Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Food for Thought

While I was recuperating from chemo, I read two different books that discussed the food eaten in yesteryears in the United States.  One, Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West, addressed the food served by Fred Harvey (the company) from the late 1800s through the 1960s when the business faltered and for the most part died.  The other, The Food of a Younger Land: The WPA's Portrait of Food in Pre-World War II America, compiled the writings of a WPA project (America Eats) surveying the food of each region of the US from settlement through the 1930s.  Raccoon and entrails soup seemed to be in abundance in certain areas.  Reading this book reminded me that our national diet now is truly a melting pot of cuisines as well as horrible processed food derived from the abundant corn grown by agribusiness.  When I was in college in Massachusetts in the 1970s, most of us had never eaten a taco or a plate of sushi, nor were such foods available in our college town.  Not true now.  Frighteningly you can get sushi very far away from  the ocean. Mexican food is abundant everywhere.

This past weekend the NY Times Book Review also wrote about two new books that survey eating habits in America past.  Why all this interest in what our forebears ate?  Four books in one year on the subject?  Perhaps it has something to do with Michael Pollan's observation in In Defense of Food that we do not have a national identity in our food (our food is an amalgam of the immigrants who populated our shores and the product of extensive engineering by the food industry to satisfy our need for novelty).
The sheer novelty and glamor of the Western diet, with its seventeen thousand new food products every year and the marketing power - thirty-two billion dollars a year - used to sell us those products, has overwhelmed the force of tradition and left us where we now find ourselves: relying on science and journalism and government and marketing to help us decide what to eat. Michael Pollan (In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto)
Perhaps these books are a search for a national cuisine, a tradition to enshrine in the land of McNuggets and Cheese Doodles.  I don't know.  Having seen raccoon up close and personal (see my blog entry of October 27, 2009) I think I would rather eat the cheese doodle.

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