Sunday 28 January 2024

The past and future of food


When I give talks about a good, healthy future, I tell the audience that living sustainably doesn’t always involve inventing new technologies or ways of living. Quite often, I say, it involves rediscovering old ways that our grandparents knew but that we have forgotten.

I get a lot of objections to this from people who insist – as is fashionable to do these days – that everything in the past was terrible. Everyone was dumber than we are, everyone was a religious fanatic or a Nazi, everyone was starving, everyone died at 30, and so on. I’ve talked before about how educated most people were a century or two ago compared to ourselves, and I’ll talk more later about how we’ve taken the Nazis and retroactively superimposed them on every complex human situation. Right now, though, let’s look at some of the claims about food and health.

First of all, there was never an age when everyone died at 30. It is true that more infants died in the past, and while we are lucky to be spared that horror, it does warp the average; in many times and places, young adults could expect to live as long as they do today. A book of the Bible written perhaps 25 centuries ago said that humans live “threescore years and ten,” or 70 years, and that tracks with many traditional peoples around the world. Of those who survived infancy, 1850-era British men – mostly working-class -- lived to be 73 on average; life expectancy today for working-class British men today is only 72.

Nor were people starving in most times and places. Nineteenth-century British weren’t all begging for gruel, but usually enjoyed diets “vastly superior to that generally consumed today, one substantially in advance of current public health recommendations.” They ate more fruit and vegetables than most First-Worlders today, as well as nuts and organ meats high in micronutrients – most of the things fitness instructors recommend today, and they ate up to twice as much as we do. Similar examples come from many traditional societies; they lived more vigorous lives, so needed extra calories to survive -- and they did, because you’re reading this. As writer Chad Mulligan put it, starving people don’t build cathedrals.

Of course there have been severe famines in history, most famously Ireland. Yet that resulted from the British seizing the land for plantations to export food to Britain, while small farmers were forced to rely on the one crop with enough calories to feed them. When that crop caught a disease, there was nothing to fall back on, and what might have been unfortunate but survivable turned into a mass death. It was also genocide, as British plantations continued to export food to Britain even as their Irish workers starved.

Another truism of modern life is that all food until yesterday bland, rotten and generally disgusting. Just as people today insist that all earlier generations were less free, less healthy, less educated and less tolerant than we are, they insist that food must have been a daily ordeal, tolerable only because they were too ignorant to realise how miserable they were.

Sometimes people cite the often-repeated stories of bakers padding out bread ingredients with ash and bone and lead. As historian Frederick Filby demonstrated almost a century ago, however, those stories – 18th-century clickbait– could not possibly have been true. Filby tried baking bread with the alleged ingredients and found that it almost never became anything resembling bread, and were often more expensive to make than the real thing anyway. Also, food manufacturers put dubious substances into our food now, as we will see later.

Also, the examples many people give – say, of their grandparents’ olive loaf or fruit jello -- are not traditional foods at all, but were early examples of processed factory-made food that have simply fallen out of fashion, or marked as unforgivably working-class. Other people point out that old cookbooks never call for much seasoning, and are bland if you cook the dishes as described. But old recipes tended to give the basics of preparing a dish, with the assumption that people would add whatever herbs and “seasonings” were, well, in season.

Most traditional peoples eat far more variety than we do; English farmers record eating now-neglected meats like pigeons, rabbits, pheasants and geese; now-forgotten vegetables like cardoons, chicory and scorzonera; underappreciated fruits like damsons and medlars, and of course wild foods like Fat Hen, nettles, hawthorn, sorrel, dulse and samphire. These weren’t inferior foods that we ate out of desperation -- I can personally attest that most of these taste amazing – but they have been largely forgotten. Some were abandoned because of changing fashions, others because they did not fit our modern mass-production systems – medlars, for example, need to be picked when they are just slightly over-ripe, and cannot sit on a shelf for weeks. 

Also, the elders I talked to worked hard, and worked up an appetite. Few of us today have ever done this, but when you do, food tastes great by itself, and doesn’t need a lot of added chemicals to make it appetising. “It was wholesome food, plain and simple, and the golden rule was ‘get it into you and it will do you good.’” John Curran said in his memoir Tides of Change. They were also grateful for the food they had worked hard to earn; they had overseen the plants from seed to crop, and the animals from womb to adulthood to knife. We have no such connection to the hog factory workers or the genetic laboratories where the corn was designed, or the Godzilla-sized machines that harvest it. We have mountains of food, but it appears before us without context, removed from our capacity for gratitude.

In addition, meals were communal, and the company was as important as the food. Some of my most cherished memories are of Thanksgiving or Christmas at my grandparents’ small house, with aunts and uncles laughing and chatting as they prepared the meals together, set up the tables and finally packed together snugly to eat, chat, laugh and share stories. The food was great because it was shared in the company of loved ones, not because it was heaped with flavour chemicals.

“They were great old days,” John Lyons said in his memoir Joy of my Boyhood Years. “There was not much money around, but we had happiness and joy in our hearts, and every neighbour’s house was the same as your own. You could walk in any time of day or night.  The kettle was always on the boil, the tea was made, you sat down and you were handed a mug of tea with plenty of sugar and a yellow square hot off the griddle, with lashings of butter – a delicious feed. My mouth waters with longing when I think of it.”


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