Slow Food Heretic

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I enjoy my assumptions being challenged. It helps me to clarify my actual position on things and hones my opinions, solidifies my core values, and gives me a chance to think about from where these opinions came and why they’ve become part of my value system. I’ve never been one to shy away from reading or viewing that which I don’t naturally agree with. This has led to usually one of two things happening. I either do a 180 on my opinion, or it reinforces my opinion.

Therefore, it was with a great deal of interest that I read Rachel Laudan’s “A Plea for Culinary Modernism” in the Jacobin. Her essential thesis is that because she is an historian, she believes the Slow Food Movement is rubbish. She says, “That food should be fresh and natural has become an article of faith. It comes as something of a shock to realize that this is a latter-day creed. For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad.”

In the past, seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger. People died of starvation, crops failed, cows refused to give milk, and the list goes on. She believes that the Slow Food Movement people are romanticizing the past, painting pastoral scenes in their minds of rolling hills and fat sheep grazing while their shepherds napped under a tree. The truth, she argues, is quite the opposite. First of all, even after agriculture became a thing, getting food to even a  digestible point took up a huge portion of the day. There was the harvesting, the threshing, the grinding, the soaking, whatever it took to make that food actually something one could eat. The task of getting cows to milk was given to one person – the dairy maid. That was all she did. Digression: At one time when I was contemplating buying a hobby farm to raise goats from which I would make “artisanal” goat cheese (all the better to sell at Wychwood Barns to wealthy urbanites), I found out that goats need to be milked twice a day. Every day. Yeah…so, I’m lazy…there is no hobby farm.

Anyway, Laudan goes on to argue that even very early in the last millennium humans were already happily denaturing things to make them more digestible. Processing and fermenting were well established ways to keep food longer and make it easier to eat. She says:

“In the twelfth century, the Chinese sage Wu Tzu-mu listed the six foodstuffs essential to life: rice, salt, vinegar, soy sauce, oil, and tea. Four had been unrecognizably transformed from their naturally occurring state.”

In 200 BC, she tells us, the Confucian Book of Rites distinguishes primitive humans from civilized human beings by describing the former as those who only ate wild, uncooked food.

Local food was likewise frowned upon, historically. It was what the poor people ate. The wealthy ate exotic foodstuffs imported from places far away. I know my mother tells me that in her little fishing village, the poorest children were singled out because they would bring lobster sandwiches to school.

But her most interesting argument is that the Slow Food Movement is elitist. And this is where my core values start to wobble. She’s not wrong. Unless you’re growing your own food, killing your own heirloom chickens and foraging through the local parks, eating all natural, locally grown, organic foods is expensive. Super expensive. Yes, yes, I know…eat less. But say you’ve got two giant teenaged boys who are not capable of even articulating those words. It can kind of add up, boys and girls.

Fast food, Laudan tells us, has been around forever. In the Forum, Romans could pick up sausages and honey cakes, there were ready-cooked meats and vegetables available for purchase in early Baghdad, Mexicans had been enjoying tacos from market stalls for generations and the list goes on. Laudan is basically saying, don’t fear the Fast Food. It’s just what we do. Slow Food really is reserved for the leisure classes – the people who can afford artisanal goat cheese and $40 chickens.

Where I disagree with her, however, is the premise that just because the food industry is making a profit doesn’t make them the bad guy. Hmmm. I agree that profit isn’t a bad goal for any industry, why else would they do it, but when the food industry deliberately misleads people with labels like “natural flavourings” and “low fat” (ipso facto, high sugar), or whatever they do to misinform consumers, they are in the wrong. We can still choose the closest thing to whole foods possible even if they have arrived at our grocery stores through modern processes.

Has she made me do a 180? No. But I am reading Michael Pollan a little more critically these days instead of with my little pink heart glasses on. I am forgiving myself for sometimes buying meat at Costco instead of Rowe Farms because of the aforementioned monster teenagers. However, I will always continue to buy and eat the freshest food I can afford, though, and I guess that’s all any of us can really do.

