Russ Roberts

Rachel Laudan on the History of Food and Cuisine

EconTalk Episode with Rachel Laudan
Hosted by Russ Roberts
Where the Wild Things Are(n't)... Haute Cuisine pour Vous?...

Cuisine and Empire2.jpg Rachel Laudan, visiting scholar at the University of Texas and author of Cuisine and Empire, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the history of food. Topics covered include the importance of grain, the spread of various styles of cooking, why French cooking has elite status, and the reach of McDonald's. The conversation concludes with a discussion of the appeal of local food and other recent food passions.

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Podcast Episode Highlights
0:33Intro. [Recording date: July 28, 2015.] Russ: We're going to talk about your book as well as an essay you've written on food and modernity. You book is a rather extraordinary of food, its interaction with empire, nations, and culture. And there's a lot to talk about there. I want to start with grain, wheat in particular, but other grains as well. Why are grains so important in the history of food, and why did they remain important? Guest: Well, let's go back to the Paleolithic. Human beings, it's pretty clear, were incredible careful and intelligent about inventorying the world's food sources. They knew what was edible and what was not. They experimented and found out what was poisonous and what was not. And the trick was to find something that was nutritious, that was storable, that was transportable. And most foodstuffs just don't live up to this. Most foodstuffs are available only episodically, in the summer, in the harvest season, or, if they are big game, they are only available when you've got a big catch. The really neat thing about grains is that they satisfy all those criteria. They are highly nutritious because they are food [?] plants. They are highly storable because they are hard and dry, and they don't rot and go bad. And they are highly transportable because they have a high food-value to weight ratio. Unlike, say, potatoes, which are very wet and heavy and therefore are hard to store and transport. So you have these little things that are potentially very, very useful year-round human food. The downside of them is that they are absolutely the worst foodstuffs or raw materials in the world to turn into something we can put into our mouths. Russ: Yeah; that was one of the most fascinating parts of the book--the length you have to go to. We think, 'Oh, bread comes from wheat; isn't that nice?' But it's a little more complicated. Guest: Absolutely. It was brought home to me when my father, who was a farmer and who grew hundreds of acres of wheat decided it would be interesting to make bread out of his own wheat. And in those days, you couldn't just google and find out how to do it. So he set about taking these grains of wheat; and he beat them in a pestle and mortar, and he ground them through a meat grinder, and he hit them on the stone floor of the kitchen. And all he got was squashed grains. Russ: As opposed to flour. Guest: You have to use a shearing action--I learned that many years later when I moved to Mexico, where people still grind grains. And you have to use a lot of weight with both a vertical and a horizontal force to break up the outside husk and get into the flour in the middle. And that's after you've cleaned them, and washed them, and threshed them, and done all the preliminary processes. That's just to turn them into flour. Russ: It's an amazing thing that someone thought to do that. I mean, I assume that in the beginning people just chewed it, and it wasn't very good or very appealing. Guest: I think if they just chewed it--really the grains passed through you. Their cover was a little hard-skinned on the outside. And you can't get much nutrition from them unless you break them up. And we have speculations about whether or not they were made into popcorn by just simply eating a popped wheat, puffed wheat; whether they were sprouted and made into beer; whether they were ground; whether they were boiled. You have to do one of those things. It's a really cute debate: Did humans start agriculture in order to have beer because they wanted beer so much? But I think that misunderstands the extent to which people were experimenting. I think long before agriculture--by about 20,000 B.C., humans are experimenting with grains. And I think they did absolutely everything to them. They treated them, they heated them, they ground them, they treated them with lye, they popped them. They probably treated them with acid. They sprouted them. Anything to be able to get access to that nutrition. Russ: And one other thing I want to mention in passing that runs through the very earliest part of the book is the power of that kind of transformative process. In particular, cooking. And I think modern people tend to think of cooking as it makes food taste better. We have a modest experience with raw foods: we eat sushi; we might have steak tartare; we eat raw vegetables with dip at cocktail parties. But you point out that the really important part of cooking is it saves time in chewing. Can you explain that? Because that's remarkable. Guest: Both chewing and digesting. Animals, if you think of the standard picture of a cow, they first of all spend a lot of time wandering around, chewing grass, which is tough. And then they have stomachs and they spend much of the day digesting this food. It takes a huge amount of energy to digest food. So that when you cook, what you are essentially doing is outsourcing digesting--chewing and digesting--into the kitchen. And doing it previously. And that saves a lot of energy for the humans who are lucky enough to eat the cooked food. Of course, the energy has to come from somewhere, and part of it is from the thermal energy of the fire; but part of it is from the energy of the people or animals or later on wind or water or steam that are doing the hard work of grinding.
7:36Russ: And, just to stick with basics for a minute: At one point, quite surprising to me, quite late in the book, you mention the potato. I think of the potato as a very basic foodstuff. But you point out that the potato is a relatively late invention. Talk about its cultural significance and a little bit about its history. Guest: Well, the potato is one of a series of roots--roots in a culinary sense, that is, underground bits of plants that can be cooked into edible foods. They have--the roots have always been of less interest to civilized societies because they are so wet and heavy you cannot provision them [?] fit to use with roots. Now, the one exception or partial exception to this is the high Andes mountains where they did grow potatoes and use them from early on. But they developed an incredibly elaborate way of freeze drying them to make them light enough and storable enough to go into cities as well as combining them with maize, which by then was down there. So when the potato comes into Europe, it's an enormous cultural effort to integrate the potato into the European food system, because for anyone who lives in a settled society with cities, root-eating is a sign of basically being more like animals. Roots were animal food in Europe. And so basically the poor of Europe had to be bludgeoned into adopting the potato in the 17th and 18th century. Russ: It's a little hard to understand because I really love French fries, and it's hard to imagine how someone could resist this. But they didn't have French fries. Talk about what they had. Guest: Well, basically, fat is very expensive for most people. So French fries, until the 1960s, 1970s, well they weren't invented until the middle of the 19th century, late 19th century. But until the invention of frozen French fries in the 1960s and 1970s, French fries were for the elite. Only the richest people could afford the potatoes that were cooked in that much fat. And double-cooked in that fat--which is what you have to do for French fries. What you find in the 19th century, as fats become more available for a large bulk of the population is that potatoes become more acceptable. Because you can put butter on your boiled potatoes; you can layer potatoes with milk and cheese and make a gratin; you can bake them and add butter. And that fat makes them much, much more palatable. Russ: But the point you make in the book is that the potato that was first introduced--I think in the early 18th century-- Guest: Right. Russ: was bitter, and nothing like the Idaho baked potato that we might envision at a potato bar. Guest: No. I've been concentrating in talking to you on the cooking and processing side, but there was also this agricultural trick they had to pull off to turn a plant that lived 8,000, 10,000 feet in the Andes, where seasons are reversed from Northern Europe, into a plant that would grow successfully and be palatable in Europe and the United States. And that took 100 plus years. Russ: And that's true of a lot of the things that we eat, I assume. I assume that if we went back to the 15, 16, 1700s and looked at what they called a 'blank'--whatever blank is, we would find it almost unrecognizable and very unattractive. Is that fair? Or am I being too harsh? Guest: Yes. Very few fruits--there are a few: dates, grapes--are palatable [?] without breeding. But most fruits have been systematically bred over the centuries. Animals have been bred. Probably the only things that we regularly eat but taste as they would have done hundreds of years ago are fish of various kinds. But everything else is the result of human breeding. Russ: Yeah, the goal of fruit has been to make fruit more like an M&M, and it's working evidently. Guest: Exactly.
