Food History Themes and Exceptions

Once is a fluke.
Twice is coincidence.
Three times is a conspiracy.

There’s a theme that runs through a great deal of food history writing, nearly all of it that I’ve read: more is better. Oftentimes it’s a subtle lack of alternatives, a kind of quiet whiggish narrative of increasing cultivation, intensification, crop improvement, industrialization and globalization, accompanied by (cause and effect are somewhat obscure in this model) rising populations and improving standards of living, culminating in overly prosperous fat people as a kind of natural progression. (I’m thinking most concretely about a text I assign, Andrew Smith’s Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in American Cuisine, but it’s not at all alone in this.)

Sometimes this has been problematized by histories that point out that all calories are not created equal and that food choices are not ‘all things being equal’ — Mintz, Sweetness and Power is the obvious reference here, with its critique of sugar as both the product and enabling food of industrial capitalism — but this seems to be a minority position among historians. Not among food writers, mind you, but food is a funny field in which ‘folk wisdom’ and mythic histories of modern declension are rife. It’s a commonplace to say that most of what we consider ‘traditional’ is the 19th century’s hazy memories of the 18th century, or the 20th’s imagined 19th, but food history is a field in which sentimentality runs up against hard fact.

There are histories, though, which take the progressive narrative as an explicit and defensible thesis, coming across as unsympathetic to environmental or traditional or nutritional critiques of modern foodways. I’ve read two histories that fall squarely into this category now: In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America by Maureen Ogle, is almost belligerent in its equation of expanded animal protein stocks with American character and power. I was expecting a more cultural approach, and perhaps a skeptical one, but the end result is more a traditional business history than anything else. (It’s possible to write business-oriented history that’s neither neoliberal nor neomarxist, as Jonathan Rees’s Refrigeration Nation shows) The other is Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, and she has a piece in Jacobin (discussed here, among other places) which distills this element of her argument.

I have no quibble with Laudan’s critique of the ahistorical basis for fad diets and nostalgia: frankly, one of the really fun things about thinking about food history, is that it’s a fantastic entree (so to speak) into the world of social and cultural history, and the immensely contingent nature of contemporary life. Laudan’s book is thorough and unsentimental and interesting (and I’m assigning it next year) and while I’m not entirely convinced by the political/religious argument (which breaks down to a class argument under modernity, though without entirely admitting it), it’s thoughtful and thought-provoking. For the Asianists in the audience, I’ll just say that this comes closer than even most world history textbooks to a truly global history; it’s hard to avoid a Western emphasis in the modern age, but that’s because of the Western emphasis in the modern age; the balance and coverage is excellent.

But the article seems to have an excluded middle: It’s true that industrialized, intensified food production coupled with industrial transport and the modern cold chain has produced nutritional and cultural benefits; it’s also true that corporate decisions and capitalist imperatives have produced environmental and cultural and health costs that are not sustainable. It’s also true, and Laudan’s own work shows, that food cultures and habits change as political and cultural ideologies shift, and there’s no reason to think that our present foodways, as much fun as they are, represent a necessary future or even an inevitable present.

I guess I’m spoiled: one of the first historical works I read that took food seriously was Susan Hanley’s Everyday Things In Premodern Japan which thoroughly integrates food into the web of physical and social culture. Farris’s Japan to 1600 also integrates agriculture and environment and cuisine into a social history in thoughtful and complicated ways. Not all such attempts are successful but I thought that there would be more progress on this front by now.

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