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Culinary Modernism

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florentine_codex_metate_3

Image from The Florentine Codex, the 16th century study of Aztec customs by Bernadino de Sahagún

Although I cringe at the term “Culinary Luddites,” you really need this Rachel Laudan article, originally published in the wonderful Gastronomica, on the need to embrace culinary modernism and reject a romanticized food past that is completely ahistorical, colonialist, and classist. Laudan shows how people around the world from the beginning of their ability to do so have sought to create processed foods that are tasty and digest well. The idea that there is this wonderful past of pure food simply is wrong. In the U.S. case, read Harvey Leverstein’s Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet, for a history of American food. You’ll discover that basically American food was terrible, then became slightly less terrible, and over time has improved. That means that the food we might well make fun of today from fifty years ago was actually significantly better than what came before. The idea that our grandparents or great-grandparents or some faraway ancestors had this great food tradition of delicious healthy food is pure mythology. They were baking possums though. Creating a food regime that assumes hard culinary labor also means that we will be assuming that the poor, probably women, will be happy spending their entire lives cooking for families. For most women, that’s not how they want to spend their lives. An excerpt:

Meanwhile, most men were born to a life of labor in the fields, most women to a life of grinding, chopping, and cooking. “Servitude,” said my mother as she prepared home­cooked breakfast, dinner, and tea for eight to ten people three hundred and sixty five days a year.

She was right. Churning butter and skinning and cleaning hares, without the option of picking up the phone for a pizza if something goes wrong, is unremitting, unforgiving toil. Perhaps, though, my mother did not realize how much worse her lot might have been.

She could at least buy our bread from the bakery. In Mexico, at the same time, women without servants could expect to spend five hours a day — one third of their waking hours — kneeling at the grindstone preparing the dough for the family’s tortillas. Not until the 1950s did the invention of the tortilla machine release them from the drudgery.

If we urge the Mexican to stay at her metate, the farmer to stay at his olive press, the housewife to stay at her stove instead of going to McDonald’s, all so that we may eat handmade tortillas, traditionally pressed olive oil, and home-cooked meals, we are assuming the mantle of the aristocrats of old. We are reducing the options of others as we attempt to impose our elite culinary preferences on the rest of the population.

If we fail to understand how scant and monotonous most traditional diets were, we can misunderstand the “ethnic foods” we encounter in cookbooks, restaurants, or on our travels. We let our eyes glide over the occasional references to servants, to travel and education abroad in so-called ethnic cookbooks, references that otherwise would clue us in to the fact that the recipes are those of monied Italians, Indians, or Chinese with maids to do the donkey work of preparing elaborate dishes.

We may mistake the meals of today’s European, Asian, or Mexican middle class (many of them benefiting from industrialization and contemporary tourism) for peasant food or for the daily fare of our ancestors. We can represent the peoples of the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, India, or Mexico as pawns at the mercy of multinational corporations bent on selling trashy modem products — failing to appreciate that, like us, they enjoy a choice of goods in the market, foreign restaurants to eat at, and new recipes to try.

We always want to believe in a simpler, purer past. That past does not exist. That’s certainly true for food. This doesn’t mean that the modern food regime of heavily processed, high-sodium foods is great. We can do better. But better doesn’t mean relegating women to the kitchen 12 hours a day (“cough” Michael Pollan), bemoaning the world’s poor from having choices, or fetishizing kale (or açai 5 years ago or rice cakes or whatever it is tomorrow). I’m not a historian of food per se, but I write about a food a lot and read about it a good deal. At this point it’s very hard for me to take any sort of food movement as anything other than the fad of the moment. After two centuries of American food faddism, I simply do not believe that gluten-free diets will still exist as a major food movement in twenty years. Too many “real medical conditions” have come and gone over the history of medicine. That probably makes me sound like a jerk, but I don’t see how we read food history and come to a radically different conclusion. I’m not saying people don’t feel discomfort. I am saying a huge percentage of the world’s rich people have not become allergic overnight to the same foods people have eaten for thousands of years. Whether it’s yogurt enemas, graham crackers, Atkins diet, veganism, locally sourced, or gluten free, this stuff comes and goes with the seasons.

Also, just because I like it, here’s another great old Gastronomica essay, “Why Michael Pollan Makes Me Want to Eat Cheetos.”

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