12:44Russ: Now, you make a distinction between different kinds of cuisine. Obviously it's a rough distinction, but you talk about high cuisine, humble cuisine, and middling cuisine. What do you have in mind with them and how have they evolved over time? Guest: I think this is an absolutely crucial point, and it's one that we forget because we all eat so well nowadays. Far more than the adoption of the grain, beginning about 20,000 B.C. and long before you get agriculture and then increasing with agriculture, one small group of people have been able to get hold of this storable wealth, the grains. And the philosophers and physicians who served that group developed a physiological theory that, according to each rank of living being, there was an appropriate kind of cuisine. And this was a very comprehensive theory because at that stage the whole world was thought to be living, from minerals up to the spirits or the gods. The spirits or the gods could live on aromas. Minerals just lived on water and stayed static. But if you go to the humans in the middle, the idea was that basically--it's more complicated than this--there were two kinds of humans: there were the aristocrats, the rulers, the nobilities, who had delicate stomachs and had to have highly cooked, highly refined food, the best, whitest bread or rice, the sauces and sweets and meats and alcohols, that characteristic of the high cuisine. And then the rest of the people, which would be 9 out of every 10 people, had coarse, rough stomachs. They were closer to the animals. And they could get by on dark breads, root vegetables. They did not need these fine sauces and sweets. And this was a mark of hierarchy that didn't really begin to disappear until after the French Revolution. Russ: We forget that in our time, for most Americans, food is a form of recreation. It's a mix of art, sports, physical desire. But most of human history, that's not the case. Guest: Absolutely not the case. The main aim of 9 out of 10 of the population, there are folks saying in every society, the test of what matters most is a full stomach. Of course for the aristocrat, yes, food was an art form. And when I talk about middling cuisine, I talk about what happened in the last hundred years, where essentially in the richer countries, with a few exceptions of unfortunate people who kind of slipped into extreme poverty, everybody can eat the food of the aristocrats of the past. So, everybody can eat high cuisine, except now the difference, the striking difference between the culinary philosophy of high cuisine in the past and of middling cuisine today is that in high cuisine you had this physiological that the upper classes were physiologically different from everybody else. Nowadays, we all eat a middling cuisine and we have a physiological theory that says essentially, all human beings can eat the same food. So the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture), for example, can put out a Food Pyramid that is supposed to apply to the inter-higher[?] American population. And that's middling. And that's something that is radically new in human history. Russ: Of course, we don't all agree on what that pyramid should look like. An incredible time I think of trying to figure out what's good for us versus tastes good and what's healthy and what's not. Guest: Yes. Quite.
17:27Russ: I want to talk about three different types of globalization of cuisine that you talk about in the book: British, French, and American. And I want to start with British. The British emphasis on bread and beef, to the near exclusion of everything else was fascinating. And I think of the classic phrase--and I don't know why it's always male, but: 'He's a meat and potatoes man' is a phrase from somewhere in my cultural tool kit. Somehow the idea that British cuisine was attractive spread around. It does not have the best reputation today. What was the bread and beef attraction and what role did the British play in spreading it? Guest: Well, beef was supposed to be the strongest of the meats. And bread was supposed the strongest of the carbohydrates that you have. And it was widely believed, across Europe and the United States but particularly in Britain, that one of the reasons why the British were able to conquer the world, or to expand their empire enormously, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was that they were bread and beef eaters. I mean, you, as an economist know there are lots of theories about why the British were able to conquer so much of the world. The British at the time of course had other theories that, you know--the British climate made them tough, or that there was sometimes intrinsic to the British character that made them strong. For a lot of other countries, and you find this in Japan and in Latin America, in particular, who want to develop strong modern nations, the nutritional theory has a lot of appeal, because it's very hard to alter the climate of your nation, and it's very hard to alter the national character of your nation. But you can alter the nutrition of your nation. So, there was this widespread attempt around the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to try to convert Mexicans or Argentinians or Brazilians or Japanese to bread and beef diets. Most of those efforts failed because it was economically an incredibly uphill job. But they didn't fail entirely. The Japanese, you know, today eat bread. And so do most of the Latin Americans. And beef is valued in those places. We live with the results of that. Russ: You are what you eat, I guess, is an appealing idea, and to some extent true. But maybe not to the extent they used to believe. So, we have the British having a big influence on world cuisine at the end of the 19th century. Somehow, French cuisine becomes the standard of sophistication and high dining. How did that happen? And it still persists, to some extent. It's lost some of its caché, I'd say in the last 50 years. But it still remains a standard of high dining. How did that come about and why was it important? Guest: I think it's first important to say it's French high cuisine, because the high cuisine of France that became the international standard was something that most French people had never seen and never ate. It did not come, swell up from the peasantry. There's a slightly complicated story about what happened around 1650 when you get a rapid political change and the establishment of, after the Peace of Westphalia, a series of nations in Europe, on supposedly equal terms, combined with a shift of the scientific revolution and the Protestant revolution. And in complicated ways these would act together to produce a new cuisine that the world had never seen before. It's a really striking example of radical and rapid culinary change. The old cuisines of spiced food that--ultimately stemming from Persia but that had really influenced China, dominated in the high cuisine of India, right across to Southern Europe, were displaced by this new Northern European cuisine. And the people who developed it in its most elaborate form, because they had the greatest resources--the richest courts--were the French. And they developed it really terribly rapidly between 1650 and 1700. And that's the point where diplomacy is become important because of this national state system. And the national state system needs something to use for diplomatic dinners, to demonstrate modernity, Europeanness against the Persian-type cuisines that existed before. And so French high cuisine becomes the cuisine of European diplomacy in the 18th century, and then of international diplomacy and the international elite in the 19th century. So that by 1880 you could go to Tokyo, you could go to Santiago de Chile, you could go to Sydney, you could go to San Francisco and the thing to be eating was, if you were really rich or you were really high in politics was high French cuisine. Russ: Tell the story of what happened in Hawaii, because that's really rather remarkable. Guest: Oh, yes, it remarkable. It's really sad. The Hawaiian islands tried to remain independent of the Western powers after they were opened to European influence by Captain Cook in 1788. And King Kalakaua went on a world tour in the 1880s and he visited all the heads of state, in Japan, in Siam, in France, Queen Victoria, the President of America. Everywhere he went, they had high French cuisine. That was what he was treated to. And he went back to Hawaii and it confirmed to him that the policy the Hawaiian monarchs had been trying of trying to use the kind of looking-like a European style monarchy had to be continued. So he built a palace and he had a coronation dinner that cost really about 20% of the state budget. And he had the misfortune to be doing this when there were many powerful Americans in the sugar business as merchants in Hawaii. And they came from a quite different culinary tradition. And I won't say that the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy was just because of the building of a palace and the giving of a coronation dinner, but it was kind of symbolic of a big debate going on in the late 19th century between these old, monarchical, hierarchic, aristocratic cuisines taken up by international diplomats and the route that America was beginning to sketch out for itself. Russ: Talking about French cuisine, I'm reminded of Calvin Trillin's line. He says when you are visiting--I think he's talking about a mid-sized American city or even a largish American city, and your host says, 'You know, you'd be surprised: for a town of our size we have a very good French restaurant,' he said, 'They don't.' Really first-rate French cooking, at least when he wrote the book I'm thinking of--it must be in the 1970s, I think, maybe the 1980s--was limited to a handful of large cities in America at least. But it's a statement really the fact that everyone wanted to have that caché, that sophistication of French cuisine. And I guess Julia Child was the high water mark of that in America. And bouncing off that was Jacques Pepin, who emphasized more of a peasant French cooking-- Guest: Right. Russ: which I always liked more than the fancier stuff. But that's partly--maybe I'm a little bit lazy. Guest: Yes, of course. No, I mean, you know, there is that distinction in French cuisine.