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6 thoughts on “Slow Food Heretic

  1. I know it’s not the point of your musings, but for me, it’s about compassionate food. The profit you mention is made from the suffering of sentient beings. I try to choose what I purchase knowing that the pig or steer or sheep or duck or chicken or fish has not lived its life in a crowded, dirty environment and has been slaughtered humanely. Our current mass production processes are not meeting my standard. I care about the living being the food represents, whilst accepting that it is bred for me to eat. My eight steers that I rear each year on our hobby farm enjoy a life doing what they do, but I am not comfortable when that truck picks them up and I know their little herd will be split at the saleyard according to their size and quality, and they will have to re-establish themselves in a bigger herd in a finishing yard eating grain for six weeks. And then transported to the abbatoir. I see and smell them go by as I sit in an outside seat on the footpath of the cafe in my town, and the truck rolls past. I see the eyes of the steers as they try to make sense of where they are, I smell their excrement and I imagine their fear, I see the sheep who has lost it’s footing and is squashed between and beneath it’s herd on its back. I want better for those whose voices are not heard. Whether your food is slow or fast, it’s production is important. Producing food on a mass scale does not meet my standards. And I read Michael Pollan a while ago, but I remember his description of slaughtering chickens his comments around what working in an abbatoir full time might mean for the human psyche. Have a look at this site: http://www.animalsaustralia.org/ and you may never look at a glass of milk the same way (i.e. think of the bobby calves, the by product of the milk industry).

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    • I agree, Sarah. The same can be said for mass produced vegetables and fruit and the itinerant farm workers and their conditions. I feel that in almost all food production someone – human or animal – has suffered. I wrote this post a while back: https://wordpress.com/post/84514005/58/ that talks about how challenging it is to eat conscientiously. And it is germane to this topic, because fast food is almost invariably made with factory farmed animals. It has to be to guarantee profit margins remain high. It’s uncomfortable for people to think about their food suffering, so they just don’t. Until the day I become a vegetarian, I will feel guilt, even if the meat was raised humanely.

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  2. Interesting read!

    As for the food industry misleading the public, I think most of the time it’s not so much that manufacturers want to mislead but that technological advancement surpasses consumer knowledge and therefore acceptance. I know this from having observed many sessions of consumer discussion groups where people have unfounded fears about any chemical name that they don’t know. But after explaining to them what they are, there is always a change in their minds – either reinforcing rejection or turnaround to acceptance depending on the ingredient. Just speaking as a food scientist who has been in the industry.

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    • Thanks so much for your insights.

      Though it may be true that consumer knowledge is behind technological advances, I don’t really see the food industry making a huge push to educate the general public. It took me until this year to find out that the “natural” in natural flavour was the process not the product. I think it’s logical to think that natural refers to the product, and therefore I DO think that the industry was deliberately misleading in this case specifically. I also feel that there is often a disregard for peoples’ health to ensure profits. But maybe that’s just my natural inclination towards conspiracy theories. 🙂

      I’d be really happy to talk to you more about your work as a food scientist. Thanks so much for your comment.

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      • Have you read the book Sugar Salt Fat by Michael Moss? I think you will enjoy that book thoroughly. It’s about the dubious techniques that the industry uses to push sales.

        The problem with educating the public, I think, is that nobody will believe the industry anyway. I mean, if Monsanto conducts public education talks about the benefits of GM food, no one will believe them because it will be seen as marketing. If they do get external parties to do that, like in the case of agri-technologies researcher Kevin Folta, consumers start blaming Folta for being an industry shill. The issue is that the common person is so far removed from the way food is made. New technologies scare people like the thought of genetically modifying plants, but if you think about it, similar fears can be achieved with conventional cross breeding. Imagine for a moment that this is a new technology and all this time humanity had been gathering herbs and fruits from the wild. The thought of intentionally taking pollen from one plant and inseminating another feels very unnatural in comparison. This is why I think most people have unfounded fears about GM foods – most don’t even know what the technology is about. Sure there are grounds to be wary of GM foods too even if you know the technology, but my point is that most people don’t really bother to find out and just fear it because it’s “unnatural”.
        In any case, I don’t mean to completely side with the food industry – I just feel that the issues are much more complex than what they seem. I don’t know the solutions either. I’m currently trying to figure that out in my limited capacity and writing about it in my blog.
        Anyway your book project sounds really interesting. Hope to see it realize soon.

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      • Thanks! I’ll definitely read that book. Have you read The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker? Right up your alley.

        Your blog is great, btw. Thanks again for sharing your insights.

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