Here's our supper this past Saturday night. There's some iceberg lettuce shipped from far away; some blue cheese and dressing courtesy of the food giant, Kraft; Kettle Cooked Jalapeño Cheddar Chips with a banner on the bag trumpeting 40 PERCENT LESS FAT; a brat burger grilled by moi decorated with Grandma Millie's artificially green home canned sweet pickles and otherwise artfully condimented with HyVee ketchup and artisan sweet hot mustard. The wine is a mellow Sangiovese from Italy...tasty and inexpensive as befits the season of burgers and buns, but missing the appellation of "local" by an ocean or two.
Why should you care about what we ate this Saturday evening? Because this plate, with its burger sized smiley face, breaks all kinds of laws laid down by today's food police. The meat is processed...and grilled over a fragrant smoky charcoal fire. I bought the white bread buns on sale for 77 cents, but cancelled out that economy with the four ounces of blue cheese crumbles. I didn't have to forage for this meal...or skin it...or dig it; I picked up the fixin's in about 15 minutes off the shelves of our Atchison County HyVee.
Burgers and chips. Fast and tasty. And a bad taste in the mouths of what historian Rachel Laudan has dubbed Culinary Luddites. What distinguishes a Culinary Luddite from those of us who eat our quarter pounder pluses with relish? Her description follows:
"We hover between ridicule and shame when we remember how our mothers and grandmothers enthusiastically embraced canned and frozen foods. We nod in agreement when the waiter proclaims that the restaurant showcases the freshest local produce. We shun Wonder Bread and Coca-Cola. Above all, we loathe the great culminating symbol of Culinary Modernism, McDonald’s — modern, fast, homogenous, and international."
Do you feel guilt? Have you lost your appetite? Wait because the historian is about to deliver the inconvenient truths about the foods we humans have eaten for most of history.
Far from enshrining the nostalgic family grouping around the heaping kitchen table, Laudan reminds us of the kinds of people who ate fast food in the past: shepherds and soldiers and hunters. Cooking food was dangerous in close quarters and fuel was as expensive as the food itself: street vendors provided fast hot fried convenience foods from China to Mexico.
Laudan dismisses the notion that folks in the country savored the best of the land, developing the tasty ethnic dishes we associate with artisanal food. On the contrary, peasants were subsistence farmers, eking out an uncertain unhealthy existence on what was left to eat after the more affluent society in the cities took the bulk and best of the harvest. No peasant kitchen concocted Italian lasagna or Chinese mooshu pork. No, "traditional"dishes like these were born of urban wealth and urban plenty.
It bears remembering, whenever the ugly hoary head of Culinary Luddism rears up, that the term natural, so overused and unfocused as to be banal, was not a compliment until modern times. Grains were indigestible; fruits were bitter and many vegetables were downright poisonous. It took the trial and error of human ingenuity to process natural foods until they were safe and generations of observation and selection to create foods that were tasty. In the author's words:
"Happiness was not a verdant Garden of Eden abounding in fresh fruits, but a securely locked storehouse jammed with preserved, processed foods."
Finally, despite the pleasure I take in picking my seasonal tomatoes and the convenience of my local HyVee, let us not forget how paltry our tables would be without the benefit of trade: before markets, before caravans loaded with spices, before tea from the east and ships bringing strange plants like potatoes and tomatoes from the west. “Local” is an attractive construct that sounds better than it tastes and primarily serves to limit choices, not expand them.
Before we consign my tasty burger, crunchy chips, and loaded iceberg lettuce to a postmodern food oblivion....let's listen to what Rachel Laudan has to say about our recent food history:
"Where modern food became available, populations grew taller, stronger, had fewer diseases, and lived longer. Men had choices other than hard agricultural labor, women other than kneeling at the metate five hours a day."
There is room enough in our plentiful food system for the food of the elite: artisanal dishes with names larger than their serving size artfully arranged and priced for a king. There's nothing wrong with fortifying 4 year old Josh a big bowl of boxed Mac 'n Cheese, the orange kind that he likes, food everyone can afford. The Culinary Luddites envision a food history that never existed. Those of us in the business of growing food in the real world know how difficult it is just to produce enough.
"For all, Culinary Modernism had provided what was wanted: food that was processed, preservable, industrial, novel, and fast, the food of the elite at a price everyone could afford.