27:28Russ: Now, as you point out in the book, and American president who was hosting a foreign delegation--I think I have this right--would serve the equivalent of a French dinner until fairly recently, when it's now become fashionable to have our own native cuisine highlighted more directly. Somewhere along that way, the hamburger became a worldwide force, partly associated with McDonald's obviously, but through a whole set of other forces. Talk about the importance of the hamburger. Guest: Well, if I may I'd like to back up a tiny bit about presidents serving French dinners, because the American presidency has had a terrible time deciding what to do at diplomatic dinners from the get-go. There were those, like Jefferson, who said we've got to be part of international culture as well as the economy, and we should go with high French cuisine. But there is also this extraordinarily strong republican--with a small 'r'--tradition in America that's part of what the Revolution is about. And the republican strain in American thought said very emphatically that, 'No, we do not want high French cuisine. We do not want aristocratic dining. That is not appropriate. And they looked back to the Roman republic and to the Dutch republic and to other republican movements in Europe and said, 'What we need is a decent cuisine for all citizens.' And that is very much the origin of Thanksgiving, which is not a fancy French dinner for diplomats but a dinner that essentially all Americans can afford and can cook, of American ingredients. It's a kind of striking symbol of the republican tradition exemplified in an American custom, and was deliberately designed to be so. But what happened--I mean the hamburger is just sort of amazing. People say, 'Well, the British had fish and chips.' Well, fish and chips don't cut it, because fish and chips are not this beef, bread, French fry phenomenon. And what Americans managed to do beginning with White Tower but pulled off triumphantly by McDonald's is to make the food of aspiration worldwide something that in America everybody can afford, and in much of the rest of the world the middle class can afford, namely a kind of ersatz piece of roast beef or steak that is a beef hamburger on a piece of white bread with a bit of fresh vegetable out of season, even in the winter, with a sauce which is part of high cuisine, with French fries, which, you know, are popular--which become really widespread with McDonald's and the frozen French fry, which Simplot perfects--until then the French had said it was the apex of French civilized food--and washed down either with a sparkling cold drink or with a milkshake, sweet and rich and cold and foamy. That is just--it makes the food of aspiration accessible to all, and you have it in this brightly lit dining room that is clean, that you have access to. I think only if we understand how McDonald's taps into all these competing traditions that go back so deep in our culture can we understand why it became such a kind of fire point for and against modern American food. Russ: We're going to come back and talk about that in some detail, but just a clarifying question: That bitter, out-of-season vegetable--is that a tomato? Guest: Oh, sorry. A bit of tomato or a bit of lettuce. Russ: Either one. Guest: Either of those, year round. Russ: I thought you said 'bitter.' You meant 'bit of.' Guest: A small piece. Russ: Yeah. As you point out in the book, I think most Americans who don't travel abroad, and when we do, we're not so likely to eat at McDonald's. But most of us, when we think of McDonald's we think that the same menu gets transported to other places, because people want a McDonald's hamburger and the prices might differ and economists like to sometimes talk about the price of McDonald's in different currencies is a form of measuring currency exchange rates and standards of living. But the hamburger that people are eating around the world at their McDonald's is not--is radically different from the American products. Talk about the way that McDonald's overseas responds to customer demand. Guest: Oh, they're very quick off the mark. Just to mention Hawaii again because I lived there for a long time, I think it was in the 1950s: as soon as they got to Hawaii they had to introduce rice because there's a large Asian population there and they did not want French fries. They wanted rice. That was the prestige thing. And so around the world, McDonald's has been adjusted to local taste, whether it's the teriyaki burger or the very successful Filipino burger. And it's not just the hamburger has been adjusted in terms of its accompaniments and its taste, but that the whole experience of dining at McDonald's, which we think of as simply fast food, varies with the society. In Mexico it's a place where well-to-do women can go and have lunch where their children can play safely out of the range of kidnappers. In China, I'm not sure this is still true but certainly 10 years ago, it was a place to take your children to have a birthday dinner. And in Vietnam it was a place where a working single woman could go and actually have a meal by herself in a public place without being thought to be a prostitute. Russ: It's rather incredible.
34:45Russ: The other aspect of world cuisine that I learned about from your book that I did not realize was the incredible market effectiveness of ramen, the dried noodles that are then reinvigorated with boiling water and a little bit of flavor. There was a period of my life where I probably ate them every day--for lunch with parmesan cheese, definitely a culinary mixed metaphor, but I went through a long time when I ate them a lot. I haven't had them in a while. But I did not realize how popular they were. So, talk about that. Guest: Well, in fact, this is the kind of lower middling cuisine because it has the same ingredients as the McDonald's hamburger, essentially. What you have is wheat flour again--this time it's as a noodle, not as bread. You've got a meaty taste, which is what everybody wants. And you may have a little few specks of something green floating on the top that are supposed to be dried vegetables. But it's much more inexpensive than a hamburger. It can be reconstituted very easily. And once it was invented it was easy to manufacture. So, you can--manufacturing plants sprung up in places like Indonesia and India, which you might expect, as well as Japan. But then, Nepal. Nepal as a center exporting ramen noodles to India? That really surprised me when I realized about it. But it has been a huge success. Russ: And similarly the flavors are often tailored to the local population. Guest: Oh, yes, absolutely. Russ: I just want to add I would also often add an egg to it. Talk about convenience: if you don't want to spend much time over your meal, bringing water to boil, dropping the noodles in, adding the flavor packet, and then breaking an egg in there until it became solid is very easy. And is very tasty, of course. Guest: Yes. And actually that's not bad food. It's not complete; you probably do need something green or yellow or orange at some point. But you know, you've got protein, you've got carbohydrates, you've got fat. Russ: Well, that's what the M&Ms at the end are for, that's the green, yellow, and orange. The other thing about it, I have to just say, is there's something physically beautiful about the shape of the noodles. They look like mattress springs. Which is not an image you usually associate with nutrition or food. But there's something aesthetic I always found about the way those noodles were created. I don't know who invented that, so that they could be all, you know, coiled up like that. But they can be very beautiful. Guest: That's something nobody has said to me before. But I like it.
