A point often forgotten in the Slow Food, back-to-tradition rhetoric of food today is that the past wasn't so great either. Rachel Lauden hammers home this argument in the Utne Reader, which reprints her writing from the book The Gastronomica Reader. There's a lot to criticize in our modern food system, she admits, but the "culinary Luddites" are deeply misguided. "That food should be fresh and natural has become an article of faith," as has the idea that country-dwellers in bygone years had better food habits. But "for our ancestors," points out Lauden, "natural was something quite nasty ... Fresh meat was rank and tough, fresh fruits inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter." That's not even counting the rotten and moldy offerings.
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.
Even fresh food was "regarded with suspicion verging on horror," Lauden writes: "only the uncivilized, the poor, and the starving resorted to it." The good stuff was the "preserved, processed foods," the jams and jellies, the smoked meat and the aged cheese." Beyond that, our nostalgia for old-fashioned or non-processed food ignores the fact that "lots of industrial foods are better." Conching machines easily produce smoother chocolate than a person with a grindstone. And "the current popularity of Italian food owes much to two convenience foods that even purists love, factory pasta and canned tomatoes."
Lauden admits that Luddites are right "about two important things: We need to know how to prepare good food, and we need a culinary ethos." But blind yearning for an imaginary past, she argues, isn't helpful. And by the way--baguettes are a 20th-century thing.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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