October 21, 2013

THEY'RE CALLED PRESERVATIVES FOR A REASON:

In Praise of Fast Food (Rachel Laudan, from the book The Gastronomica Reader, September-October 2010, UTNE Reader)

Eating fresh, natural food was regarded with suspicion verging on horror; only the uncivilized, the poor, and the starving resorted to it. When the ancient Greeks took it as a sign of bad times if people were driven to eat greens and root vegetables, they were rehearsing common wisdom. Happiness was not a verdant Garden of Eden abounding in fresh fruits, but a securely locked storehouse jammed with preserved, processed foods.

As for slow food, it is easy to wax nostalgic about a time when families and friends met to relax over delicious food, and to forget that, far from being an invention of the late 20th century, fast food has been a mainstay of every society. Hunters tracking their prey, shepherds tending their flocks, soldiers on campaign, and farmers rushing to get in the harvest all needed food that could be eaten quickly and away from home. The Greeks roasted barley and ground it into a meal to eat straight or mixed with water, milk, or butter (as Tibetans still do), while the Aztecs ground roasted maize and mixed it with water (as Mexicans still do).

What about the idea that the best food was country food, handmade by artisans? That food came from the country goes without saying. The presumed corollary--that country people ate better than city dwellers--does not. Few who worked the land were independent peasants baking their own bread and salting down their own pig. Most were burdened with heavy taxes and rents paid in kind (that is, food); or worse, they were indentured, serfs, or slaves. They subsisted on what was left over, getting by on thin gruels and gritty flatbreads.

The dishes we call ethnic and assume to be of peasant origin were invented for the urban, or at least urbane, aristocrats who collected the surplus. This is as true of the lasagna of northern Italy as it is of the chicken korma of Mughal Delhi, the moo shu pork of imperial China, and the pilafs, stuffed vegetables, and baklava of the great Ottoman palace in Istanbul. Cities have always enjoyed the best food and have invariably been the focal points of culinary innovation.

Nor are most "traditional foods" very old. For every prized dish that goes back 2,000 years, a dozen have been invented in the last 200. The French baguette? A 20th-century phenomenon, adopted nationwide only after World War II. Greek moussaka?  Created in the early 20th century in an attempt to Frenchify Greek food. Tequila?  Promoted as the national drink of Mexico during the 1930s by the Mexican film industry. These are indisputable facts of history, though if you point them out you will be met with stares of disbelief.

Were old foods more healthful than ours? Inherent in this vague notion are several different claims, among them that foods were less dangerous, that diets were better balanced. Yet while we fret about pesticides on apples and mercury in tuna, we should remember that ingesting food is and always has been dangerous. Many plants contain both toxins and carcinogens. Grilling and frying add more. Bread was likely to be stretched with chalk, pepper adulterated with the sweepings of warehouse floors, and sausage stuffed with all the horrors famously exposed by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle.

By the standard measures of health and nutrition--life expectancy and height--our ancestors were far worse off than we are. Much of the blame was due to diet, exacerbated by living conditions and infections that affect the body's ability to use food. No amount of nostalgia for the pastoral foods of the distant past can wish away the fact that our ancestors lived mean, short lives, constantly afflicted with diseases, many of which can be directly attributed to what they did and did not eat.

Posted by at October 21, 2013 8:21 PM
  

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