38:00Russ: So, let's shift gears. This is a good transition--we are talking about McDonald's and ramen, which are very fast foods whether you are buying them in a restaurant or you are preparing them, a hamburger or a ramen packet at home. You have a fascinating essay on what you call culinary modernism. And I want to start by--since we are talking about fast food--talk about the slow food movement and how it got started and why are you critical of it. Guest: Well, let's start by saying that often yesterday's successes are today's problems. And what had happened, I think, between, say, the French Revolution and the end of WWII was that the great overriding problem of modern nations, how to get a middling cuisine for everybody, had been basically solved. I mean, not completely solved: there were pockets of poverty; there were inadequate foods, and so on and so forth. But by the 1960s and 1970s, people were not dying of typhoid, they were not dying of pellagra in the United States as they had done in the thousands in the 1930s. They were well fed. The same was true of Europe once they had recovered from WWII. And so the kind of diet that I'm calling the republican/democratic culinary modernist philosophy that had dominated for nearly 200 years--suddenly it all looked easy. And people began instead to take it for granted and begin to perceive problems with it. So, people began to say, 'Well, maybe there are troubles with large corporations producing food.' Or 'Maybe there are troubles with animal welfare,' or with the environment. And I don't think this is to be discounted. For many people, if everybody is eating a middling cuisine, how do you distinguish yourself? How do you show yourself to be one of the privileged if everybody can have a hamburger? And so you have, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, a series of cookbook authors and then organizations--I think Elizabeth David in England, as a cookbook author was incredibly influential in this, and of course Alice Waters of the famous Chez Panisse in California is a follower of Elizabeth David. You begin to get slow food in Italy reacting against fast food--that's a slightly more complicated situation. But what they are all trying to do is to find some alternative to this small, republican or culinary modernist, culinary philosophy that says the big, big job is to get a middling cuisine for everybody so that we can have a strong nation. And they turn instead to another of the ideas that was developed in the mid-18th century when all this was being kicked around: the Romantic Philosophy of Rousseau, who wrote a lot about food and what kind of food there was. And Rousseau did not take the republican line at all. Nor did he take the other alternative, the socialist or communitarian one. He said, if we don't want aristocratic food what we've got to do is to look to the foods that are close to nature. The food of the peasants. Imagined peasants, I would say, because the real peasants didn't have these foods. And these were to be fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, unprocessed foods; you didn't want to go to state banquets or to restaurants with flunkies who waited on you. You would have the simple food; the ideal food was a meal was not a family dinner at Thanksgiving but a picnic in the open air. Or if not a picnic, a meal with fresh foraged foods that came directly from either tiny farmers or from the forest. And this becomes, by the beginning of the 20th century, an enormously appealing idea because it fits in with the environmentalist ethic; it fits in with the idea that we have gone too far with industrialization, the corporate world, all those kinds of big enterprises that seem to be unmanageable and threatening. And so this becomes very rapidly in the early 21st century the dominant culinary philosophy of those who care about food. Fresh, natural, organic, slow. Russ: Local. Guest: Local. Russ: Unprocessed. Etc. Guest: Unprocessed. They forget--I mean, processing just gets kind of written out of the agenda. Russ: And that sounds nice. I'm not--my listeners know, I have a strong tendency to push back against what I consider romanticism. But one person's romanticism is another person's deep truth. So, on the surface, it seems like a good thing. What's wrong with natural, local, unprocessed, close to the earth? And I should add, you talk about it in the book: there's a certain Garden of Eden aspect to this as well; it taps into another cultural ideal that we have. There's something idyllic about the way we imagine peasants or simpler folk ate, and there's something romantic about going back to that. Guest: Yes. And there's also a sense of self-fulfillment and closeness to nature, that you feel reunified with something bigger. Russ: That said, of course, by someone who has never killed a chicken. But of course there is also a strong movement toward vegetarianism, which avoids that problem. Guest: Yes. Russ: Sorry, I interrupted. Guest: Well, I think the problem is that the appeal is very obvious. I'd say the problem is two-pronged. But the fundamental problem is that the people who subscribe to this view have not worked out the economics and the technology of how you can--and I know people hate the phrase 'feed the world'--but feed the world, with this kind of food unless you have a massive return to small-scale agriculture and to laborious processing. Which there doesn't seem to be a huge rush to do. There is some move to small-scale farming. But there's no sign at the moment that it can be scaled up to produce food in the quantity that the big mid-Western and Californian farms can produce. And so, what's happened is that there has been a series of attempts to give some particularity to this. We want to do organic. Well, then it turns out that organic is a little more complicated because it still involves pesticides, that just natural pesticides, that just organic does not produce safer or tastier food. And it has the lower yields. So, okay, sort of the organic--put to one side slightly and we change to local. And local, supporting your local economy sounds wonderful. Until you work out that you are supporting your local economy and not supporting the one down the road. And that when you count in the effects[?] of modern transport-- Russ: You faded out. You figured out their--when you count in what? Guest: The efficiencies of modern transport--container-style transport and railroads and container ships. It can in fact be very possible to take advantage of the comparative advantage of the climate in New Zealand to have New Zealand lamb sold in the United States and Europe. And then you go from organic and local and you try slow. Or you try some other effort. And each one comes accompanied with a scare. And I think people are becoming a little weary of the successive scares of the food movement. That's just a sense I've had in the last 6 months. Partly as a result of the reaction to the reprinting of this article I did. When it first came out, it had no reaction at all. When it was reprinted in, I think, 2010, in the New York Times and Art New Reader[?], there was an incredibly hostile reaction. Russ: Yes. There would have been. Guest: And now, although there are plenty of hostile comments, there is a much greater interest in thinking about alternatives to the Romantic vision that come to terms with the fact that we have achieved abundance, and we need to move on to new kinds of problems.
49:09Russ: So, the other criticism you make, though, is that it's not--we can debate, people, reasonable people can disagree about whether local cuisine can be scaled up, be successful, whether organic can be scaled up, whether processed foods are attractive enough to people, whatever you mean by unprocessed--because as you point out, every food is processed, almost, in some fashion. But the other point you make which I found fascinating is that this Romantic vision of the past is inaccurate. That this idea that peasants ate "healthier food" than we do; that slow food is somehow, when it's truly accurate, is appealing--is in fact, it's not. It's the equivalent of saying, 'I want to be self-sufficient, so I'm going to do my own roof.' But are you going to make your own hammer? No. You are going to buy a hammer. You are going to cheat. So you are really not self-sufficient--because self-sufficiency is the road to poverty. Guest: Exactly. Russ: So, talk about why dishonoring or being inaccurate about the history is important. Guest: For just the reasons I think that you have said. That if we--I think it has repercussions at all kinds of levels. If we say that peasants in the past ate healthier and safer food, it's easy to translate that into the world of development and say, 'We really want people to stay in small farms on the land. We want women in South Africa to continue pounding their maize in a mortar with a great big pestle.' And to condemn them to the kind of poverty that our ancestors escaped, 3, 4, 5, 6 generations ago. I think we just simply have to give up the myth of a golden age in the past that is a template for the present. Russ: Of course, I have no problem, and I assume you don't either, with people who choose to eat that way. Guest: No. Choices--that all is--the more choice, the better. Russ: But what you are concerned about is people who want to choose for me. Guest: Sorry, I didn't catch the whole of that sentence. Russ: I assume you are more concerned about people who want to choose for me and decide that--if I don't want to eat slow food, that I have to. If I want to import my food, no, I should eat local. You are worried about folks who are imposing their preferences on others. Guest: Yes. And I think that's really important, because I think another thing that we really need to take into account is that through most of history, most people have had almost no choice in what they ate at all. And that was partly a matter of scarcity, but it was partly a matter also of these hierarchical cuisines. Because the Church and/or the state--also local landowners--determined what you ate with religious rules, with sumptuary laws, with access to foodstuffs. There were multiple ways in which what most people ate was totally prescribed and their choice in what they had was essentially nil. We are now so used to choice, and it's not just the choice of whether we will have beef or chicken or lamb or pork. We choose whether we will have Chinese or French or Italian. We choose whether we might have tonight just popcorn and a glass of wine, and tomorrow night we might go out to a fancy restaurant. We have choice among dozens of different vectors of our food. And that's something that is very recent--I'm a historian--very recent means maybe the last 2 or 3 generations in human history. Russ: The point that you make, one of the historical observations that you were able to make in your essay is that a lot of what we call ethnic food or traditional food that we use to express our connection with that, tradition, say, or national heritage or whatever it might be are often not particularly ethnic or traditional. There's a long list here. I don't know if you remember them all, but I'm going to read a couple. You say,
