In Praise of Fast Food
(Page 4 of 5)
In the first half of the 20th century, Italians embraced factory-made pasta and canned tomatoes. In the second half, Japanese women welcomed factory-made bread because they could sleep a little longer instead of getting up to make rice. As supermarkets appeared in Eastern Europe, people rejoiced at the convenience of ready-made goods. For all, culinary modernism had proved what was wanted: food that was processed, preservable, industrial, novel, and fast, the food of the elite at a price everyone could afford. Where modern food became available, people grew taller and stronger and lived longer. Men had choices other than hard agricultural labor; women had choices other than kneeling at the metate five hours a day.
So the sunlit past of the culinary Luddites never existed. So their ethos is based not on history but on a fairy tale. So what? Certainly no one would deny that an industrialized food supply has its own problems. Perhaps we should eat more fresh, natural, local, artisanal, slow food. Does it matter if the history is not quite right?
It matters quite a bit, I believe. If we do not understand that most people had no choice but to devote their lives to growing and cooking food, we are incapable of comprehending that modern food allows us unparalleled choices not just of diet but of what to do with our lives. If we urge the Mexican to stay at her metate, the farmer to stay at his olive press, the housewife to stay at her stove, all so that we may eat handmade tortillas, traditionally pressed olive oil, and home-cooked meals, we are assuming the mantle of the aristocrats of old.
If we fail to understand how scant and monotonous most traditional diets were, we can misunderstand the “ethnic foods” we encounter in cookbooks, at restaurants, or on our travels. We can represent the peoples of the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, India, or Mexico as pawns at the mercy of multinational corporations bent on selling trashy modern products—failing to appreciate that, like us, they enjoy a choice of goods in the market. A Mexican friend, suffering from one too many foreign visitors who chided her because she offered Italian food, complained, “Why can’t we eat spaghetti, too?”
If we assume that good food maps neatly onto old or slow or homemade food, we miss the fact that lots of industrial foods are better. Certainly no one with a grindstone will ever produce chocolate as suave as that produced by conching in a machine for 72 hours. And let us not forget that the current popularity of Italian food owes much to two convenience foods that even purists love, factory pasta and canned tomatoes. Far from fleeing them, we should be clamoring for more high-quality industrial foods.
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