In Praise of Fast Food
We need a culinary ethos that comes to terms with industrialized food
Akiko Ida and Pierre Javelle / www.minimiam.com
This article is part of a series of articles on food and the American diet. For more, read Food Fight, Waste Not, Want Not, The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Go Hungry, and The First Family’s Fallow Gardens. For more writing on food from the alternative press, visit utne.com/FoodFight.
Modern, fast, processed food is a disaster. That, at least, is the message conveyed by newspapers and magazines, on television programs, and in cookbooks. It is a mark of sophistication to bemoan the steel roller mill and supermarket bread while yearning for stone-ground flour and brick ovens; to seek out heirloom apples while despising modern tomatoes; to be hostile to agronomists who develop high-yielding crops and to home economists who invent recipes for General Mills.
My culinary style, like so many people’s, was created by those who scorned industrialized food; culinary Luddites, we could call them, after the 19th-century English workers who abhorred the machines that were destroying their way of life. I learned to cook from the books of Elizabeth David, who urged us to sweep our cupboards “clean for ever of the cluttering debris of commercial sauce bottles and all synthetic aids to flavoring.”
I rush to the newsstand to pick up Saveur with its promise to teach me to “savor a world of authentic cuisine.”
Culinary Luddism has come to involve more than just taste, however; it has also presented itself as a moral and political crusade—and it is here that I begin to back off. The reason is not far to seek: because I am a historian.
As a historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by this movement: the sunny, rural days of yore contrasted with the gray industrial present. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast; artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.
That food should be fresh and natural has become an article of faith. It comes as something of a shock to realize that this is a latter-day creed.
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