For every prized dish that goes back two thousand years, a dozen have been invented in the last two hundred. The French baguette? A twentieth-century phenomenon, adopted nationwide only after World War II. English fish and chips? Dates from the late nineteenth century, when the working class took up the fried fish of Sephardic Jewish immigrants in East London.... It's a Balti and lager now, Balti being a kind of stir-fried curry dreamed up by Pakistanis living in Birmingham. Greek moussaka? Created in the early twentieth century in an attempt to Frenchify Greek food.... Tequila? Promoted as the national drink of Mexico during the 1930s by the Mexican film industry.
And you go on and on. Including the lomilomi salmon of Hawaii, which of course you point out--there are no salmon near Hawaii. Guest: No. It's sort of one of my favorite sports, checking out one more supposedly ancient national dish that was invented within the last 30, 50, or 100 years. Russ: And that's true about tequila? Guest: Oh, yes. And for the well-to-do in Mexico, tequila has only become an acceptable drink in the last generation. It was really rough stuff that only the very poor drank.
55:50Russ: So as you point out, these issues about modern food, industrialization, and of course I see the--like you, I think, to some extent I see the current availability of inexpensive first-rate food to be one of the great triumphs of human creativity and ingenuity. Not a tragedy. The ability for people around the world to eat well in unimaginable ways that they couldn't have done 50 and 100 years ago is, I think just something to be wildly celebrated. But as you've suggested, when you first published this and even recently, you've gotten a lot of criticism. What are some of those criticism, and what's been your response? And what's the personal of it for you, in being, I suppose something of a pariah. You are a food historian and yet you are probably vilified by some fairly eminent food experts. Guest: I'm too small a minnow for that. I mean, you quickly learn--and I'm sure this is not new--you do not read the comment section. Though, when you glance at them, they tend to--it's rare, I find, for serious commentary to come up there. It tends to be of the kind--ignorant or more likely immoral-- Russ: You're a pawn of corporate America, I'm sure is a common-- Guest: Yes. Yes. I've escaped, to a surprisingly large extent. I was out of the country for much of the time. As I say, I have labored away--I wrote that article when I was beginning on this book. And so I was working on the book; I was not engaging in debate for much of the decade. Among the people who do food history, I've been happy to find--I have a reasonable reputation, and people will listen to me. And as I said, this latest round began quite recently. But there's a real change in mood, I think, at the moment. And people are actually interested in getting a different perspective. I mean, it's clear that--the modern food system, I think like you do, it's a great creative triumph. It's one of the most amazing things that humans have been able to pull off. And that's not just a matter of farming. I really wanted to put processing right at the center of it, because it's just as important as the farming, and people tend to forget that. Which is why I tend not to talk about farming. I think that's another reason why I have not had a great deal of criticism, because most of the food movement is concerned with the fresh and the natural. They just dismiss food processing as not really worth taking seriously: 'We want to get rid of complex food processing'. And so they just spend most of their time trying to talk about alternatives to the modern farming system, small forms, organic farms, and so on, rather than talking about alternatives to modern processing. So, I have slipped by on that front. I'm hoping that a new era of debate will emerge, because there are questions to be asked about, still--about what are--now that we have abundance, all these ways of thinking about food were already designed to deal with scarcity. And we do have abundance; and hopefully, if the world population levels off and farming continues to improve, we will continue to have abundance. And that brings with it new questions of human choice, of human dignity, of different kinds of diseases. And all those have to be addressed. Russ: I just want to add a footnote, and you can agree or disagree, to what I had said earlier, which is: while I am highly skeptical of much of the so-called food movement that you've been talking about, I do think that we have privileged some corporate players in ways that are really bad. The subsidies in the U.S. system--and of course they exist in many, many countries around the world--that privilege farmers and increase their profits, that favor, say, corn producers [?] all subsidies, etc.--that overlays the human creativity that I praised earlier. And I do think there's plenty of room for improvement there. Guest: I couldn't agree more about that. And not just in the farming section but in the processing section. And I think the food movement has also done an incredibly good job of moving people beyond the point where they are just so happy to be able to have food readily available in packets to open, and to talk about what might be more healthful and more tasty and perhaps more environmentally sustainable food. I think that has been a tremendous contribution.
1:02:14Russ: So, I want to close and try to turn the tables on you. So, be prepared. Sorry--it sounded ominous. It's not really ominous. You write, and you mentioned earlier, that you grew up on a farm. And I wondered if there is any romance in Rachel Laudan--so, obviously, Proust is the most obvious example of someone who uses food to evoke childhood emotion. We haven't talked much about the emotional side of food. We've talked about the cultural side. But obviously we as adults look back on certain experiences of our youth that are inextricably bound up with food. Our family gatherings are inextricably bound up with food. I think even to go from Proust to Ratatouille, the movie, that movie centers around a childhood longing for a certain food, certain food experiences. Do you have any special foods or processes or experiences from your youth--in a very atypical way, for most people, growing up on a farm--farms are incredibly scarce now in America. Most Americans have zero experience of farming, and of what it takes to get, as I said, what it takes to slaughter a chicken or even to get wheat into the position where it can be processed. Does your childhood have any echoes in your adult life, things that you still romanticize? Guest: Well, I romanticize them. I mean, I do think that I can understand the appeal. I had a greengage tree, that's the best of all plants, espaliered on the wall outside my bedroom. And there is nothing that tastes better than a warm greengage plucked out of your bedroom window on a summer evening. And I did have the extraordinary good fortune to grow up eating what I think the romantic movement dreams of. We had milk fresh from the cow; I never had pasteurized milk until I went to school. We had fish from the river, pheasant from the farm. The food was extremely good. French friends used to come and stay for great long periods of time because they liked it so much. It wasn't fancy, but it was--we never had cans, we never had tins, we never had--everything was fresh from the garden. So, I do romanticize--some of that because the taste was often extraordinary. And then I tweak myself and I say, 'Look, Rachel, your mother spent all day, every day gardening or cooking.' Essentially. As well as doing other chores. And she said to you, 'Rachel, it's servitude. I want you to have a life I didn't have.' And here I am sitting in this very privileged position of having had a life as an academic, which has to be one of the happiest situations a human being can find themselves in, with time to think and money to live on and the chance to travel. So, yes, there's the romanticism. Yes it does help me understand the appeal. Yes, I shall probably never eat anything as good as that greengage again. But on the other hand, I have had choices in life that didn't allow for. And we were well-to-do farmers; not everybody farming had that kind of choice.

