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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Not quite what we've been told

One of our regular habits that had gone by the wayside lately was our weekly library trips.  We've kinda-sorta started them up again.  One of the things I enjoy about going to the library is just browsing through the various sections of interest and discovering related books I would never have known about.  One such gem I've since been able to buy and am happily re-reading is The Gospel of Food: Everything you think you know about food is wrong, by Barry Glassner.  That's a book I would put on my "everyone really ought to read" list.  A new discovery I'm working on right now is looking like it belongs on that list, too.  Consumed: Why Americans love, hate and fear food, by Michelle Stacey.

My long time interest in food from an historical and cultural perspective has probably been the greatest buffer that has protected me from falling completely for the many food myths that permeate our current North American culture.  As a home schooling parent, I've been able to indulge my love of research even more. 
What I've found over the years is often in complete contradiction of what we are being told in the mass media or by special interest groups to the point that they have become truisms.  People accept them because "everybody knows" that they are true.  This is especially true when it comes to comments about how, never before in human history, have we been so inactive/eaten so much food/been so fat/etc, etc, ad nauseam.  At the same time, there is often painted an image of how we humans did things in the past that isn't as accurate as we're lead to believe.  When it comes to food (and the environment), the past is often talked about as some sort of utopia, where our ancestors (or sometimes current non-western cultures) lived sustainable lives, at peace with nature, eating all those healthy, organic, whole foods that we need to go back to if we are going to survive as a race.

The only problem is, most of these assumptions turn out to be little more than bovine excrement.

Take, for example, the idea of eating out and fast food.  The truism is that back in the romanticised "old days," we all had these regular family meals of home cooked, home grown or locally produced, food that came about through sustainable, organic practises.  People didn't eat out, and they certainly didn't have "fast food."  Of course we used to all eat smaller portions, too - except for those who did laboured hard in the fields and needed the extra energy, therefore they could eat larger portions and not get fat.  Fat people were, of course, a rarity.  These same ideas are often applied to modern cultures in third, and sometimes second, world countries (I won't even touch the mythology we in first world countries have developed about these cultures; I'll leave that for the sociology blogs).

The reality doesn't quite fit these notions.  For starters, ancient cultures didn't always eat at home (assuming they even had individual homes to begin with).  Many homes in ancient Rome, for example, didn't even have kitchens.  Only the wealthy could have a house big enough to include a kitchen, plus the slaves to cook for them (only the poorest of the poor didn't have at least one slave, and slavery in itself was not the same as we picture it today).  Most people ate street food, which is still popular in many countries around the world where they haven't been regulated out of existence.  Street food is, essentially, fast food.  There were a great many food vendors, and people ate what they could, when they could, wherever they could.  They had no choice but to buy fresh food daily.  Without refrigeration, people often ate food that may have started to rot, and a great deal of effort was made and regulations written to try and prevent vendors from selling bad food and drink.

"But wait!" I can hear some people cry.  "Food back then wasn't loaded with fat and salt and sugar like modern fast food."  Actually, it was.  Our ancestors placed a high value on all three of those things.  Fat of all kinds was used a great deal.  Salt was expensive, highly prized, and used in rather shocking quantities.  Refined sugar wasn't invented until fairly recently, but sweets were highly prized. Some years ago, the girls and I cooked a recreation of an ancient Roman favorite, honeyed dates.  First, several types of nuts (high in fats) were pulverized with a mortar and pestle.  Dried, pitted dates (high in sugars) were stuffed with the nut blend, then rolled in salt.  The sticky surface of the dates picked up so much salt, I was rather alarmed.  I thought the salt would be so overwhelming, they'd be inedible.  The dates, now white with salt, were then cooked in a frying pan with honey (even more sugars).  Once cooked, they were put on a plate and the honey they were cooked in was drizzled on top.  Much to our surprise, they not only didn't taste too salty, we found them quite delicious.  We can completely understand why this dish was such a favorite.

Foods like dates and figs were prized for their sweetness, as was honey, of course.  Salt was not only used in large quantities in cooking, but invaluable as a preservative in a world without refrigeration.  I have some recipes for preserving vegetables in salt.  They involve layers of salt about 2 inches thick surrounding layers of vegetables in similar thicknesses.  Foods preserved like this needed to be rinsed with cold water several times before they could be eaten, but they remained incredibly salty.  Meats were preserved with dry salt, in brine or in fat.  Fat itself was both eaten and drunk.  One medieval treatise included a quote from a anonymous peasant saying, "if I were king, I would drink only fat." 

The ancients had their food myths, too, many of which would be right at home in the modern world.  Some of it seems just plain silly now, others rather disgusting, and still others are now known to be quite dangerous. Vegetarianism has always had its proponents, and they could be just as obnoxiously superior as some modern vegetarians. Clearly there were plenty of fat people thousands of years ago, as there was plenty of weight loss advice to be had, along with a long list of other body and health related advice. It seems humans have always obsessed with our diets.

