Culinary Luddites?

I’m still trying to determine if Rachel Laudan’s article “In Praise of Fast Food” is rooted in any reality of which I am aware. Her introduction threw me for a loop right off of the bat:

My culinary style, like so many people’s, was created by those who scorned industrialized food; culinary Luddites, we could call them, after the 19th-century English workers who abhorred the machines that were destroying their way of life. I learned to cook from the books of Elizabeth David, who urged us to sweep our cupboards “clean for ever of the cluttering debris of commercial sauce bottles and all synthetic aids to flavoring.”
I rush to the newsstand to pick up Saveur with its promise to teach me to “savor a world of authentic cuisine.”

Culinary Luddism has come to involve more than just taste, however; it has also presented itself as a moral and political crusade—and it is here that I begin to back off. The reason is not far to seek: because I am a historian.

The first sentence takes a huge leap of logic, one which leaves my head strained from the sudden shift from “the rejection of Industrial Food ethics” and equating that to “the rejection of technology”. Dear Ms. Laudan, it is perfectly acceptable to respect the scythe yet loathe the one who wields it. In fact, in looking at the major food movements of the past generation, this is primarily what is going on. From the natural food movements of the seventies, to the Slow Food movement today, the underlying philosophy of these endeavors is the belief that we had put the faith of feeding our nation in the hands of corporations, and the best that they could come up with was food that was over-salted, over-sugared, and over-oiled. All of which was done by sacrificing regional diversity, flavors that many of us hold dear, and even basic nutrition. Wonder Bread, an industrial product, is far less nutritious than a loaf of whole-grain bread.

While some may have rejected the technology that brought us red dye 40 and mass-produced Twinkies, this doesn’t mean that they have rejected technology outright. The better explanation is people taking a step back to a point in history to where we went left when we should have went right, and then resume our progress from there.

Take a look at one of Ms. Laudan’s first points – that natural food has always been brutish, nasty, and had a short shelf life:

For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad. Fresh meat was rank and tough, fresh fruits inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Natural was unreliable. Fresh milk soured; eggs went rotten. Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger. Natural was also usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied 50 to 90 percent of the calories in most societies, have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible.

Let’s talk about fresh meat, soured milk, and rotten eggs. We’ve solved that problem – via refrigeration, a technology that was luxurious a mere century ago, yet now considered a required appliance in even the most basic of homes, and certainly a part of the equipment of even the most rudimentary of food producers. I don’t see anyone arguing or advocating for less usage of refrigeration in industrial foods.

As for the “Natural was also usually indigestible” phrase? It’s an over-simplification of the agrarian technological history that has occurred over the past three-thousand years. Yes, grains were (and still are) at the foundation of providing nutrition to the people, but different areas of the world produced different types of crops, and some areas were more efficient at producing edible grains than others. Yet I hear of no one romantically lusting after the era of inefficient crop yields.

What about the idea that the best food was country food, handmade by artisans? That food came from the country goes without saying. The presumed corollary—that country people ate better than city dwellers—does not. Few who worked the land were independent peasants baking their own bread and salting down their own pig. Most were burdened with heavy taxes and rents paid in kind (that is, food); or worse, they were indentured, serfs, or slaves. They subsisted on what was left over, getting by on thin gruels and gritty flatbreads.

The part about cities is true. Eating well, whether one defines well as quality or healthy, depends upon diversity, and diversity is the benefit of an open market. As cities and towns were the center of market activity in any given area, they generally had the better options for food. But as far as the life of a serf is concerned, the statement is an over-simplification. Serfs were treated as well as the Landlord decided to treat them, and as Terry Jones pointed out in his book Medieval Lives, the lord/serf relationship was very much a symbiotic one – a lord was only as good as the wealth his serfs created. If he treated his serfs poorly, then poor results would occur. Yes, life was harsh for them, and for the lowest castes of serfs, it was akin to slavery, but Ms. Laudan’s description of the Feudal system is without nuance.

And again, let me remind you that no one is advocating for a return to feudal times. The food movements of today are primarily a response to the corporate processes and practices that affect the nutrition and culture of our nation. To describe the organic movement as a desire to go back to indentured servitude is a ludicrous argument on its face.

The questions these movements ask are fairly simple – How do we feed ourselves regularly? And how do we do this safely, while maintaining proper nutrition, and with enough variation that we satisfy all palates and maintain regional identities? While corporations have somewhat answered the first question, and have, for the most part, been doing well on safety, they’ve had problems with nutrition and have nearly ignored the rest.

These movements aren’t a call to ancient food production techniques. They are a predictable response to the fact that the corporate marketplace isn’t meeting their needs. As a historian, Ms. Laudan should have known this, because all food movements have this at their root.