The good, the bad, and all the rest of it.

Just been doing a lot of reading and thinking lately.

“In line with his overall body of work, Pollan suggests in Cooked that even to discuss the science of food is to begin the slide down a slippery slope that ends in the culturally corrosive and ecologically unsustainable structures of agribusiness. Put simply, ‘good’ transformations of the edible world are premodern and elemental, while ‘bad’ ones are industrial and high tech.”

Michael Pollan’s Dilemma

“As an historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by Culinary Luddism, a past sharply divided between good and bad, between the sunny rural days of yore and the grey industrial present…The Luddites’ fable of disaster, of a fall from grace, smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast; healthful versus contaminated and fatty. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.”

A Plea for Culinary Modernism

“‘Cooking is a language,’ writes Lévi-Strauss, ‘through which society unconsciously reveals its structure.’…But because these categories of [raw, cooked, and rotten] food are constructed by words, associations, and oppositions, it’s easy for food marketers to misleadingly align an image of their product with our expectations of rawness, naturalness, or healthiness. Hence, ‘health halo’: yogurt, for example, is almost universally accepted to be a more natural, wholesome alternative to ice cream — even though some yogurts are just as loaded with processed, denaturalized sugars. Juicing tends to push our buttons for ‘pure’ food although the processing strips out many of the vital plant nutrients. Even the much-debunked Paleo diet depends on an opposition between the raw and the cooked—obviously dieters are not meant to eat raw proteins, but the appeal of the system lies the imagined foodscape of a simpler, more ‘natural’ time.”

Raw, Cooked, Rotten

Royal Fruit Gelatin back

Gelatin: Pure AND modern.

Read anything interesting lately?

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  1. Nof
    Posted November 5, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    I recently finished Gregory Cochrane’s The 10,000 Year Explosion and Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy.

    Cochrane’s book dealt with human evolution in the past 10,000 years and had an interesting section on the adoption of agriculture and how the human genome changed to adapt. It discussed how rates of type II diabetes were probably near 100% in early agricultural societies, but populations mutated to regulate blood sugar changes from their new diet. Apparently people can track the ages of when these regulatory genes emerged in populations, and these dates align with the birth of agriculture in various societies. Populations that came to agriculture late or not at all (notably Amerindians ~1,000 years ago and Australian Aboriginals not at all) do not have these genes in great numbers, which has caused all sorts of problems for them when adopting a agricultural diet. It is interesting to think of diabetes as a lack of a (very recent) mutation instead of a malfunction, and I always enjoy scientific backup to the adage “one size does not fit all”.

    I didn’t like Zuk’s book quite as much (it did have a small section on “obesity” that rankled, if memory serves). As you can guess from the title, it’s a takedown of Paleo. I did appreciate it as a succinct rebuttal of the idea that humans are incapable of handling modern life and we ought to roll back to pre-agricultural societies stat. There was never a time when humans were perfectly adapted to their environments. I kind of like the thought that I am an evolutionary experiment, tbh.

    • Posted November 5, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      I’m reading Paleofantasy now but I’m not very far into it. I keep getting sidetracked. The 10,000 Year Explosion sounds fascinating!

    • Mich
      Posted November 9, 2013 at 2:16 am | Permalink

      Could this 100% diabetes help explain all the “fat” figurines? Such as Venus of Willendorf? There are no thin “dolls” from Europe. Conversely, there are thin “dolls” from Africa; possibly because they were still eating a 100% meat diet?

      Things to ponder.

      • Posted November 10, 2013 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

        This is not really an answer to your question, but what you said reminded me that recently there was a hypothesis that the “fat” figurines were really the result of the artist attempting to render their own body from the perspective of looking down at themselves. I did not like how the story was framed in the media (“This explains the distorted proportions of the fat Venuses!” Uhh, dude, a fat figure is no more objectively “distorted” than a thin one, but nice try), but I thought it was an interesting theory.

        • Mich
          Posted November 10, 2013 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

          I hadn’t heard that in the news, but then I don’t watch it much. On the other hand about the dolls, perhaps the shape of the figurine is based on the material used. Maybe in Africa they used a thin wood, hence a thin figure, even thought they might have been fat in real life.

