Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Traditional Food?

CNN has an article up today focusing on a blogger's recent challenge to her readers to eat "real food" for a whole month. Participants committed to avoiding all processed foods, including white flour, sugar, refined oils, and low- or non-fat milk, for 28 days.

There are several interesting things about this article, but the one that really caught my eye was the use of the word "traditional" to describe the foods prepared during this challenge. Though the CNN article does not really elaborate on what "traditional" meant, other websites have lengthy descriptions:
What are Traditional Foods? The traditional food movement focuses on real, whole foods: foods that our ancestors ate. The main deviation from the standard American diet can be found in the attitude towards fat and carbohydrates. Generally, traditional foodists eat fewer carbohydrates (particularly in grains and sugars) than most Americans and don't feel it necessary to limit their fat intake. A typical day for someone who eats according to traditional foods may start with eggs, bacon, and some fruit, followed by meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables for lunch and dinner. If grains are eaten, they're generally soaked to neutralize anti-nutrients called phytates contained in raw grain products. Meats are generally grass fed, and dairy products are eaten raw: that is, not pasteurized. Processed foods, soy, trans fats, white flour products, and factory farmed meat and dairy products are generally avoided.
I'm trying to imagine an era in which anyone's "ancestors" ate cheese, but not grain, and I've got nothing.*

I don't mean to be too snarky — I actually admire the slow foods movements and do try to cook whole foods as much as I can. When I am successful in following the "shop the perimeter" philosophy at the grocery store, I feel a great sense of accomplishment (followed by a great sense of spending 3x as much time cooking, which is sometimes fun and sometimes not). I do not mean to ridicule the "traditional" foods movement — I'm merely attempting to examine its use of history/nostalgia.

Many of the whole/slow/traditional/unprocessed foods movements are explicit about their attempt to take cues from history about how to eat. One of Michael Pollan's famous food rules is, "Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food."** Slow foods festivals and stores have names like "Food of Our Ancestors" and "Heritage." Publicity for these movements often evokes a golden age of eating:
"Slow food is the food our ancestors enjoyed: seasonal and local food, thoughtfully prepared to express local traditions and flavors, and leisurely enjoyed in the company of family and friends.
When was this magical time? It is the time of our grandmothers' kitchens, a pre-industrial age when life was simple and "natural," whatever that means. In other words, it is not an historical era, but an imagined realm. No one ever ate the way these activists envision. I'm not saying that their goals are not admirable — I am all for supporting family farms, eating food in season (to some degree . . . I suspect we New Englanders would be sick of half-rotten potatoes by March), and savoring the acts of cooking and eating good food. Still, let's not get all nostalgic about the history of food.

In reality, cycles of modest surplus and deadly famine were the norm in most agricultural societies between 10,000 BCE and 1800 CE. Hunter-gather and hunter-gather-agricultural societies endured yearly cycles of plenty and privation. Your great-great-grandmother may have recognized beef as a food, but she tasted it once a year if she was lucky. Depending on the country, she probably relied on rice, oats, tubers, or corn for the vast majority of her calories, supplemented by occasional vegetables, some fruit, and small quantities of meat. In early modern Europe, most people got the majority of their protein from milk, cheese, butter, and occasional eggs — fish was a weekly indulgence and meat was for holidays.

Let's leave the question of famine and nutrition aside for a moment. What do "traditional" food advocates consider traditional? In the CNN article, there is a lot of discussion of "processed" foods. I cannot really figure out what they mean by "processed." White flour, sugar, and salt are out, but the article mentions adherents using butter, cheese, and lard. Obviously, there is a difference between the artisan cheese produced at your local dairy and Kraft Singles, but it's not a whole food. Salt is also a processed food — I suppose it's off-limits because most modern salt is refined industrially and has iodine added, but our ancestors used industrial processes to refine salt, too. When one of the challenge participants wants to make breakfast, "she ground oats and buckwheat to make pancakes and waffles." Millers are not traditional?

What did the challenge participants learn? Unsurprisingly, they "found that it was time-consuming." To advocates, that is a feature, not a bug. To the women quoted in the article — and let's be honest here, everyone interviewed is a woman — it was sort of a hassle. Not surprising when you consider that these people were hand-grinding their own grain. Nobody's grandmother did that — she had a miller or a community of people who took turns doing that sort of back-breaking work. Yes, it takes a long time to cook from scratch, but it takes even longer if you take on the responsibilities of an entire community. Your great-grandmother worked hard, but I doubt she ever spent 3 hours making dinner — she had other things to do and she had a lot more help than the average mother does today. In once sense, the slow food movement has admirable political goals, but it also has the practical effect of putting even more expectations on women and assuring them that their ancestors did it, so they should be able to manage. The problem is that the appeal to history is really an appeal to a fantasy.

I suppose my point is that "traditional" is a bad name for this movement. If you want to grind your own oats because it will be good for your health or good for farmers or just a big fuck you to agribusiness, a blessing be upon you. Just don't imagine that you are recapturing a golden age of food when joyful peasants ate heirloom tomato salads as they frolicked to the tune of a wooden flute. If you want to cook like great-great grandma Sarah, put a big pot of water over your fire, boil some oats or peas for a week and throw in whatever scraps of vegetable greens and pork rinds you can scrounge. Congratulations, you made a pottage. It tastes like crap and your children will have rickets and grow up to be four inches shorter than their peers. Bon appétit.

*I should note that some traditional cuisines are more animal-product-focused than crop-focused. In Tibet, for example, people rely on yak and goat milk/butter/meat more than on grains because few crops grow at such high altitudes. They do have barley, though. I am sure that there are a few other examples of people living in extreme environments that can support dairies, but not cereals (Mongolia comes to mind). However, these are exceptions to a more general rule: people who have cows/goats/sheep usually have grains of some sort.
**In my mind, I amend this to read "my great-great-grandmother or someone else's," in order to preserve the spirit of the rule: my grandmother was a housewife of the 1950s-1970s and cooked some ungodly things that I wouldn't ever consider eating. Plus, I like sushi, which someone's grandmother would recognize as food.


Kaethe said...

Oh, I love you. The idea that there was some magnificent time in the past when most people weren't starving or nutritionally compromised just kills me.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I love you, too. This movement is on the right nutritional track, but their nostalgic version of the past is like a history theme park where everyone was kind, beautiful, and self-reliant, and nothing bad ever happened to anyone. The idea of grinding one's own grain is as preposterous as the notion that Ma sat at the spinning wheel all day so she could make clothes for her family.
Thank you for your always diverting blog. Come for the gravestones, stay for the common sense (and the Connecticut Muppets)!

那ㄟ安呢 said...
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Unknown said...

You make a great point; I was laughing out loud by the end.

Anonymous said...

I also love you! I couldn't agree more with your thoughts about "traditional" food.