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Keith Vertrees writes:

[Comment removed for policy violations.--Econlib Ed.]

JacobNettnay writes:

The Incas would disagree about your guest's assessment of the potato.

Cowboy Prof writes:

Yes! YES!!

This is one of those episodes wherein I not only learn some great economic lessons, but also a lot of other really neat fun facts. I truly delight in this type of episode.

The most interesting part of the conversation was how different classes used cuisine as -- more or less -- a signaling device of their status. I found it funny that fried food and white bread were signals of great wealth and high status a few generations ago, but when these items became a staple of "the masses" (hate that term), the elite then turned to a new form of cuisine. It is funny how the middle and upper classes now flock to Whole Foods to scrounge up a diet that was considered the food of the peasant not too long ago ... and that diet is more expensive.

A great and expansive historical overview here with things that I never realized, but now I hit my head and say, "Of course! That makes perfect sense."


SaveyourSelf writes:

Rachel Laudan mentioned that the food we think of as "peasant food" was not actually available too peasants. She never did say what they really ate but gave the impression that it was not enviable.

I appreciate Rachel's comment at the end: "Here I am sitting in this very privileged position, having had the life of an academic--which has to be one of the happier situations a human can find themselves in--with time to think and money to live on and the chance to travel."

I really enjoyed this episode.

CatoTheElder writes:

[Comment removed for irrelevance and rudeness. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

JimH writes:

Very enjoyable episode, one of my favorites of the year. Dr. Laudan's book will go on the Amazon wish list in a minute.

A few takeaways that others already commented on (I especially like the Whole Foods Market comment):

1. Given the history of high cuisine and the fact that the “masses” now eat the rich food that formerly was available to those of high social standing, maybe a great part of what explains the slow food movement, the “locavore” phenomenon, and other food fads is that elites (and those would like to be though of as such) trying to differentiate themselves from others by their food choices. Conviction about various ecological issues undoubtedly plays a role too, but I wonder how much compared to "lifestyle" and aesthetic desires.

2. It is a wonder to have so much food in reach for so many, and the fact that this is a huge achievement is something we too easily take for granted.

3. It was fun to learn about the dubious pedigrees of much of what passes as “ethnic” foods. And it sounds like "to kill ya" wasn't too far off the mark, after all.

Daniel Barkalow writes:

I think she's a bit too quick to give up her plum tree. It's not too hard to have fruit that you can pick and eat along with a non-agrarian lifestyle, as long as you're not trying to survive on the food you grow yourself. Just after listening to this episode, I ate a local organic raspberry from my back yard. Then I ate a processed, packaged, shipped, frozen dinner. If you happen to like living in a climate where fruit trees would grow without irrigation, it's easy to get just enough fruit to satisfy nostalgia and romanticism without actually doing any work, so long as you rely on the global food system for being fed.

I think the things to watch out for on the processing side are really when the processing removes all of something nutritionally valuable, and when processing separates nutrients or tastes that naturally co-occur, because these tend to lead to people craving food they don't need or not craving food they do need. Of course, there would be no more difficulty in feeding the world without artificial sweeteners.

Jota Danshaku writes:

Pricing solves the problem of the slow food, locavore movement fairly well. She discusses the lifestyle she had because her mother was a "servant," but holistic farms that produce the romantic food lifestyle described in the podcast get around the problem by charging a premium price, which is increasingly finding markets.

This presents an interesting discussion about quantity versus quality, feeding the world through monocultural crops versus the antifragility of many local farms, and farmers that require subsidies versus ones that can become financially sustainable.

Ralph writes:

Whenever the subject of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) arises I tell people that just about everything they eat is genetically modified. Whether it happened in a field or in a lab, humans have been doing it forever. All agriculture is artificial.

My only 'beef' with GMOs is that the resulting seeds no longer grow fruit. Often you can't plant the seeds and grow new plants the next year. They are sterile, like a mule.

I once heard an Englishman explain that peasants had to slaughter much of their livestock and preserve it each year because there wasn't enough to feed them over the winter. They kept breeding and working stock and used the rest for food. The turnip made all the difference - turnips (a root the size of a small melon in Britain) could be stored and used to feed over the winter (humans and animals).

That tidbit and the description in the podcast about the difficulty of using grain and making something edible from many plants, hints that human diets used to be much more devoted to meat.

Thomas Jefferson, when serving as Ambassador in France, had his cook (a slave, James Hemings, his wife's half-brother) trained as a French chef. Hemings prepared the meal served the night Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton resolved their decision for a plan for a Federal government and the location in Washington,DC.
In the USA, Jefferson freed Hemings because he had a marketable skill; and later, Jefferson invited him to be the chef at the President's House. Unfortunately, Hemings died under mysterious circumstances.

Gregory McIsaac writes:

The first 40 minutes of the conversation was a very interesting historical overview and synthesis, which I enjoyed. The last 20 minutes conflated several different perspectives (slow food, organic, local, unprocessed) and then criticized them as a group for being motivated by false nostalgia, which I thought produced more smoke than light.

One does not need to be nostalgic about the Garden of Eden or a Luddite to be concerned about processed foods. Processed foods often contain large and unhealthy quantities of salt, sugar and trans-fats. Processed foods can also have a high glycemic index. Among the critics of highly processed food is the Harvard School of Public Health:

HSPH also recommends only limited quantities of red meat (such as hamburger).

Another critique of the industrialized and processed food system reloves around the large portion of our “food dollar” that goes to packaging, branding, advertising, distribution and marketing. Recent analyses indicate that somewhere around 15 and 25% of the money consumers spend on food items goes to the actual food production, with the other 75 to 85% going to various aspects of marketing, processing and distribution.

