Science Has Spoiled My Supper
An essayist who really laid it on the line in his abrasive book, Generation of Vipers; a deep-sea fisherman who can tell a fish story which is both exciting and plausible, as he proves in one of his recent volumes, Denizens of the Deep, PHILIP WYLIEis a free lance who divides his residence between New York City and Florida. He is a lean man who likes his food — that is, when his mother-in-law or his wife has cooked it; but, for the rest, he thinks that American food has lost the flavor and fragrance for which it once was famous.
by PHILIP WYLIE
I AM a fan for Science. My education is scientific and I have, in one field, contributed a monograph to a scientific journal. Science, to my mind, is applied honesty, the one reliable means we have to find out truth. That is why, when error is committed in the name of Science, I feel the way a man would if his favorite uncle had taken to drink.
Over the years, I have come to feel that way about what science has done to food. I agree that America can set as good a table as any nation in the world. I agree that our food is nutritious and that the diet of most of us is well-balanced. What America eats is handsomely packaged; it is usually clean and pure; it is excellently preserved. The only trouble with it is this: year by year it grows less good to eat. It appeals increasingly to the eye. But who eats with his eyes? Almost everything used to taste better when I was a kid. For quite a long time I thought that observation was merely another index of advancing age. But some years ago I married a girl whose mother is an expert cook of the kind called “old-fashioned.” This gifted woman’s daughter (my wife) was taught her mother’s venerable skills. The mother lives in the country and still plants an old-fashioned garden. She still buys dairy products from the neighbors and, in so far as possible, she uses the same materials her mother and grandmother did - to prepare meals that are superior. They are just as good, in this Year of Grace, as I recall them from my courtship. After eating for a while at the table of my mother-in-law, it is sad to go back to eating with my friends — even the alleged “good cooks” among them. And it is a gruesome experience to have meals at the best big-city restaurants.
Take cheese, for instance. Here and there, in big cities, small stores and delicatessens specialize in cheese. At such places, one can buy at least some of the first-rate cheeses that we used to eat — such as those we had with pic and in macaroni. The latter were sharp but not too sharp. They were a little crumbly. We called them American cheeses, or even rat cheese; actually, they were Cheddars. Long ago, this cheese began to be supplanted by a material called “cheese foods.” Some cheese foods and “processed” cheese are fairly edible; but not one comes within miles of the old kinds — for flavor.
A grocer used to be very fussy about his cheese. Cheddar was made and sold by hundreds of little factories. Representatives of the factories had particular customers, and cheese was prepared by hand to suit the grocers, who knew precisely what their patrons wanted in rat cheese, pie cheese, American and other cheeses. Some liked them sharper; some liked them yellower; some liked anise seeds in cheese, or caraway.
What happened? Science — or what is called science — stepped in. The old-fashioned cheeses didn’t ship well enough. They crumbled, became moldy, dried out. “Scientific” tests disclosed that a great majority of the people will buy a less-goodtasting cheese if that’s all they can get. “Scientific marketing” then took effect. Its motto is “Give the people the least quality they’ll stand for.”In food, as in many other things, the “scientific marketers” regard quality as secondary so long as they can sell most persons anyhow; what they are after is “durability” or “shippability.”
It is not possible to make the very best cheese in vast quantities at a low average cost. “Scientific sampling” got in its statistically nasty work. It was found that the largest number of people will buy something that is bland and rather tasteless. Those who prefer a product of a pronounced and individualistic flavor have a variety of preferences. Nobody is altogether pleased by bland foodstuff, in other words; but nobody is very violently put off. The result is that a “reason” has been found for turning out zillions of packages of something that will “do” for nearly all and isn’t even imagined to be superlatively good by a single soul!
Economics entered. It is possible to turn out in quantity a bland, impersonal, practically imperishable substance more or less resembling, say, cheese— at lower cost than cheese. Chain groceries shut out the independent stores and “standardization” became a principal means of cutting costs.
Imitations also came into the cheese business. There are American duplications of most of the celebrated European cheeses, mass-produced and cheaper by far than the imports. They would cause European food-lovers to gag or guffaw - but generally the imitations are all that’s available in the supermarkets. People buy them and eat them.
