy apples and non-bitter legumes, happily abandoning their more natural but less tasty ancestors.
They built granaries for their grain, dried their meat and their fruit, salted and smoked their fish, curdled and fermented their dairy products, and cheerfully used whatever additives and preservatives they could — sugar, salt, oil, vinegar, lye — to make edible foodstuffs…..
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