  2. Twistie
    Posted November 5, 2013 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been delving into a little volume entitled Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment.

    It’s fun tracing the wild and wooly evolution of ketchup, even though it’s something I virtually never eat. On the other hand, there’s an entire section of antique ketchup recipes, including ones based on: anchovies, apples, cockles, herring, cucumber, barberries, liver, lobster, lemons, oysters… just an amazing variety. I thought I knew a thing or two, what with being aware of both walnut and mushroom ketchup, but I find I knew nearly nothing at all.

    There’s nothing like some good culinary trivia to float my boat!

    Oh, and I’m also combing through my extensive cookbook collection for goodies I can make for friends and family come the holidays. Cash is tight, so store-bought stuff is mostly out, but I can cook all sorts of amazing things, and I thought baskets with things like homemade candies and relishes might just fill the bill with most of the people we know.

    • Posted November 6, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      I love books like this. There are just so many out right now that I don’t think I could read them all in one lifetime.

      Olde-timey ketchups sound amazing. I actually really love ketchup. Jeffrey thinks it is so weird that I put it on hot dogs and burgers, but then I think it’s weird that he just pours straight white vinegar on all of his food.

      Good luck with all your holiday baking/making. That sounds like fun.

    • Posted November 7, 2013 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

      That book sounds soooo interesting. I also rarely eat ketchup, but it’s such a ubiquitous condiment in a lot of the U.S.’s food culture. It’s connected to so many other cultural elements (picnics, hotdogs, baseball, barbecues, Memorial Day, Labor Day — just to start).

  3. Twistie
    Posted November 5, 2013 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Blast! Forgot to tick the notify me of comments box again!

  4. Posted November 6, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Thanks for including a clip of my essay! I’m delighted to be quoted on a blog that has taught me a great deal.

    Oddly–because I’m not much of a magazine or journal reader normally–most of the great food reads I’ve come across lately have been in magazines. I’ve been a subscriber to Gastronomica (where the Culinary Modernism piece was printed) for about a year and enjoy it, although they seem to be struggling to regain their footing after their editorship changed hands. The last issue had a few good pieces, including one about bias toward certain origins in single-origin chocolate and a study of parent-teacher-student conflict over a middle school vending machine. I also picked up a copy of Lucky Peach‘s most recent issue on the theme of Gender, and was astonished by how well-written and informative many of the articles were. (I know that sounds like faint praise, but it’s under McSweeney’s umbrella, so I expected a little more snark over substance.) I wish there was a way for me to link to articles in the latter, but they included an interview with three Korean women who live in a tradition of lady shellfish divers, a surprisingly nuanced take on “masculine” food by Anthony Bourdain, and a neat analysis of how the big-plate, heavy and caloric cuisine we think of as American was deeply influenced by gay male chefs like James Beard.

  5. Lisa in Boston
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Michelle, you always have the BEST links!! I am really curious how you come across these amazing pieces, is it a nutritionist thing? Other bloggers? Curious minds want to know :)

    • Posted November 7, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      Thank you! Honestly, it is because I have an uncontrollable internet addiction.

  6. Natalie ._c-
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    I just read a lecture, and I wish I could remember the scientist’s name — he had been violently opposed to GMO food, but has done a complete 180 degree turnaround. He hadn’t read any literature on GMO in the beginning — his opposition was totally emotional, as is that of all the people who oppose GMO, simply because there are NO studies at all which show any harm that has been done to anyone because of eating GMO foods. Whereas the damage done to farm workers, honeybees and other vital parts of our food system by pesticides is huge. So many countries have banned GMO foods on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. We all pooh-pooh climate change deniers, because the science is there to prove they’re wrong, but we applaud the GMO deniers, when they haven’t a shred of science to prove THEIR case. They are indeed Luddites, and we need to feed our population without destroying our planet (and us) in the meantime. Getting our population down to a sustainable level is a whole nother conversation! :-)

    • Nof
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      I’m a member of several environmental groups and they’ve been pushing *hard* against GMOs and it really bothers me. They have a bunch of anecdata about people getting sick on GMOs, but nothing else, and it bothers me so much. Especially as “it makes people sick!” was an argument against wind turbines…until someone noticed that people only reported getting sick because of nearby turbines after they heard stories about people getting sick because of turbines. I dislike seeing people make the same fallacy they’ve previously argued against.