Perhaps you don’t like cheese — so the fact that decent cheese is hardly ever served in America anymore, or used in cooking, doesn’t matter to you. Well, take bread. There has been (and still is) something of a hullabaloo about bread. In fact, in the last few years, a few big bakeries have taken to making a fairly good imitation of real bread. It costs much more than what is nowadays called bread, but it is edible. Most persons, however, now eat as “bread ” a substance so full of chemicals and so barren of cereals that it approaches a synthetic.
Most bakers are interested mainly in how a loaf of bread looks. They are concerned with how little stulf they can put in it - to get how much money. They are deeply interested in using chemicals that will keep bread from molding, make it seem “fresh" for the longest possible time, and so render it marketable and shippable. They have been at this monkeyshine for a generation. Today a loaf of “bread” looks deceptively real; but it is made from heaven knows what and it resembles, as food, a solidified bubble bath. Some months ago I bought a loaf of the stuff and, experimentally, began pressing it together, like an accordion. With a little effort, I squeezed the whole loaf to a length of about one inch!
Yesterday, at the home of my mother-in-law, I ate with country-churned butter and home-canned wild strawberry jam several slices of actual bread, the same thing we used to have every day at home. People who have eaten actual bread will know what I mean. They will know that the material commonly called bread is not even related to real bread, except in name.
FOR years, I couldn’t figure out what had happened to vegetables. I knew, of course, that most vegetables, to be enjoyed in their full deliciousness, must be picked fresh and cooked at once. I knew that vegetables cannot be overcooked and remain even edible, in the best sense. They cannot stand on the stove. That set of facts makes it impossible, of course, for any American restaurant—or, indeed, any city-dweller separated from supply bymore than a few hours — to have decent fresh vegetables. The Parisians manage by getting their vegetables picked at dawn and rushed in farmers’ carts to market, where no middleman or marketman delays produce on its way to the pot.
Our vegetables, however, come to us through a long chain of command. There are merchants of several sorts — wholesalers before the retailers, commission men, and so on — with the result that what were once edible products become, in transit, mere wilted leaves and withered tubers.
Homes and restaurants do what they can with this stuff— which my mother-in-law would discard on the spot. I have long thought that the famed blindfold test for cigarettes should be applied to cityvegetables. For I am sure that if you pureed them and ate them blindfolded, you couldn’t tell the beans from the peas, the turnips from the squash, the Brussels sprouts from the broccoli.
It is only lately that I have found how much science has had to do with this reduction of noble victuals to pottage. Here the science of genetics is involved. Agronomists and the like have taken to breeding all sorts of vegetables and fruits — changing their original nature. This sounds wonderful and often is insane. For the scientists have not as a rule taken any interest whatsoever in the taste of the things they’ve tampered with!
What they’ve done is to develop “improved” strains of things for every purpose but eating. They work out, say , peas that will ripen all at once. The farmer can then harvest his peas and thresh them and be done with them. It is extremely profitable because it is efficient. What matter if such peas taste like boiled paper wads?
Geneticists have gone crazy over such “opportunities.” They’ve developed siring beans that are straight instead of curved, and all one length. This makes them easier to pack in cans, even if, when eating them, you can’t tell them from tender string. Ripening time and identity of size and shape are, nowadays, more important in carrots than the fact that they taste like carrots. Personally, I don’t care if they hybridize onions till they are as big as your head and come up through the snow; but, in doing so, they are producing onions that only vaguely and feebly remind you of onions. We are getting some varieties, in fact, that have less flavor than the water off last week’s leeks. Yet, if people don’t eat onions because they taste like onions, what in the name of Luther Burbank do they eat them for?
The women’s magazines are about one third dedicated to clothes, one third to mild comment on sex, and the other third to recipes and pictures of handsome salads, desserts, and main courses. “Institutes” exist to experiment and tell housewives howto cook attractive meals and bow to turn leftovers into works of art. The food thus pictured looks like famous paintings of still life. The only trouble is it’s tasteless. It leaves appetite unquenched and merely serves to slave off famine.
I wonder if this blandness of our diet doesn’t explain why so many of us are overweight and even dangerously so. When things had flavor, we knew what we were eating all the while — and it satisfied us. A teaspoonful of my mother-in-law’s wild strawberry jam will not just provide a gastronome’s ecstasy: it will entirely satisfy your jam desire. But, of the average tinned or glass-packed strawberry jam, you need half a cupful to get the idea of what you’re eating. A slice of my mother-in-law’s apple pie will satiate you far better than a whole bakery pie.
