This Homogenized World
Author of numerous books and articles, SIDNEY W. DEANwas managing editor of the Boston Herald; then he went to New York, where he edited technical and trade publications for many years. His two books of travel, We Fell in Love with Quebec and All the Way by Water, are based on ten summers of small-boat cruising with his wife along the St. Lawrence River. He was a noteworthy trout fisherman, a redoubtable yachtsman, and a truly great amateur cook. Square Meals, his cookbook which contains everything that he found necessary to his prowess in seven decades of tireless kitcheneering, is now being prepared for posthumous publication.
by SIDNEY W. DEAN
FRIENDS of ours, a married pair with daughters of eight and four, accepted an invitation to two months’ occupancy of a grandiose country mansion that would otherwise have to be shut up. They found its mammoth refrigerator stocked with a good many containers of cream. The young mother, besides being one to take her maternal responsibilities hard, had had the education of a food chemist, and she said to herself: “Why not let the children watch all this lovely unusable cream being turned into three pounds or so of the best sweet dairy butter, and so pick up some cardinal facts of life in a form that they will never forget?” She explained what was afoot, got the two into a pleasant glow about the impending miracle, and emptied all the containers into one of those little trick churns that are made for just such uses. And then she cranked.
She and the eight-year-old cranked, turn and turn about, for quite a while. The four-year-old developed affairs elsewhere and slid away. Presently her sister lost ambition and drifted off. The two revisited the kitchen at intervals to check up on results, but the intervals lengthened, and so did the faces. The butter would not begin to come— not even for the standard expedient of setting the churn in a pan of warmish water.
The mother found herself getting slightly grim, churning fast and faster and in the end sprouting a blister on her right hand. Maybe it was the blister that finally goaded her into an overlooked thought process. Anyway she fished one of the containers out of the waste and had a look at what was printed on it.
It was homogenized cream.
Homogenization is one of those sharp ideas that cut both ways. It is the sort of idea that the American purveyor, having once glimpsed its possibilities, is never able to get enough of. Having discovered homogenization as a way of making minimum-standard milk seem better than it is, he started applying the process to other commodities with the same hope. Time was when the owner of a good Guernsey or two gloried in cream that could be skimmed off the setting pans in leathery sheets that would not pour and had to be scraped off the skimmer with a knife; at the right temperature it would be butter in a fraction of a minute. Homogenized, it will pour, all right; it will be butter never; and there is certainly nothing about it to glory in. Superiority is traded for convenience; and then we plume ourselves on the convenience as the very definition of superiority.
Lard, I notice, has almost ceased to represent itself as pure leaf; we are growing a generation of cooks that will have to appeal to dictionaries to find out what “leaf lard” ever meant. Most of the commonly available lard now vaunts itself as homogenized; and even as the homogenized cream will not make butter, so the homogenized lard will not make piecrust. That is, it will not make anything definable as piecrust by the canons of accomplished cooks who have inherited their definitions from the horse-and-buggy era that gave me mine. This stricture the modern packer would demolish by retorting that no one expects to make piecrust with lard any more. He is 80 per cent right — and he is stating one of the reasons why a truly Grade A pie is now almost, a museum piece. His homogenization of lard is the most efficient way in the world to make his retort 100 per cent right except for the farms that still try out their own.
It has also become fairly hard to run down a pound of peanut butter not homogenized. When some of us first bought peanut butter, perhaps as young parents intent on doing the whole duty of man by school luncheons, we waited for it to be ground out of dark, medium, or light peanuts freshly roasted, with salt to taste. The homogenized article of this decade is much smoother. It spreads ideally at any reasonable temperature. It never separates or has to be laboriously remixed. Nobody has to do any waiting for it. It has, in short, every merit that can be put into words, except one: edibility.
That point of excellence it would be captious, frivolous, almost un-American to insist on, with huge corporations spending huge sums to explain to us with patient and benevolent, iteration how much better they have made the homogenized product than anything known before. All such homogenized staples are undoubtedly with us to stay. For a while they will be put to the expensive effort of out shouting us few eccentrics who find them degraded almost beyond use; but presently they will not even have to shout, for they will have outstayed the last of the carpers. This is the regulation process whereby the worse proves that it is the better and, indeed, the best. Let it but hold out for a season, and it will be the best to be had. Survival is, after all, the unanswerable argument, and a commodity need not even argue when it has outlived the last of us that can bear witness to our own experience of something better.
Homogenizing things is, of course, a narrowed application of an idea that is one of the prime operative principles of our day: the idea of standardization. And “standardization” is one of the subtlest, trickiest weasel words ever coined. It enters a tacit claim to have glorified whatever product it is applied to; it asserts that something has been graded upward toward an ideal of supernal austerity. What it means in practice is that excellences a little difficult to attain are tossed overboard for the sake of practical advantages easy to attain on a quantity-production scale. Whatever is standardized is compromised, and a compromise is always downward in at least some particulars. What it means in connection with the products that we eat and the ingredients that we cook with is the surrender of an inconvenient superiority in return for a convenient uniformity at a lower level.
Consider flour. When I was a boy, what was in the flour barrel was of hard winter wheat, and it was such as nobody could duplicate nowadays short of growing the wheal and milling the flour himself. Cake and pastry flour was a radically different affair, made out of the soft spring wheat; you can get an approximation of it today in toysized packages under revolting brand names at premium prices, with some of the better constituents replaced by chemical substitutes. Today the dominant tendency is toward the so-called family or all-purpose flour, purveyed with claims to being as good for bread and rolls as for pies and cakes. Now, a flour that is pretty good for everything is self-evidently some distance from the best possible for anything. The cook knows, with today’s flour, just about what she is getting and just about what it will do, and for that security she pays with sacrifice of the higher niceties; whereas the housewife of aforetime was chronically moaning that the current barrel was not so good as the previous one, or congratulating herself on having Struck an unusually fine supply. It is certain, though unprovable, that the average of the little domestic bread still made is higher than the average of a lifetime ago, thanks to this comparative uniformity, but that the best of former times was at a height well above anything attainable with the flour now to be had. In the interest of better cooking for everybody, we preclude the very best for anybody.
A good many of these modern improvements by compromise have to be philosophically swallowed as foreordained answers to the rapid increase of population, the swarming to cities, the disappearance of kitchens and of storage room, cooking with metered fuels, and other downward-standardizing factors. But is there any reason why we should tolerate improvements that improve nonessentials and destroy essentials? Is it a virtue to applaud size, transportability, and keeping qualities got at the expense of characteristic flavor in a strawberry or a blueberry? Does not jelly made by an addition of pectin that turns it into India rubber, or of sugar that makes it revoltingly sweet, richly earn our contempt and the remark that the fruit should have been used for decent jam in the first place? The general replacement of white sweet corn by yellow is indefensible except as a growers’ fad; and when we accept, for white corn meal from millstones, yellow meal ground (and virtually precooked) by high-speed steel machinery, we are accepting sheer gratuitous degradation.
A limit of perversion very hard to exceed — but nevertheless exceeded in the smoke-curing of ham and bacon by chemical injection — is attained in the tricks of plant genetics played on the latter-day tomato in the interest of size, appearance, comparative seedlessness, and the other talking points dearest to quantity distributors. The tomato - so runs the seedsman’s boast has been made completely nonacid; that is, largely devoid of tomato taste and of all taste. This signal triumph of plant breeding is comparable to improving the hardness out of a diamond or the humor out of a joke.