Friday Food Post: The Fairy Tale of Grandma's Cooking
Ah, the romance of food The Way it Used to Be. Grandma putting her luscious pies on the table after a hearty meal of home-cured ham, produce fresh from the garden, hand-kneaded bread hot from the oven, perhaps some preserves "put up" in that very kitchen. That's specific to America's cultural heritage, of course, but whether it's homemade pasta, cassoulet or dan-dan noodles, the story is the same the world over. Nothing modern quite compares to this collective memory of a time that never really was. At least, not quite the way we "remember" it.
Food Romantics who think that the food-processing revolution destroyed good, wholesome, natural food should read Rachel Laudan's long article, recently reprinted in Jacobin, for a healthy corrective. The foods you think are "natural" aren't (I'm looking at you, paleo dieters): Virtually all the fruits and vegetables that you eat have been bred over centuries and millennia to the point where they barely resemble their natural progenitors.
The traits horticulturists selected for are many of the same things that food processors do to modern food: Thick, fibrous coatings have been bred down to thin skins, and the starchy parts that we eat have been developed to many times their normal size, further decreasing the ratio of fiber to starch. Fatty flesh has been punched up in fruits such as olives and avocados. Like modern humans, early horticulturists also like their food sweet, so they selected over and over again for the most sugary varieties, while thinning out bitter compounds. This food bears the same resemblance to its natural forebears that an apple pie does to a Granny Smith and a stalk of wheat. (Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the authentic, natural carrot.) As I once heard an anthropologist joke, "If your food tastes good, it's not natural." This was obviously an exaggeration ... but there's considerable truth under the hyperbole.
As Laudan points out, the cooking you think is "good old-fashioned peasant food" also isn't -- not very old-fashioned, anyway. Of course, it's hard to know exactly what ordinary people ate in centuries past, because most of them weren't literate. We do know that peasants often spent a lot of time being hungry, because the larder gets a little bare in the lengthy season between the time when your stored grain runs out and the time when your fields begin to produce. As I've noted before, in Europe and much of Asia, the idea that everyone was constantly enjoying meat and fresh produce, or any of those lovingly hand-produced foods that Grandma liked to stuff you with, is ahistorical. The reason those are cherished family recipes is that they were special. Daily diets for regular people, especially outside summer and fall, frequently consisted of a lot of dried and processed grains and/or beans, prepared with minimal seasoning. Spices were a luxury good, not something you despair of ever fitting into a single kitchen cabinet.
Nor does this "good country cooking" really come from the country. As Laudan says: "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 lasagne of northern Italy as it is of the chicken konna of Mughal Delhi, the mooshu pork of imperial China, the pilafs, stuffed vegetables, and baklava of the great Ottoman palace in Istanbul, or the mee krob of nineteenth-century Bangkok. Cities have always enjoyed the best food and have invariably been the focal points of culinary innovation."
Most of our ancestors were not wealthy urbanites; they were peasant farmers. Why are these things, then, so associated in our minds with the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of the teeming shores from which our grandparents emigrated?
Because our grandparents got rich. Widening trade networks brought new species to every continent where humans live, enabling them to invent some of the first "fusion" dishes. Colonialist expansion put crops that had previously been rare into wide cultivation, from cacao beans to sugar cane. Technology, trade and, yes, the miracle of modern food processing made fruits and vegetables available year-round, made it possible for ordinary folks to abandon less appealing grains such as buckwheat and millet, and put slabs of meat on the table every day. It also, yes, made us fatter. (Also taller, healthier and less prone to die of infection.) Farewell, gruel and practically hibernating through the winter to make the food stretch. Hello, size 36 pants. Overall, a pretty good trade.
When Grandma got richer, she started feeding you the stuff that rich people ate Back in the Day, the stuff that was a nice treat for her peasant ancestors. And now we think that's "real people food." Which it was -- if your "real people" happened to be unusually prosperous or living in a place where it was Christmas every day.
Of course, it's real enough to us. And ultimately, as Laudan says, that's what matters, not our ahistorical imaginings. We should cook the family foods we love because we love them. We should make good food because it's good. But we should not imagine that in doing so, we can go back to the way things used to be. We can't, and if we could, we wouldn't much like it.
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