Food Anthropology and Happy Mediums

Today, my ENG 110C students will be turning in their Food Anthropology papers. When I came up with this assignment, I was looking for a way to transition them from narrative to more analytic styles, dropping into profile and description along the way. The Food Anthropology paper is essentially a profile paper – a portrait of a food. But I wanted them to take it one step further.

Rather than have them write a portrait of an apple or some similar whole food, I asked them to pick a highly processed food that is readily available to them, one that is the product of years of scientific and technological innovation. Once they chose the food, they were to begin mapping its genealogy, drawing a lineage back to its original roots. What food was the original base for Cheetos or Dippin’ Dots? Where did Go-gurt come from? How did we get to Choco-tacos?

I’m excited to see what they’ve come up with. In anticipation of their writing this paper, I prepared a lecture last week on kitchen history, on the innovations that have come into play over the last two hundred years to make our current ways of cooking possible. I used a cookbook my sister gave me, The Old-Time Name-Brand Cookbook, as my source, and I drew out a history of cooking for my students.

In drawing up a simple history for my students, I got to thinking about our current food movement. If we look at our culinary history in waves, especially over the last 200 years, we can see moments of great inspiration, moments when somebody saw a need and developed a product to make life easier. Powdered gelatin was packaged and sold in smaller amounts by a Mr. Knox because he watched his wife spend six hours making calves’ foot jelly. Who knows what his inspiration was? The conclusion was:  there has to be an easier way. The mid- to late-nineteenth century is full of small stories like these, stories where somebody came up with a product that is now a household name. These stories led to what we have come to understand as processed foods. But back then, “processed foods” wasn’t an evil term. It was a relief, an answer to tasks that took hours (even all day) and several people to make it happen.

Breakfast on the Go – for people in a rush!

If you think about it, our daily food routines can be done rather economically and efficiently. Get up. Make coffee (which has been pre-ground for us) in a coffee maker in our homes. Grab a _______ (banana, granola bar, Pop-Tart, Breakfast-on-the-Go pouch, whatever), and head to work. Either go out to lunch at a restaurant, or eat a lunch you brought from home. Perhaps a sandwich on bread that was made and packaged for you, with pre-packaged peanut butter and jelly. Perhaps a microwavable meal, one that has been flash-frozen to maintain freshness. Head home. Order a meal to be delivered to you, or cook it yourself:  perhaps chicken breasts, pre-butchered for you, etc. You get my point.

I say all this not as judgment. That Breakfast on the Go pouch is mine. This is the world we live in, and this is what we traded in for. Before World War II, before the subsequent wave of the feminist movement, which made it possible for women to transition out of the home and into the work force, food preparation was done the slow way, the homemade way, the way that took a lot of time and left little energy leftover for a woman to have independent hobbies, jobs, etc. In that way, I’m thankful for the little pouch of nuts and freeze-dried berries covered in yogurt; I’m glad I can choose when I’ll spend an entire day covered in flour and cooking grease and end the day with tired feet and an achy back.

In my presentation to my students, I recounted a fact from the aforementioned cookbook, about the release of The Boston Cooking School Cookbook by Fannie Farmer. Farmer’s cookbook includes instructions for precise measuring, a new idea back then, based on the idea that cooking could be standardized and made full-proof. I have a second edition copy of this book, its pages old and yellowed and smelling magnificent. In the poultry chapter, there are instructions for plucking and cleaning the bird, removing its head and guts, etc. I read this aloud to my students and asked them what they preferred:  the Fannie Farmer way of the early 20th century, or the Harris Teeter way, cleanly wrapped in cellophane. They chose cellophane. No surprise.

After World War II, these innovations in cooking took a nasty turn. Flavor enhancers and preservatives came into play. I have a theory (possibly entirely unsupported) that the scientific community in America was on a high after their developments in chemical (nuclear) warfare in World War II. If they could evaporate an enemy city, they could surely make bread last longer and apple pie filling taste more appley. What was originally a grand “American dream” moment of innovation – see a need, develop a product – grew and morphed and deviated into a science of manipulating our food for the utmost in convenience, nutrition, etc. Eventually, the artificial became more normal than the real.

May peas – in the shell.