That thought is worthy of investigation — of genuine scientific investigation. It is merely a hypothesis, so far, and my own. But people —and their ancestors — have been eating according to flavor for upwards of a billion years. The need to satisfy the sense of taste may be innate and important. When food is merely a pretty cascade of viands, with the texture of boiled cardboard and the flavor of library paste, it may be the instinct of genus homo to go on eating in the unconscious hope of finally satisfying the ageless craving of the frustrated taste buds. In the days when good-tasting food was the rule in the American home, obesity wasn’t such a national curse.
How can you feel you’ve eaten if you haven’t tasted, and fully enjoyed tasting? Why (since science is ever so ready to answer the beck and call of mankind) don’t people who want to reduce merely give up eating and get the nourishment they must have in measured doses shot into their arms at hospitals? One ready answer to that question suggests that my theory of overeating is sound: people like to taste! In eating, they try to satisfy that like.
The scientific war against deliciousness has been stepped up enormously in the last decade. Some infernal genius found a way to make biscuit batter keep. Housewives began to buy this premixed stuff. It saved work, of course. But any normally intelligent person can learn, in a short period, how to prepare superb baking powder biscuits. I can make better biscuits, myself, than can be made from patent batters. Yet soon after this fiasco became an American staple, it was discovered that a half-baked substitute for all sorts of breads, pastries, rolls, and the like could be mass-manufactured, frozen — and sold for polishing off in the home oven. None of these two-stage creations is as good as even a fair sample of the thing it imitates. A man of taste, who had eaten one of my wife’s cinnamon buns, might use the premixed sort to throw at starlings—but not to eat! Cake mixes, too, come ready-prepared — like cement and not much better-tasting compared with true cake.
It is, however, “deep-freezing” that has really rung down the curtain on American cookery. Nothing is improved by the process. I have yet to taste a deep-frozen victual that measures up, in flavor, to the fresh, unfrosted original. And most foods, cooked or uncooked, are destroyed in the deep freeze for all people of sense and sensibility. Vegetables with crisp and crackling texture emerge as mush, slippery and stringy as hair nets simmered in Vaseline. The essential oils that make peas peas — and cabbage cabbage—must undergo fission and fusion in freezers. Anyhow, they vanish. Some meats turn to leather. Others to wood pulp. Everything, pretty much, tastes like the mosses of tundra, dug up in midwinter. Even the appearance changes, oftentimes. Handsome comestibles you put down in the summer come out looking very much like the corpses of woolly mammoths recovered from the last Ice Age.
Of course, all ihis scientific “food handling” tends to save money. It certainly preserves food longer. It reduces work at home. But these facts, and especially the last, imply that the first purpose of living is to avoid work — at home, anyhow.
Without thinking, we are making an important confession about ourselves as a nation. We are abandoning quality — even, to some extent, the quality of people. The “best” is becoming too good for us. We are suckling ourselves on machine-made mediocrity. It is bad for our souls, our minds, and our digestion. It is the way our wiser and calmer forebears fed, not people, but hogs: as much as possible and as fast as possible, with no standard of quality.
The Germans say, “Mann ist was er isst — Man is what he eats.” If this be true, the people of the U.S.A. are well on their way to becoming a faceless mob of mediocrities, of robots. And if we apply to other attributes the criteria we apply these days to appetite, that is what would happen! We would not want bright children any more; we’d merely want them to look bright — and get through school fast. We wouldn’t be interested in beautiful women — just a good paint job. And we’d be opposed to the most precious quality of man: his indix ideality, his differentness from the mob.
There are some people—sociologists and psychologists among them— who say that is exactly what we Americans are doing, are becoming. Mass man, they say, is on the increase. Conformity, standardization, similarity — all on a cheap and vulgar level — are replacing the great American ideas of colorful liberty and dignified individualism. If this is so, the process may well begin, like most human behavior, in the home — in those homes where a good meal has been replaced by somethingto-eat-in-a-hurry. By something not very good to eat, prepared by a mother without very much to do, for a family that doesn’t feel it amounts to much anyhow.
I call, here, for rebellion.