Food, Romance, History

February 11, 2009

There’s something powerful about the romantic allure of a lost golden age of food. Evidently there was a time when Americans ate well, ate locally, ate fresh, ate communally, and ate with moderation.  The professional historian in me finds this hard to believe. But, among food writers at least, I appear to be all alone in my skepticism.

Mark Bittman, whom I respect as much as any food writer alive, falls prey to the myth of a culinary Eden in his latest book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. The book is generally wonderful, and Bittman is to be given much credit for having the guts to come out and tell his many sybaritic followers that they must reduce meat consumption.  But still, he cannot help but call for a “focus away from the twentieth-century style of eating and back to something saner, more traditional, and less manufactured.” (emphasis added) Michael Pollan, whose work has also been a great inspiration to me (not that I agree with him all the time), practically wallows in the myth, describing Joel Salatin’s operation in these terms: “The farm and the family comprised a remarkably self contained world, in the way I imagined all American life once did.” (The Omnivore’s Dilemma)

But here’s the deal: you don’t have to imagine anything.

The history of pre-industrial agriculture is laid bare, much of it in published sources like Experiment Station reports, almanacs, agriculture newspapers, diaries, account books, USDA brochures, and the like.  I can assure these stumpers for the long lost Golden Age that, should they take the time to consult the actual rather than the imagined past, the rose tinted lenses would quickly go clear.  

Here are a few things the romantics assuredly would not find: subsistence agriculture (no farm was self sufficient), a quest to eat local (everyone was after surplus production and foreign trade), healthy food (everyone cooked with lard), safe food (insecticide of choice was arsenic), and recycled manure (fertilizer often came from afar, often in the form of guano from Chile and Peru).  There’s your lost Golden Age.

I guess I wouldn’t bother bringing the matter up if all that was at stake was the accuracy of the historical record. Too often, though, people seduced by the romantics make dietary changes that conform to the myth’s psychic appeal. One area where I see this happening with potentially dangerous consequences is the quest to eat wild food rather than “industrial” food.  As I have mentioned in an earlier post, eating free range pigs and chicken has been determined to be more dangerous than eating pigs raised conventionally.

And now this: A San Antonio company has recalled wild elk that it distributed because the elk was found to have Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)–a fatal brain and nervous system disease. Officials are alarmed by the finding because an outbreak of CWD can easily spread from elk to wild deer, which humans consume much more of than elk. The prospect of CWD transmitting to humans is theoretical, but given that another prion-mediated disease–bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)–does spread to humans, it is not out of the question. BSE is also known as Mad Cow Disease.  

Who knows what else lurks in the gut mucosa of the wild kingdom. But before we start becoming hunter-gatherers again, or even talk about its supposed health benefits, we’d be wise to recall that, as those historical documents reveal, one reason why we started domesticating meat in the first place was that it was easier to control contamination.


elk recall: