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.