25 November 2009

Eating History

All over Facebook this week people were wishing Happy Thanksgivings on each other. At the same time I was reading “Eating History” by Andrew F. Smith. In America it’s all about the food, and the football, but mainly the food.

We had the son of a vegetarian over to our house for Thanksgiving, because his mother doesn’t serve turkey and he likes turkey. Come to think of it, that was the only meat of our feast: every other dish, from the baked stuffed mushrooms to the sponge cake with almond flour and caramelized pears on top would suit a vegetarian just fine. Not a vegan, not a fruitarian, but a plain ordinary vegetarian.

“Eating History” is a great read, a thorough, verging on textbook-like story of how we got to where we are today, food-wise. In short and engaging chapters food historian Andrew Smith covers “30 turning points in the making of American cuisine.”

Beginning with Oliver Evan’s automated mill, which transformed flour production from a medieval, back-breaking exercise into a kind of Rube Goldberg-style automation, Smith covers representative topics that include the Erie Canal, Delmonico’s, the McCormick reaper, Thanksgiving, Gail Borden’s Canned Milk, the transcontinental railroad, and that’s just up to the Civil War.

There are discussions of canned food, the calorimeter, Cracker Jack, Fannie Farmer and Julia Child, Corn Flakes and Upton Sinclair (not in the same chapter, of course), radar, and much, much more. Alice Waters is in there, and McDonalds, the Flavr Savr, plus mergers, acquisitions and spin-offs and the fact “the agricultural system uses about 30 per cent of the oil consumed in the United States.”

Indeed because of this careful documentation the book never ceases to be pointedly entertaining. It’s one big historical story, with startling developments and surprising connections between them.

With its much heralded opening in 1825 (it included a three-hour-long rolling cannonade) the Erie Canal showed Americans that food could be transported long distances; it also replaced the habit of buying locally.

Cyrus McCormick, “a southerner by birth who owned slaves and opposed the Civil War, became one of the major contributors to the success of the North.” His revolutionary harvester “freed up an estimated two or three farmworkers (per farmstead), many of whom enlisted in the Union cause, contributing an estimated half of the Union’s million-man army and navy.”

Readers accustomed to books that uncover the horrors and ethical compromises of American food production may find Smith’s approach too mild. In the hot house context of current food issues, Smith stands alone not only for his judicious tone, but his fairness to all sides.

Smith explains in a preface that his book is “mainly explanatory and descriptive... For those who believe that the modern American approach to food is on the right track, this book offers a partial history of how we arrived at a system that has emphasized convenience, superabundance, low cost, and consumer choice. For those interested in changing the current system, (“Eating History”) offers insight into how we ended up where we are today, and perhaps will suggest alternative approaches for the future.”

On speaking tours, Smith will ask the audience questions related to food: Do you prefer organic food to food grown with petrochemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides? Do those of you who eat meat prefer that the animals be free-range, organic, and slaughtered humanely, or doused with hormones and steroids and raised in highly concentrated animal feeding operations?

“By far, he reports, most people want the homemade, the organic, the locally grown. He finds this fascinating: “I’m a culinary historian, and the system that most (people) say they favor is pretty much what existed in America two centuries ago.”

We all say we want the good stuff, yet most Americans buy and eat the not-so-good stuff. How did we get here? Read “Eating History” and ponder what’s on your plate.


“Eating History, 30 Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine” by Andrew F. Smith. Columbia University Press hard cover $29.95. ISBN 9780231140928.

On the Columbia U site the author is featured in a short video, plus you can download a .pdf of his chapter on Thanksgiving.

Smith’s own website...

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