It would seem that direct exchanges between farmers and consumers, such as farmers’ markets, could be very economically advantageous for both farmers and consumers. Perhaps there are factors other than nostalgia that draw people to their local farmers’ markets. For me, and for many of the people that I know, freshness and flavor are motivators. I don't have a problem with farmers adopting new methods that make their job easier.

I appreciate Professor Laudan's efforts to inform us about the origins of various cuisines and especially her efforts that dispel myths and false nostalgia. But it is not clear how much of people's food purchasing is motivated by the myths and false nostalgia. I can certainly accept that processed and fast foods have provided convenience for those who can afford it, but they have also created some unpleasant working conditions for people who work in the industry (e.g., concentrated animal feeding operations, slaughter houses and fast food chains).

As far as local or organic food being unable to "feed the world," the same criticism could be levied against the conventional, subsidized industrial meat production system of the US. If people are supposed to make food choices that support a system that can "feed the world" they should eat less meat, as described in "Diet for a Small Planet." But that did not get mentioned. It seems to me that some legitimate criticisms of the food industrial complex were ignored in favor of criticizing false nostalgia.

Whoever argues that women and farmers should labor in a servitude of food production and food preparation that they dislike should be criticized by name. By failing to be specific in this way, Professor Lauden seems to be attacking a straw person.

Greg McIsaac

Rachel Laudan writes:

Greg, thanks much for taking the time to write that long comment. Let me try and respond to your comments about processed foods.

From my historian’s perspective, human foods are processed foods or, putting it another way, all food is processed.

This is a bit of an exaggeration because we do eat the occasional unprocessed food, an oyster, say, or a banana. But the vast bulk of our calories come from food that has been processed and has from early on in human history, certainly from the late Paleolithic and perhaps long before that if you accept Harvard anthropologist, Richard Wrangham’s theories.

What I mean by this is that humans use thermal changes, mechanical changes, chemical changes, and biochemical changes to make plants and animals edible. Or in less formal terms, they heat, chop, grind, crush, change ph, and ferment.

Usually these changes are beneficial, making foods more easily digestible, longer lasting, more nutritious, safer, and tastier. Sometimes there are downsides. So the real issue is which processed foods do we accept as good for us, which do we want to reject.

What are now called processed foods by, say, the Harvard School of Public Health, are from my perspective just a subset of the whole group of processed foods. And they are a subset that I can find no principled way of distinguishing.

If the HSPS wants to warn against salty, sugar, fatty foods, why not just say so? Why confuse the issue by calling them processed? We (or most of us) happily eat bread, tortillas, milk, cheese, wine, and chocolate which are just as much processed foods as the ones picked out by the HSPS.

Moving on to the food dollar and the proportion going to what you call “the actual food production” by which I take it you mean the farmer? Well, I understand your point. My farmer father used to delight in taking a Puffed Wheat box, pointing out the few ounces of wheat in it, and then working out the difference between what the consumer paid and what he received for that quantity of wheat.

That said, farm products are not food until they have been processed. And processing is energy intensive, whether human labor in the past or fossil fuels and machinery today. And it’s better to pay for the fossil fuels and the machinery than to have one in five of the working population doing little but grind grain as was the case in early cities.

And if we want foods of the tropics (chocolate, coffee) and “fresh”meat, milk, eggs, and vegetables year round (modern luxuries), we have to pay for transport and (in the latter case) a very expensive “cold chain” that keeps products cold from farm to consumer. Susanne Freidberg’s Fresh is awfully good on this.
As to direct exchanges between farmer and consumer, I am very skeptical about that. Farming is a time-consuming skilled business that is quite different from marketing. There’s a reason there are middlemen, in food as in any other industry.

And wow, now you have four or five other points in quick order. So quickly.

I don’t think people buy food because of what you term false nostalgia. But I think the failure of leading figures in the food movement to understand the struggle to put food on the table in the past leads them to romanticize the fresh, artisanal, organic and natural.

And you ask for names. I’d say Petrina, Waters, Pollan, Bittman, and Barber among others. They do not advocate that people work in unpleasant conditions and I don’t say that they do.

Yes, modern food processing has some unpleasant working conditions. So did traditional food processing. Overall there has been an improvement, I’d argue.

And finally, I don’t say the modern system is perfect. I do argue that overall, it does a better job of giving a larger proportion of the world’s population better food than any earlier system. But to explore this in full would take another book.

Rachel Laudan writes:

And not to ignore other commentators. Thanks so much, Cowboy Prof and Jim H, and all other commentators.

Jacob Nettay, according to Sophie Coe in America’s First Cuisines, the Inca consistently exalted maize at the expense of the potato.

Peasant food was not necessarily bad, SaveyourSelf. It depended heavily on a carbohydrate staple in general, as bread, porridge, or thick beer. If you get most of your calories from a carbohydrate staple, you become very discerning about that staple whether tortillas in Mexico, bread in Russia, or pounded yam in Nigeria. But it was low in meat, fat, sweeteners, foods from a distance, it rarely had sauces or sweets (though often a piquant condiment), and there was a pattern of scarcity and hunger before harvest.

Daniel Barkalow, picking fruit from the garden is great. But in my experience in the tropics and in Mediterranean climates, fruit is seasonal and not readily available all year round.

On processing, see my earlier comments on Greg McIsaac’s contribution.

The theory that cravings come from separating nutrients or tastes that naturally co-occur is new to me. Is this a Paleo diet idea? I’d love to know what the evidence for the theory is.

Jota Danshaku, agreed, pricing allows the locavore movement to thrive. I suspect I differ from you about monoculture and farm types and sizing but you don’t say enough for me to be sure.

Ralph, agreed GMO is simply a more precise way of doing what humans have been doing with plants for millennia. But the seeds are fertile. You can plant them and grow crops. But farmers don’t want the hassle and limitations of saving seed when the seed companies are busy breeding seeds for plants that will flourish in whatever particular circumstances you have on your farm.

Yes, agreed about the difficulty of overwintering cattle in Europe prior to the introduction of first root crops and then oil cake in the eighteenth century.

On meat, see comments further up.

Once again, thanks all.

Jerm writes:

Like Greg, I found the back half of the episode disappointing. The portrayal of the slow food boogieman was ridiculous. If the slow food movement is going to be painted as equivalent to "mak[ing] your own hammer", it would only be fair to actually cite some slow food advocates who genuinely believe that line of reasoning. Otherwise, it's just a strawman. Maybe the straw is organic, but it's still straw.

And there are no people in Hawaii who claim lomi salmon to be an "ancient, national dish." It's not clever to point out that salmon isn't from Hawaii when EVERY ingredient in lomi salmon is introduced from out of state (after Western contact). Anyone with a 6th grade Hawaii education would know that. And while there are people who have nostalgia for "Hawaiian food" (much of which is recent...even pineapples), it's unfair (and frankly, mean and condescending) to paint such large groups of people as overly-Romantic and benighted rubes.