Food was central to our lives for most of human history, and is why I have found that the best way to learn about a culture is to learn about their food.  We humans have fought a constant battle to get enough of it, and when we did, we had a tendency to gorge while we could, because starvation was always just around the corner.  Unfortunately, food could also be quite dangerous, as we had no knowledge of bacteria or mold or any number of others things potentially dangerous or deadly.  Our efforts to preserve food was a matter of trial and error.  We had no way of knowing why salt kept food from going bad, or why keeping food sealed away from air in honey or fat allowed us to store it for future use. we only knew that it did. The methods weren't perfect, and often people had little choice than to eat whatever was available, making food borne illnesses and deaths were fairly common.  For those of us fortunate enough to live in first world nations, never before has our food been so safe for consumption.

Quantities of food we eat now compared to the past is another favorite talking point.  People claim that today we eat so much more than in the past.  The reality is that when our ancestors ate less, it was generally because there was less food to be had.  Given the opportunity, we had a tendency to not just eat a lot, but eat to the point of vomiting.  No, I'm not talking about the gluttonous feasts of ancient Roman nobility, though that was certainly true of them.  In the Europe of the middle ages, the poor rarely had enough to eat, but there were a great many feast days.  Food was provided by the lords and nobility, available to all.  Woodcuts and other art of the period occasionally show such feasts with a diner still at table, vomiting onto the ground beside him, and a dog handily cleaning up the mess.  When people had no idea when they'd next be able to eat, binging was often the result.  

There is a tendency for us to project how we do things now onto the past.  One such assumption is the idea of three squares a day.  A fascinating book I read (but cannot remember the title of anymore or I'd be searching it out to buy), includes comparisons of meal times and menus.  In reading it, my confusion over the terms lunch, dinner and supper was finally cleared up.  For a long time, I wasn't sure if the noon meal was lunch or dinner, or if the evening meal was dinner or supper.  It turns out that they were all separate meals.  For a time, it was common for people to have 4 meals a day, with significant evolution in the times they were eaten, and what was eaten.  Breakfast, for example, wasn't eaten until about 10 am (and in many cultures today, still is eaten quite late).  It would a large repast, with a selection of hot and cold meats, breads, porridge, vegetables, fruits, a selection of drinks, with creams, jams and jellies.  It was a social affair, where one could expect visitors to drop in without notice.  Dinner was in the late afternoon or early evening.  Supper would be eaten at about 10 pm.  Over time, breakfast time migrated to earlier in the day to about 7 or 8 am (with town folk eating later than rural folk). Dinner became a noon meal, but supper remained a late meal, leading to the invention of an afternoon tea.  In another period, dinner became a later meal, into the early evening, while the late supper was eventually dropped.  Luncheons for a noon meal for women became all the rage (men often skipped the midday meal, though eventually they had their own, separate, light meal at the same time).  Like breakfasts of another time, luncheons were social gatherings.  A woman would let people know that she'd be home for luncheon an a certain date and her friends and family knew that they could stop by for a meal and socializing, with the meals being shared in different homes.  These could be quite elaborate affairs, with extensive menus.

Then there was High Tea and Low Tea.  High Tea was actually the meal of the lower classes, named for the high table they tended to stand and eat at.  It was a hearty and substantial meal.  Low Tea, with was eaten by the wealthier set while sitting at low tables, included lighter, if not lesser, foods.

Perhaps most interesting of all was the comparison of menus typical for town folk compared to rural families.  One would expect that the farmers and labourers would eat larger meals, but they actually ate far less, with fewer meals spread farther apart.  It was the town folk that ate so much more.  I've heard it said that even town folk "needed" more calories than we do today, as they had to walk so much more than we do to get around, but again, this doesn't reflect reality. 

Another interesting comparison was between these typical meal times and menus of European and Western countries with other nations.  There is quite a variety between them, and some curious consistencies.  Some dishes or ingredients, for example, had to be part of every meal.  It didn't matter how much a person indulged in other foods, if that particular dish or ingredient wasn't part of the meal, then there was no meal, therefore they had not eaten.  It's difficult to understate how much of a role culture plays in what and how we eat.

The production of food is another common source myths.  The current truism is that in the past, humans lived in sync with nature, sustainably growing food, eating only locally produced food and, of course, there were no dangerous artificial fertilizers being used.  What people are forgetting is that, for most of our existence, humans were constantly battling against nature for survival.  Nature is, to use the gamer's parlance, Chaotic Neutral.  It's beautiful and ugly, kind and cruel, glorious and horrifying.  The main concern has been to get enough food in the first place, and early humans (not to mention many people today) didn't have the luxury of caring if they were causing permanent damage to the ecosystem - a modern concept we still don't fully understand and perhaps never will - or if they happen to hunt some creature out of existence.  Archaeological evidence shows that early agricultural practices damaged the local area so badly that, after thousands of years, they are still infertile and can no longer sustain most plant growth.  This is hardly an isolated example.  In the Copper Age, smelters were so inefficient and used so much wood, a large section of Europe was permanently deforested.  Why permanent?  Because the soil now has so much copper in it, it can no longer support tree growth.

