Monday, July 10, 2017

The Destruction of the American Cuisine

Alright, I’ve (finally) fallen behind schedule. My lack of knowledge of political philosophy, coupled with some “IRL” concerns, means I will not be delivering Part V of On Secession on time. And, since my other back-burner ideas are equally unwieldy, I’m short on options. Consider this one a filler post.

I have another interest, which has not appeared on this blog until now: Food. I’ve been cooking quite a bit recently, though by “cooking” I mostly mean preparing food (there’s relatively little heat applied). And somewhere between making bread, salad dressing, sushi, ice cream, and lox, I’ve realized something a little disturbing: we’ve been suckered.

For most of history, everyone* cooked. All the time, every meal. Food was life and death, especially in America, which was an unforgiving frontier for the initial settlers (the colonies had horrific survival rates). Much of the cultural culinary knowledge brought with them from Europe was insufficient, and even the most saccharine stories of Thanksgiving acknowledge the fact that the Mayflower settlers were far up shit creek until the Native Americans helped them out.
*not literally everyone
I'm not seeing the Three Sisters here, but you get the point
Skipping forward a bit, we’ve got a rich American cuisine developing, with people eating indigenous animals like passenger pigeons, all sorts of gourds and corn, and fruits like cranberries and pawpaws. People are curing meats, making cheese, and canning fruit to last through the winter, as well as developing the regional cuisines and iconic dishes that everyone loves so much. Regular infusions of foods from other cultures and new immigrants meant that the American culinary landscape never stood still for too long.

So… What happened? If that rich American cuisine describes your current eating/cooking habits, please tell me where you forage for food. But it's not that way now, and it's not even close. 
Seriously, who thought this was a good idea?
It’s obvious what happened, ad agencies happened. Frozen food was the food of the future, and it was very cool. And one thing led to another, and now you can buy pre-packaged balsamic vinaigrette in the supermarket. The basic advertising idea that prepackaged food is a labor and time saver is going strong, but the other big piece of the puzzle is convincing people that cooking is more difficult than it is. By separating us from the creation of our food, things that cost pennies to make at home can be sold for whatever it is they’re charging you at Whole Foods. I know I grew up with canned whipped cream, even though that is literally just cream and sugar, whipped together. It’s not hard, it doesn’t take a significant amount of time, and it tastes hundreds of times better than the canned stuff.

Obviously, the entire fault can’t be laid at the feet of the ad agencies — it was also the fault of the supermarkets. Until the 1950s, a weekly shop would involve a trip to the butcher, the greengrocer, the bakery, and the dry goods store. The milk, of course, was delivered.
I prefer Wegmans, but it's the same concept
But local “mom and pop” shops were inexorably squeezed out by national chains that could benefit from economics of scale, and factory farms began feeding citizens across the country. Until finally, the notion that you could go to the store in New York and buy something that you couldn’t get in California seems archaic and quaint.

So, in effect, we’ve been removed from our food twice. First from the food itself, and second from the knowledgeable people who provided what we could no longer provide ourselves. Ask anyone whose parents were adults before 1950 whether they ever bought meat from a butcher they didn’t know. This change was in living memory.

And even speaking strictly as a public health concern, this change has not been positive. I’ve written about our problems with antibiotics before, but one of the major contributing factors is the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed. Which is necessary if you’re going to cram hundreds of animals together in a small space, and is necessary if you’re going to provide cheap meat to supermarkets around the country. Likewise, similar issues crop up on the vegetable side (see “On Monocultures”). The mass production of food has given us calories and salt in abundance, and homogeny and malnutrition. But even if these problems were solved, we would still have others. Consider French cheeses:
Hint: the best one is Époisses
This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor are the regional differences limited to cheese. In every place, individual communities developed their own cuisines. And of course, it’s not just France. Every place around the world had things that made that region, town, or village unique, something that was theirs and theirs alone. It’s not limited to food, but since that’s what we’re talking about now, let’s stay on topic. Look at this map:
There are 4 distinct types of barbeque sauce in South Carolina, to say nothing of the individual variations between each type (it’s not like all mustard BBQ sauces are the same). And this is in a place 1/8th the size of France, without the advantage of a thousand years of tiny isolated villages working, living, growing, and cooking. The number of regional dishes in America was enormous… and most of them no longer exist.

That’s what we’ve lost. Because while the occasional dish rises out of local kitchens, the majority don’t. Everything is homogenized and flattened. Pawpaws don’t keep, and can’t be shipped fresh, so you can’t get them in the supermarket. And there’s no reason to make your own ketchup — Heinz is fine, that can be your sauce base. The basic principles of Newspeak apply: you don’t miss what you don’t know. Thus, “American cuisine” came to be little more than hamburgers and hot dogs, with only the strangest and most hardy surviving to the present day. Our rich cultural legacy exchanged for frozen pizza.

There have been efforts to walk it back, with “eat local” campaigns, but the worst of the damage is already done. Much like folklore, once the stories are lost, they’re gone. Why would your grandma (or her grandma) bother to write down the recipe of that dish she made when she just threw together what was handy? You kids sure loved it, though.

I’ve said enough for one day. While I’m nowhere near the level of DIY fanaticism of some, I’m trying a little harder not to buy things that can be made easily at home (and I’m not especially handy). For all those who want to play along, here are three easy recipes.
"One can make all kinds of interesting things, using simple household items"

Vanilla Gelato: This calls for whole milk, eggs, and sugar. I used a vanilla bean extract that had been sitting in the back of my cupboard for years, instead of vanilla bean, but other flavors work fine. The step involving an ice cream maker can be replaced by taking the bowl of ice cream base out of the freezer every 10-20 minutes and stirring (this keeps the ice crystals from getting too big).

Carbonara Pasta: Pasta (which is also easy to make), egg, parmesan cheese (or American imitator), pepper, and garlic or onion if you have it. Substitute Bacon for Panchetta, because it tastes better and is cheaper.

Crispy Skin Salmon: This one you’ll have to buy a piece of fish for, try your local fishmonger if you have one. Do what Gordon says in the video, you just need olive oil, salt, and pepper. I add lemon juice afterwards, and a little bit of honey during. Serve with whatever, I usually do either broccoli or a salad.

Next week, we’re back to normal (fingers crossed).

1 comment:

  1. Small addendum for anyone reading the comments:

    I stumbled upon a very interesting food blog, which I found quite relevant to the post at hand. Very interesting to see the variety of dishes made using the local flora and fauna, and interesting to see which ones survived.