Considering how much this podcast favors marginal changes, "bottom-up" approaches, and consumer sovereignty, I am surprised that there's so much disdain for slow food. In terms of having an agenda forced down our throats, I would say that the clout of slow food pales in comparison to something like the corn/HFCS lobby. And while some in the slow/organic food movement would like to see radical changes in the way people eat, I've found them to be supportive of small changes at the personal level (Mexican Coke, local eggs in an otherwise unchanged breakfast, or even just taking the meat out of one day of the week).

The slow food movement has identified and filled a niche market, all while moving directly into a headwind of government-supported agribusiness. Maybe it's all just marketing, and society will decide it's not worth the effort or expense. But I think the proponents of slow food are being unfairly portrayed here as being an entirely different monster.

In a world of abundance, it only makes sense to turn inwards and continuously refine the market. Especially when the abundant goods have their own flaws. There are an abundance of apples, but the world will be a better place when "red delicious" apples make up a very small percentage of the total. Those apples are just terrible.

Daniel Barkalow writes:

I was assuming that the experience of eating fresh fruit would be inherently seasonal and location-dependant, because half of it is the weather that it goes well with. I can't sit on the porch on a hot evening eating a heirloom tomato in the middle of winter because the weather doesn't co-operate even if I can get the tomato imported.

I'm surprised that the idea of cravings matching nutrients is at all unusual. It seems obvious anecdotally (such as the claim that you know you need electrolytes when the idea of drinking Gatorade isn't disgusting), as well as seeming like the main explanation for how we would have evolved the ability to distinguish many flavors. If we need to eat foods with a bunch of different nutrients in particular quantities (particularly fat-soluble vitamins), it seems unlikely that we'd be able to eat the right amount of each without some sort of biological mechanism for identifying the foods that provide ones we need at a particular time and motivating us to seek them. Scientifically, there's a lot of research showing that sweet taste receptors trigger insulin secretion, which affects metabolism in ways that make sense for having lots of calories available from digestion, so it seems like what we perceive as taste is also the body's chemical analysis of our food for its metabolic regulation.

Then it stands to reason that foods that taste like they have different nutrients would cause all sorts of problems for metabolic regulation, either by hiding the fact that you're not actually getting something you need, or by encouraging you to keep eating the food that tastes like it contains a nutrient that you keep lacking (because the food isn't actually providing it).

Of course, this isn't a problem with hamburger meat, which actually does have as much protein as it tastes like it has. It might be a bit of a problem with iceberg lettuce, which seems to be a whole lot more vegetable than it actually is (likewise many tomatoes). And it's most likely a problem with artificial sweeteners. I guess there could be issues if a meat processing method removed an essential amino acid that is usually found there, but I don't know of any examples of that.

Anyway, it's clearly possible to process food in ways that aren't a good idea, and we shouldn't do those. If we define "feeding the world" in terms of nutrition, which seems like the sensible thing to do, processing that leads to a full stomach but not to nutrition isn't helping that goal, and can be distinguished from processing that improves nutrition/effort.

JRo writes:

"Here I am sitting in this very privileged position... with time to think and money to live on and the chance to travel."

Thanks for saying that when I needed to hear it!

Gregory McIsaac writes:

Professor Laudan,

Thank you for your generous and interesting response. I agree that “processing” encompasses a wide variety of activities needed to make food palatable and nutritious. I also agree that it is more precise to focus on the aspects of processing that can cause health concerns (e.g., salt, sugar, transfats). It seems “processing” has become an imprecise shorthand for those health concerns. But, please forgive me if I remain unconvinced that the use of the term by the Harvard School of Public Health and similar organizations derives from nostalgia.

On the question of condemning people to servitude, in your discussion with Dr. Roberts, you said the following:
“If we say that peasants in the past ate healthier and safer food, it's easy to translate that into the world of development and say, 'We really want people to stay in small farms on the land. We want women in South Africa to continue pounding their maize in a mortar with a great big pestle.' And to condemn them to the kind of poverty that our ancestors escaped.”

Based on your response, it seems you are unaware of any of the advocates of the organic/local/ slow food to have actually made comments along the lines that you are concerned about. You are just positing that it would be easy to make such comments. Thanks for clarifying.

In the food dollar discussion, I agree that various middle people between farmers and consumers can provide some valuable services; and certainly not every farmer or rancher is well suited or located to participate in farmers’ markets or other forms of direct sales. But, I am not exactly sure what inspires your skepticism of farmers’ markets. Perhaps whether there are actual efficiencies gained in practice? I suspect that there are, at least sometime, although I can’t prove it. The vegetables I get at our farmers’ market are far fresher and tastier than what I can buy at the supermarket. Obviously there are limits to what farmers’ markets can provide. I have not read extensively in the local food literature, but I am not aware of any local food advocates demanding that everyone eat all local all the time. I would certainly disagree with those who make that argument. Buying local seems to make sense some times, but the opportunities for people to buy local was more limited in the past because of the bulk buying practices of supermarkets. Opportunities to purchase local food seems to be expanding:

I agree that we are fortunate to enjoy a great abundance and diversity of food at very affordable prices.

Greg McIsaac

Greg Alder writes:

I appreciated most of that interview, and I learned a lot. However, I'm so tired of hearing about the wonders of the modern farming systems and that we could never feed the planet without them. Specifically, I'm tired of hearing this from people who have never tried. I spent four years living in Lesotho, Africa, where fields are still plowed with cattle and crops are strictly rain fed. It's not easy work, but it works. The only hungry people there are the lazy ones, as one of my friends there puts it.

Justin P writes:

Professor Laudan,

Great interview! I agree that romanticism for the past is deeply misguided when it comes to food. I wonder if any of those people would want to cook their food solely on the hearth rather than a modern cooktop and oven?

Regards to organic food movement, I see nothing wrong with people buying what they want based on their own subjective preferences. I do take issue with people who try to push Organic production on others, especially considering the science behind organic doesn't actually mesh with the claims. Organic has become a fear based marketing scheme. There is big money to be made, and the only way to differentiate substituting products is based on fear and deceptive marketing. Some of the commentators here, have already regurgitated some anti-GMO talking points that have zero basis in reality or science, like the seeds are infertile...a very common talking point from the organic food industry.

I wonder if people would be so quick to buy Coke if coke said that Pepsi is killing them and giving their children autism? Or if you don't buy a Ford, your children will get cancer!

I look forward to reading your book!

Mort Dubois writes:

This episode reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilders books, particularly "Farmer Boy", which portrays life in an upstate New York farm in the 1850s. This is organic farming with regular access to urban markets, and the farmers seem to lead very satisfying and productive lives. Maybe there's some middle ground between fully automated farming and stone-age dirt scratchings.

Ken Doran writes:

I worked at a typical McDonald's in 1966. We had whole potatoes delivered, and then cut, blanched and fried them into french fries. I believe they sold for 10 cents a serving. The frozen off-site version did take over, but the suggestion that french fries wouldn't or couldn't have become mass/fast food without freezing is not persuasive.

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