Friday, February 13, 2009

Histories of Food and Eating


In his excellent In Defence of Food, Michael Pollan steers the reader away from the highly processed stuff that dominates grocery store shelves and toward "real" food with this bit of advice: "Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." He suggests that you imagine your great grandmother at your side as you make your way through the store, and look at each item through her eyes as you pick it up and scan its ingredient list.

Because my actual great grandmothers are less vivid in my mind than their fictional contemporaries, I found myself adapting Pollan's exercise to consider the meals of some of my favourite late 19th/early 20th century characters as possible dietary touchstones. Think, for example, of the meal that Anne Shirley plans for Mrs. Morgan's visit in L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Avonlea (set in the early 1880s):

"I'll have a light soup to begin with ... you know I can make a lovely cream-of-onion soup ... and then a couple of roast fowls. I'll have the two white roosters." [...] "Then I'll have peas and beans and creamed potatoes and a lettuce salad, for vegetables," resumed Anne, "and for dessert, lemon pie with whipped cream, and coffee and cheese and lady fingers."

Or the box of groceries that Betsy and Joe receive as a mysterious housewarming gift in Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy’s Wedding (set in 1914):

     Betsy was sitting on the kitchen floor beside a huge box overflowing with groceries. A smiling delivery boy was just closing the door.
     "Who sent them?"
     "He wouldn't say. But they're for us."
     Joe dropped down beside her. He lifted out a dozen eggs, a half dozen tomatoes, a cucumber, some onions—two bottles of milk, a pound of butter, bacon, a slab of strong cheese—a loaf of bread, a coffee cake, doughnuts.
     "Pretty good," he said, devouring one.
     Betsy was pulling out coffee, cocoa and tea, vinegar and oil, salt and pepper, oatmeal, tapioca, molasses, raisins.
     "And coconut!" she cried. "I can make you a coconut cake as soon as I learn how!"
     Next came flour and sugar, baking powder, soda and vanilla. Beside a box of graham crackers stood a jar of jelly and one of pickles. Potatoes and apples spilled from their sacks.

Or, the evening snack that provokes a disquisition on the history of popcorn from a young Almanzo Wilder in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy (set in the late 1860s):

     Almanzo sat on a footstool by the stove, an apple in his hand, a bowl of popcorn by his side, and his mug of cider on the hearth by his feet. He bit the juicy apple, then he ate some popcorn, then he took a drink of cider. He thought about popcorn.

I would be happy to reconfigure my diet along any of these lines.

Alas the pleasure of this exercise can slide too easily into romanticism about the pure and nutritious food people ate in the good, old days. Note that Pollan advises avoiding anything that your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food; he doesn't advocate adopting her diet, being well aware that many of our great grandmothers had very poor diets indeed whether out of choice or necessity. As an antidote to that romanticism and as a means of figuring out how we got to where we are now as far as food production and distribution and the dietary habits that flow from them are concerned, I've been dipping into a pair of social histories by Harvey Levenstein: Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (covering 1880-1930) and Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America (spanning 1930 to the present).

I can't give a full account of either yet, but I'm far enough along in Revolution at the Table to tell you that it makes for fascinating reading. Levenstein's premise is that the years between 1880 and 1930 marked a dramatic transformation in how and what Americans ate. In the opening chapter he paints a vivid picture of "The American Table in 1880" and throughout the rest of the book tracks the shift that occurred thereafter and the multitude of forces that prompted it: for example, technological advances that changed the processes of food production and distribution as well as the way people prepared it in their homes, a new ethos of advertising that saw enormous sums of money employed to develop mass markets for new food products to supplant existing staples, and reform campaigns rooted in a burgeoning nutritional science which were designed to persuade people to eat not what they liked but what was good for them.

A particular strength of the book is the attention that Levenstein pays to regional differences and to class. He makes very clear that what Americans ate in 1880 and how the shifts that occurred thereafter affected them had much to do with where they lived, how much money they had in their food budgets, how much time they had to devote to preparing food, and whether or not they had the help of servants in doing so, as well as to dietary preferences shaped by tradition and culture. By way of illustration, here he is summing up a chapter on "the New England Kitchen experiment," a reform effort that sought to improve the diets of the working classes in Boston, New York, and other cities in the northeast U.S.:

It is tempting to regard the founders of the Kitchen as they saw themselves: people of learning and vision frustrated by the ignorance and prejudices of the class they most wanted to help. After all, within decades, much of their message on nutrition had become part of the conventional wisdom. Yet to concentrate solely on the wisdom of their message would be to ignore their manifest failings. Like many reformers of their time, they went about their mission among the working class with the smug assurance that with "science" on their side, they were touting a way of life far superior to that worked out by millions of people in their daily struggle to survive. Once rejected, rather than re-examining their message and its audience, they dismissed the working-class as ignoramuses whose only hope lay in their propensity to imitate their betters.

Note the quotation marks around "science." Here's why:

The great irony of this attempt to bring the benefits of science to the eating habits of the lower-class was that many of the things the reformers advocated were, by the light of today’s nutritionists, both dangerous and unhealthy. As we have seen, one of the banes of the workingman's diet was the dearth of fresh vegetables and fruits. Yet because they preached in the era before the discovery of vitamins, the New Nutritionists denigrated most fruits and vegetables, which emerged from the labs as mostly water and carbohydrates. Atwater urged Americans to eat more white flour and fewer potatoes because the former was a much cheaper source of carbohydrates. The bran of the wheat and the vitamin-packed skins of the potatoes were to be discarded as "refuse." The tomato was dismissed as useful only in small quantities as a flavoring agent with no food value of its own. If one insisted on eating green vegetables, they were to be well boiled, to make them more digestible and lessen the waste of energy necessary to digest them. Only condensed milk, laced with sugar but deprived of Vitamins C and D, was used in the Kitchen. In short, if America turned en masse to follow their advice, rickets, beri-beri, scurvy, and other vitamin-deficiency diseases may have reached epidemic proportions.

There are a lot of strands to the story that Levenstein is telling in this book which can make for a somewhat disjointed reading experience. I think that's inevitable though as a more focussed narrative would require too much narrowing or distortion. In fact, the structure of the book makes it perfect for dipping into and out of as I like to do with this sort of richly detailed non-fiction. I expect I will be sharing more titbits here as I continue to work my way through it and move on to Levenstein's follow-up, The Paradox of Plenty.

Next Friday: Marion Nestle's What to Eat.


bloglily said...

Oh, this is such a wonderful review! I love hearing about this sort of thing and I'm so glad this has become an interest of yours, because your reading and writing about reading is just so intelligent and interesting.

Oh, and I'd just like to say that my family basically salivated its way through most of the Little House books, food-wise, but it is in Farmer Boy that Wilder reaches the apex of literary food descriptions. Man, those people really ATE.

Suko said...

Kate, this is definitely a post full of substance and nuance; my comments barely scratch the surface here. Reading the history of food is tantalizing (and calorie-free): which foods were available, given as gifts, eaten for health or comfort, etc.. (I found it noteworthy myself to learn a few months ago that Virginia Woolf may have been one of the earliest modern writers to write about the actual food served at a lunch she attended.) Another delectable post!

Anonymous said...

I love that books about the the social history of food are making their way onto your tbr list. Of course it will do damage to my own list but that's only fair. ;-)

Did you know there's an L.M. Montgomery recipe book? It's called Aunt Maud's Recipe Book and is full of many yummy things.