Enter the slow food movement. I have been mulling over all of this since I made that presentation last week. On Friday, I went to pick up my bag of CSA goodies, and in it there was a bag of fresh shelled May peas. We had just opened our bag from the previous week that morning; there was no way we’d be able to get to both bags this week. So I decided to freeze the May peas, the fresh ones, for a later date. I did some Internet research on how best to freeze them, and I began boiling a large pot of water so that I could blanch them, kill off any bacteria, then halt the cooking process in a bath of ice water, before sealing them up and tossing them in the freezer. While I was at it, I went ahead and trimmed beet greens from our bunch of beets, cleaned the leaves, and put them in a bag for ready use. I washed our blackberries and put them away in Tupperware so they wouldn’t leak in the refrigerator. I felt quite old fashioned, like an essay by MFK Fisher, one where she recounts the image of her grandmother, mother, and hired cook making jam from fresh summer strawberries, preserving fruit after fruit during the summer so they would have it when they wanted it come mid-winter (when fruit like that would be unavailable).

I’ve begun doing some things the slow(er) way. I like to get fresh, seasonal produce from farmer’s markets. I make my own bread. Amanda and I are looking for ways to cut down on meat consumption so that we can afford to buy ethically raised meat rather than meat from scary unethical operations. I have a beautiful idea that one day I’ll find someone who will trade me freshly laid eggs in exchange for something I could offer – bread? Baked goods? Mint from my herb garden?

I think we are quick to condemn processed foods, and rightly so. The processed foods we are most acquainted with are hardly real food, and it becomes difficult to trace those foods back to their roots, to perform my students’ Food Anthropology exercise on common snack foods, breakfast foods, and even things that are supposed to pass for dinner. But after preparing for that lesson last week, it’s hard for me to condemn it completely. I’m thankful that I can get chicken that doesn’t still have feathers and a head on it. I’m happy that my sugar comes in a bag, granulated for me, rather than me having to break off chunks from a block of sugar hanging from the ceiling. I’m psyched that I can turn on my oven to a precise temperature and not have to guess at it, stoking a fire and raising the temperature in a guessing game of baking. So in some ways, I’m thankful for that history, for early food processors.

I’m also thankful for fresh May peas, resting in my freezer, waiting for me to eat them later, when I’m ready. And homemade bread sitting on my counter. For urban chickens and farmer’s markets and the group of people who decided to make this into a slow jam, to look for a way back. I’m thankful today for happy mediums.

7 thoughts on “Food Anthropology and Happy Mediums

  1. Great post, again! I totally agree…I’ve started slowing things down, as well, and it makes me feel good that I’m feeding my kids local, fresh, non-processed produce and helping them learn sustainable solutions for their adulthood.

  2. Your course sounds very interesting. A dream, really. Combining food and writing! Two of my great loves!

    I enjoyed your thoughtful discussion on the nature (or lack thereof!) of food.

  3. Good blog entry, though I’m not sure if there’s a direct correlation between post-WWII food shortcuts and women’s freedom. Betty Friedan seemed to make it sound as though easier home chores actually added to the monotony and dryness of middle class womens’ lives, making them feel useless and turn to alcohol and tranquilzers to cope.

    Your assumption about food preserving in the wake of nuclear advances is not very far off … the “we can do anything” idea was very much the cultural zeitgeist of the 50s/early 60s, culminating in the old saw, “If we can put a man on the moon, we can _____!” Also, MSG was discovered in Japan, where the Japanese Army had used it to make their inferior rations more palatable (and in a bizzare twist, American GIs preferred it over their rations, which were “better” in every measurable sense). Also, eggs and various other foods were powdered during the war, another change in the American pallate.

    On a side note, I have heard that frozen fruit is better than fresh because it’s vine-ripened. Is there any truth in this assertion?

    1. I definitely agree with what you say about Friedan. I don’t believe this is an absolute truth, the idea that innovations necessarily led to women’s rights. But I do see a historical conversation between culinary innovations, post-war gender politics, the Feminine Mystique, etc. I don’t intend to be a cultural/historical authority on this, and i risk over-simplifying here. But one way of looking at it is to say that those innovations contributed to/exacerbated boredom and listlessness, which in turn caused a revolution, etc. Like I said, not enough evidence for a true cause/effect relationship, definitely, but enough for an observation for me to mull over. 🙂

      As for frozen fruit, I think it’s probably a matter of taste. I like fresh, but I’ve frozen a bag of strawberries that are sure to be delicious!

      1. Lessening household burdens was certainly a factor in the revolution, and one of the reasons (in my opinion) that feminists like Wolstencraft and Woodhull didn’t see much drastic change in their respective centuries. Even if one accepted womens’ rights in theory, who is going to do the laundry, cook, ect.? That may be flawed logic, but it’s how they thought.

        I also prefer fresh fruit, but I use frozen berries to turn Whey workout shakes into something I can actually bear to drink. Although freezing bananas ruins them for everything else, it doesn’t effect their taste as a smoothie ingredient. Not unlike the poor souls in Friedan’s day adding booze to Metrecal …. 😀

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