One of the arguments I’m making in my book has to do with the movement in American baking from simple and unadorned to fancy and visually enticing, and how that shift went hand in hand with the decline of craft and home cooking. I find it useful sometimes to try to graph and diagram things, even (especially?) when they’re not obviously quantitative, but when you’re writing cultural history, where “data” is largely fictional, you can easily oversimplify what you’re trying to visualize. What follows is a useful way to think about craft and ornament in baking, but take it with a grain of salt.
A diversity of gardeners
An article in last month’s National Geographic examines the loss of genetic diversity in the world’s crops, and this infographic, in particular, has been making the rounds of the Internet, at least in the corners where foodies and activists lurk. It shows the decline in diversity of common American garden vegetables between 1903 and 1983: more than 90 pecent of the varieties in existence at the turn of the twentieth century are now long gone. That loss of diversity has consequences beyond our inability to sample the flavor of a long-lost apple: with so little genetic stock available, changes in climate or a new disease might easily wipe out an entire crop, such as wheat, and we’d have no way to rebuild it.
It’s a lovely graphic, well designed and (if you aren’t already familiar with the issue) appropriately shocking. Like too many such graphics, though, this one doesn’t inspire much beyond despair. What can I, or anybody, do about it? The accompanying article gives the answer: I don’t have to do anything, because there are institutional “seed banks” working to preserve the genetic stock still remaining on the world’s farms. I’ve been shocked and then duly comforted; no need to get out of my reading chair. Let the experts handle it.
Except that this isn’t the right answer, or at least isn’t enough of one. Seed banks, valuable and worthwhile as they are, can only preserve the remaining — let’s say, as a round number — ten percent of the genetic diversity that once existed. But that ten percent is dangerously little. And institutions and experts can’t rebuild the remaining ninety percent, because they didn’t build it in the first place.
In further defense of scrapple
Doubtless some readers will have been puzzled yesterday by my use of scrapple as a model of purity. But, you know, there is scrapple, and then there is scrapple. There’s country scrapple and city scrapple, as the distinction used to be drawn, back when country people, or at least country butchers, still made their own. There was country panhaas, made by Pennsylvania Germans, and there was its bastard cousin Philadelphia scrapple.
Pink slime: Or, the whole scrapple
My main thought on all this horror over “pink slime” is that it doesn’t sound any worse than any food-like product I’d expect to come out of a factory. I mean, what do you expect? The goal of the U.S. food industry is to produce substances that are chemically compatible with the maintenance of human life and that are aesthetically and culturally palatable to American consumers, all at the greatest possible margin of profit. Pink slime, duly flavored with extracts, shaped into a patty, topped with half the contents of the refrigerator and eaten by a model with juice dribbling down her chin, pretty much nails it.
But I get tired of reading only people I agree with, so I went looking for contrary arguments.
Letting the flowers say it for themselves
I had to mow the grass today for the second time this year, an appalling side effect of global warming. (I know, I know: Entire countries are at risk of sinking beneath the ocean, and I’m complaining about mowing my grass an extra month of the year. It’s a first-world problem.) I didn’t think it looked all that bad — I could still see the tops of my shoes when I walked in it, and from my study window the dead nettle made a pretty sort of fuchsia haze over the yard — but with a reel mower you can’t let it get too long, and so I took my lunch break at yard work. With a reel mower, though, I can set the blade high enough to lop the tall weeds and reveal the lower-growing violets and the buttercups, which have crept through much of the back yard in the past few years.
Why plastic chicken is not the answer
Mark Bittman writes in this Sunday’s New York Times (“Finally, Fake Chicken Worth Eating”) that he has decided, at last, to endorse fake meat, because he believes that Americans ought to eat less meat and because certain new soy- and mushroom-based fake meat products are, in certain circumstances, nearly indistinguishable from industrially produced chicken breast.
On its own, Brown’s “chicken” — produced to mimic boneless, skinless breast — looks like a decent imitation, and the way it shreds is amazing. It doesn’t taste much like chicken, but since most white meat chicken doesn’t taste like much anyway, that’s hardly a problem; both are about texture, chew and the ingredients you put on them or combine with them. When you take Brown’s product, cut it up and combine it with, say, chopped tomato and lettuce and mayonnaise with some seasoning in it, and wrap it in a burrito, you won’t know the difference between that and chicken.
Bittman’s uncritical acceptance of the way Americans consume chicken breast, moreover — which is to say, mechanically — is disappointing from a man who has done as much as anyone to teach Americans how to cook and eat real food in simple, practical ways. There’s no indication that the product tastes good, only that it isn’t terrible. Nor does it promoting it in this fashion aid the cause of good cooking or of thoughtful, intelligent consumption. To embrace the consumption of “meatlike stuff” produced by a “thingamajiggy” is, I believe, to embrace the error at the root of modern industrial agriculture, and therefore, in the long run, to worsen its effects.
Mindful, but still not gravied with conviviality
An article in today’s New York Times examines yet another case of Americans taking a fundamentally sound idea — mindful eating — and driving it to extremes. Having just concluded a draft of my book with an epilogue in which I urged not only mindful eating but (especially) mindful cooking, it pains me to say this, but, seriously, people: lighten up.
White-people soul food
I was intrigued by this article in today’s New York Times about “Mormon cuisine,” not because (as is the point of the article) it’s changing (what cuisine isn’t?) but because I had trouble seeing what was uniquely Mormon about any of it.
The Thanksgiving issue: Gratitude and craft
Time to get serious, now. Thanksgiving is only a day away, and if you haven’t started your preparations yet, you’d best get cracking. I don’t mean brining the turkey or kneading bread dough: I mean being thankful. The point of setting this day aside isn’t just to eat. And yet, of course, to show our gratitude, we hold a feast. How, exactly, is a feast supposed to make us thankful?
I was thinking about this question after reading my local newspaper last week, which wants me to breathe easier about Thanksgiving.
Ignorance is fear: or, “it’s gross” is not an argument
A former “food industry insider” named Bruce Bradley has started a blog to tell the world about all the terrible things the food industry does. In his most recent post, he lists some of the disgusting things that industry passes off as natural products. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “big food companies have cast a spell over most regulators that allows them to manipulate us with advertising, make deceptive claims, and mislead us with ingredient labels.”
I appreciate the effort to speak truth to powerless, but here’s the problem: Three of the five things he lists have been commonly used for centuries or, in some cases, millennia. Not only are they, in fact, natural; they’re traditional and originally handmade.