From my experience and observations, few things are more environmentally destructive than agriculture.  Even gardening does its damage.  It involves tearing up the soil and reducing it to a state fine enough for seeds to be planted and roots to establish themselves, but opening up the way to soil loss due to winds.  Monoculture agriculture leaves crops more susceptible to species specific insects and disease.  They require larger amounts of water that needs to be brought in from somewhere else, with its subsequent increase in loss to evaporation.  Compare the growth of crops to raising grazing animals.  They require pastures, which require leaving the soil intact, and can be done on marginal land incapable of supporting crop growth.  Grasses grown for feed in the winter are perennial, again protecting the soil from erosion.  Animal feces fertilize the land as they graze.  They can travel to water themselves for the most part, and if water needs to be brought to them, it's in containers leaving less surface area to evaporation, and so on.  Only when animals are being fed annual crops such as grains do the environmental costs begin to increase, since those are the same costs as food grown for human consumption.

The point being, there has never been any idyllic utopia of humans living in perfect harmony with nature.  If nothing else, nature has never been consistent enough to allow that to happen.  Many of these idealistic images require a fair amount of revisionist history.

Oh, then there's another myth that's my favorite: the local food myth.  People, we are told, used to eat only those foods they either grew themselves, or were produced locally, and for that, they were so much healthier than we are today.

To put in bluntly, no.

Humans have always sought out new foods from far afield.  If they could get seeds or seedlings (which were often protected quite vigorously in order to maintain monopolies of supply) and grow these new foods themselves, great, but otherwise, imported foods were eagerly sought after.  Only the most isolated of communities relied solely on locally produced food, which often led to malnutrition and hunger.  Even areas that could grow a large variety of foods could see their entire potential supply for the off seasons wiped out in a single storm.  Insects infestations and disease could also completely destroy food supplies, and without an outside source of food, this often meant death for the weakest of the community, if not the entire community should these conditions continue for too long. 

Many important foods had to be imported, while others were simple highly desired.  Salt, essential to life, is perhaps highest on the list.  Olive oil was a highly prized commodity.  The spice trade made many people very, very wealthy.  Citrus fruits were eagerly sought by northern nations, craved for by people long before we understood vitamins and their importance. 

Now, I have nothing against the local food movement.  It's a great way to support local producers and, being a supporter of capitalism and free enterprise, to me that's a good thing.  All other things being equal, I will choose a locally produced item over an imported one.  The problems is, all things are rarely equal and my budget doesn't always allow me to pay premium prices for produce just because it's from a local source. 

Putting aside the myths about locally produced food being better for the environment than imported food, or the difficulty in maintaining a healthy variety of foods, I have two major problems with the locavore movement.

One: it's can be remarkably selfish.  While there are other issues of concern that I won't touch on here, buying food from grows in, say, somewhere in Africa, I am helping people living other nations improve their lot in life.  Buying imported goods is giving people a hand up, rather than a hand out.  Hand outs have a tendency to backfire, leading to dependency on charity while destroying independence and self esteem.  Someone who produces something and sells it at a profit gains many benefits beyond the material.  By refusing to buy imported goods in the mistaken belief that it is somehow bad for the environment, or because of some political anti-capitalist ideology, I don't think people quite understand how much more harm they are causing.  If nothing else, it can leave large numbers of people wallowing in a level of poverty we in developed nations have never experienced.

Two: it's protectionist and isolationist.  Those who object to international trade and capitalism seem to forget something important.  International trade in goods is also international trade in ideas.  Early caravans didn't just travel with spices, gems, cloth and other tangible goods in a vacuum.  In the process, they dealt with people.  They exposed themselves to new cultures, new ideas and new technologies.  Then, as they travelled to other places to buy and sell more goods, they told stories about their travels.  They shared their knowledge.

What was true for thousands of years remains true today, though with more accuracy of information.  In order to trade with other nations, we need to know about them. We need to know who they are and what they have to offer.  We need to have open lines of communication.

It is my belief that hatred, at it's core, is fostered by fear of the unknown and unfamiliar.  We fear what we do not know, and we hate what we fear.  By learning more about other peoples, other cultures, other nations through trade, the more we get to know them, the less we fear them, the less likely we are to hate them.  People tend not to do war on their partners. 

A side effect of the locavore trend is that by looking inwards, to our small corner of the world, we are in fact turning our backs to the rest of the world. We are shutting it out, "othering" anyone outside our circle.  In doing so, not only to we harm them, but we harm ourselves as well. 

Food is so much more than fuel for our bodies.  Food brings us together as people.  As cultures.  As nations. Sharing food overcomes barriers and brings people together.  It is a sharing of experiences and ideas.  We do ourselves a disservice by using food as a moral compass, by obsessing over it as nothing but fat and calories; by labelling it "good" or "bad."  We certainly aren't doing ourselves any good by perpetuating myths or revising history about food to fit our current notions.

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