Lessons From Food History

This May, bestselling author Mark Kurlansky published a collection of recipes and food writings from the Great Depression Era called The Food of a Younger Land. More than one reviewer has remarked with utter amazement how much American food has changed since the 1930s. Genetically modified crops! High fructose corn syrup! (Nevermind, of course, that neither is harmful.) This week, we sat down with a copy and came up with a few of our own insights.
(1) Health-food gimmicks have always been more appealing than counting calories (even in the 1930s).
Writer Don Dolan begins his essay, “Food a la Concentrate in Los Angeles,”

There was a day when every diet-conscious person chanted “calories.”… “Ya gotta watch your calories.” Today the litany is “vitamins and minerals,” a creed gaining more adherents every day. In the robust manner in which Americans accept the new, a principle of real dietary value has ballooned into that fabled panancea, the Elixir of Life…

Dolan goes on to describe what may have been the first corporate purveyor of diet fads: Anabolic Food Products, Inc. When it comes to quick-and-easy health fixes, exercise and moderation never stood a chance.
(2) Dietary superstitions have come a long way.
Today’s dietary naturalists have openly admitted that their approach to eating is based more on “feeling” than fact. But compared to the modern knee-jerk movement against technology and progress, dietary dogmas used to be even more arbitrary:

You will receive mail from the direction in which your pie is pointing, when it is set down at your place at the table.
If you put a piece of wedding cake under your pillow for seven successive nights, on the seventh you will dream of your future husband.
If a dandelion or buttercup placed under your chin throws a yellow light, you “love butter.”

(3) Food snobbery is nothing new.
Michael Pollan wrote an entire book defending what he views as the only “real” food: organic and locally-grown. But back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, a writer named Claire Warner Churchill could easily have given Pollan a run for his money. Here’s an excerpt from what may be the longest essay about mashed potatoes ever written, “An Oregon Protest Against Mashed Potatoes.”

There ought to be a law, that’s what there outght, a law against mashed potatoes being served in restaurants. There ought to be a law against even the use of the words on menus. Somebody ought to sue someone for libel…
No, I am not to be fooled by your whipped potatoes, your fluffed potatoes, your watered pastes that pass in many restaurants for honest to God mashed potatoes. I know them for what they are: horrible travesties upon a self-respecting dish of mashed, and I mean mashed, not macerated potatoes.

It’s hard to tell, but Churchill appears to have been kidding about mashed potato laws and libel lawsuits. If only we could say the same about today’s food elitists.
(Editor’s note: For more recommended reading by Kurlansky, check out Salt: A World History.)

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