I just read the most spectacular longform piece by Rachel Laudan, A Plea for Culinary Modernism. If you have twenty minutes to spare, I highly recommend it.
In this piece she explores the lie implied by the “slow food” or “real food” movements - that somehow food was better in the past than it is today, by quoting relevant historical texts from around the globe. As I read on, I began to see a pattern emerging - a pattern of ignoring and erasing the work and the plight of women and the poor throughout history.
She explains how our ancestors were thrilled to breed fruits that were actually sweet, grains that had more seed than husk. How people scrambled to preserve summer’s bounty by whatever means necessary - whether sulfiric acid or lye made no matter. Many of the foods, in their natural state, were actually toxic.
Fresh meat was rank and tough; fresh milk warm and unmistakably a bodily excretion; fresh fruits (dates and grapes being rare exceptions outside the tropics) were inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Even today, natural can be a shock when we actually encounter it...Natural was unreliable. Fresh fish began to stink. Fresh milk soured, eggs went rotten.
Natural was usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied from fifty to ninety percent of the calories in most societies have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible. Other plants, including the roots and fibers that were the life support of the societies that did not eat grains, are often downright poisonous. Without careful processing green potatoes, stinging taro, and cassava bitter with prussic acid are not just indigestible, but toxic.
So to make food tasty, safe, digestible and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission.
To lower toxin levels, they cooked plants, treated them with clay (the Kaopectate effect), leached them with water, acid fruits and vinegars, and alkaline lye. They intensively bred maize to the point that it could not reproduce without human help. They created sweet oranges and juicy apples and non-bitter legumes, happily abandoning their more natural but less tasty ancestors.
Laudan strikes down romantic notions about “traditional” cuisines as she informs us that the vast majority were invented in the last 200 hundred years. French baguettes were adopted post WWII, the Indonesian rijsttafel was imported by Dutch colonists, the Indonesian padang was invented for the tourist market.
In the section on fast food, she declares, “...McDonald’s in Rome was, in fact, just one more in a long tradition of fast food joints reaching back to the days of the Caesars.”
Her description of the divide between rich and poor is especially poignant.
Culinary Luddites typically gloss over the moral problems intrinsic to the labor of producing and preparing food...Traditional societies were aristocratic, made up of the many who toiled to produce, process, preserve, and prepare food, and the few who, supported by the limited surplus, could do other things.
In the great kitchens of the few — royalty, aristocracy, and rich merchants — cooks created elaborate cuisines. The cuisines drove home the power of the mighty few with a symbol that everyone understood: ostentatious shows of more food than the powerful could possibly consume. Feasts were public occasions for the display of power, not private occasions for celebration, for enjoying food for food’s sake. The poor were invited to watch, groveling as the rich gorged themselves.
She continues on, this time specifically bring the situation of women into focus:
Meanwhile, most men were born to a life of labor in the fields, most women to a life of grinding, chopping, and cooking. “Servitude,” said my mother as she prepared homecooked breakfast, dinner, and tea for eight to ten people three hundred and sixty five days a year.
She was right. Churning butter and skinning and cleaning hares, without the option of picking up the phone for a pizza if something goes wrong, is unremitting, unforgiving toil. Perhaps, though, my mother did not realize how much worse her lot might have been.
She could at least buy our bread from the bakery. In Mexico, at the same time, women without servants could expect to spend five hours a day — one third of their waking hours — kneeling at the grindstone preparing the dough for the family’s tortillas.
By bemoaning the widespread availability of convenience foods we are ignoring the hours of labor often endured by women in the past and today in many parts of the world. As we shame women today (and let’s face it, primarily women are shamed for their families’ diets) for taking advantage of fast food, cheap food, processed food, we are essentially chiding her for escaping this historical role of being metaphorically chained to her hearth.
Laudan sums it up nicely when she compares it to the shocking behavior in the aristocracies of old:
If we urge the Mexican to stay at her metate, the farmer to stay at his olive press, the housewife to stay at her stove instead of going to McDonald’s, all so that we may eat handmade tortillas, traditionally pressed olive oil, and home-cooked meals, we are assuming the mantle of the aristocrats of old. We are reducing the options of others as we attempt to impose our elite culinary preferences on the rest of the population.
For those that enjoy cooking, they are welcome to their past-time. It is fine to celebrate the traditions of old, to take pride in traditionally feminine work to which cooking belongs. However, to shame those who do not, or can not, take part is reprehensible and inherently sexist.