      I’ve actually read some encouraging data on population. Nearly every developed country is now under or well-under replacement birth rates (multiple European countries averaging 1 birth per couple), and indications in burgeoning countries is that they’ll go the same way–birth rates are either falling or expected to fall.

    • Posted November 9, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      Too bad that the most popular use of GMOs is to allow heavy use of herbicides by creating herbicide-resistant crops.

      • par_parenthese
        Posted November 12, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. This is why words matter, IMO.

        Opposition to all GMOs, full stop, seems silly in light of world food and nutrition shortages, but opposition to suicidal-trait, roundup-ready crops isn’t silly because of the incredible amount of environmental damage caused by herbicide use. Not to mention Monsanto’s crusade against small family farms. So, no, I’m not anti-GMO in principle, but I’m pretty anti-GMO in practice in the developed world.

  7. Lauren
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Great piece on Culinary Modernism, I found it really educational.

    One thing I do wonder about is the implication that we as a society do not embrace industrialised food. Pretty sure that a preference for canned and preserved foods that are of decent quality is common sense, no a niche perspective.

    The mention of peasants subsisting on roughly milled bread was enlightening, but I’m pretty sure anyone with a moderate literacy level could understand the difference between the poor quality rye bread extended with fillers that peasants of yore lived on and the $10-a-loaf artisinal, sourdough rye bread of today; made from whole wheat, not cut with other substances to extend the loaf.

    I don’t think anyone touting a return to the so-called “golden age” of peasant food is being 100% literal. God knows, I definitely have better things to do than spend 5 hours a day milling corn. It’s just easier to say “return the the golden age of peasant food” or “eat less processed foods” or “natural foods are best” than give everyone a fucking novel to read about what chemicals are fine to eat and which ones are dangerous, as well as expect all people to read up on every agricultural practice used to grow every element of every food they consume, as well as read every research paper used in those readings to assess whether the research methods used to reach those conclusions were sound or not.
    I brought up Gylceamic Loads at a family dinner a week ago and got glazed eyes directed at me from all sides. People just don’t have the brain energy to put that much time and effort into their diet; not even me, and I’m a nutrition student.

  8. Posted November 7, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    I just finished reading I Am Legend. It was scary and intense and weird. But I enjoyed it a lot. Don’t usually read horror, though I do like vampire stories and myth. Not sure I have anything more relevant to suggest though!

    I like what you wrote!

  9. Mich
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 1:29 am | Permalink

    Interesting they use the term “luddites”. Lud if the Arabic form of Lot, and luddites are a code word for homosexual. If someone calls you a ludi, it’s one of the worst insults ever.

    • Nebet
      Posted November 8, 2013 at 3:00 am | Permalink

      Unfortunately for any possible interesting associations there, that is not likely the be the origin of the term. The best etymological root that’s been found is that the term comes from one Ned Ludd, a possibly-mythical textile craftsman who smashed a knitting frame. The Luddites were a group who protested the industrialization of the textile industry in England, in part by sabotaging the equipment, because their livelihood was threatened.

      The term is now applied to anyone who is distrustful of new technology.

  10. Stéphanie
    Posted November 8, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell
    (subtitle : The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, And Long-term Health)


    Eating animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

    Two must reads.

  11. Mich
    Posted November 11, 2013 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    I’ve been reading the posts in “this is thin priviledge” tagged “doctors” and this was interesting, from Romania.

  12. Posted November 11, 2013 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    Just want to mention that real Luddism, as in, the thing that happened in the nineteenth century, wasn’t about aversion to machines per se. It was about the loss of work due to mechanization.

  13. Beth
    Posted November 12, 2013 at 2:31 am | Permalink

    raw, cooked, rotten….

    where is cultured on this list?
    perhaps this explains some of America’s obsession with “best by” dates?
    despite their having nearly nothing to do with the actual shelf life of the food in question.

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