Wednesday, March 01, 2017

McArdle on Authentic Food

Megan McArdle has an article about the precariousness of any declaration of  authenticity in the foods we eat.  The least-appetizing parts of the animal (and plants) were all that the poor had to work with, and they prepared them with whatever herbs and spices would grow locally, whether native or imported.  Post Columbian Exchange, local diets changed worldwide.

When my sons arrived from Romania, they very much missed the bread that could be obtained in the market twice a week.  I had considerable agreement.  Artisanal breads were just coming in in the regular supermarkets here - one had to shop around and pay premium prices, or bake bread oneself to get that kind of quality here.  I had been much impressed with the everyday table bread on both my first and second trips to Romania.  Only slowly did I put the pieces together about Romanian bread, and how the loaves they remembered were something of an exception.  An American incident set it off.  Shortly after the boys' arrival we visited young friends  out in the western part of the sate (which I refer to as "the West Coast of NH") who were trying to make a go of living off the land, not purchasing anything they could make themselves. He builds yurts for much of his living, thought they have always had a dozen side hustles.  She baked bread in an outdoor brick oven and sold it through local general stores and businesses - Ken Burns and his studio was a regular customer.  My boys nodded the oven during our tour of the farm, the older noting that they had things like this to bake bread in all the villages of Romania.  The radiant young woman beamed.  "And it's much better, right?" John-Adrian looked a little uncomfortable but was astute enough to be polite and agree.  Yet I could read instantly that his look said "No, you crazy American woman.  These are the sorts of things you leave behind the moment you can afford something better.  No one in Romania would use this unless they had to.  Indoor electric ovens are way better."  I confirmed this with him later, complimenting his social skill.

So what about this marvelous Romanian bread?  Chris and JA had started on the urban stale leftover breads of the impoverished, then moved to the outdoor small individual ovens of the peasant villages when they were 6 and 4.  Only much later did they finally move to a private Christian orphanage in a small city, Beius. Poor as that was by American standards, they did buy their loaves in the market.  White flour. Consistent results. Clean butter.  Yet even that was recent, dating to just before the boys had arrived there.  In 1998 on my first trip, market days had just increased to two a week the year before. They had been only Thursdays for years before that, and within living memory had only been once a month. The more easily-spoiled modern loafs which I had considered traditional - and JA considered the new normal - were actually the festival breads, the special-occasion breads of just a few years earlier.

Just to make sure I am making myself clear, though, you absolutely do buy these breads if you visit Transylvania. Authentic or not, they are very good.

Side note: People adopt vegetarian and vegan diets because they can, living in rich countries.  Such artificial limitations generally don't make sense to the starving. Even Daniel in Babylon takes his vegetarian diet in the context of palace resources. I don't assert this as an absolute, but worldwide the tendency is strong.  While most cultures have some taboo foods, it is otherwise true that if it can be eaten, it will be.


Boxty said...

You might like this podcast from Russ Robert's Econ Talk with Rachel Laudan. She's a food historian that talks about some of the same stuff McArdle mentions:

I especially liked Lauden's take on McDonalds as high cuisine.

RichardJohnson said...

I will talk about the "peasant" food I am most familiar with- that of Guatemala. Is it repetitive? Yes, indeed. Black beans, tortillas, and coffee, w milk for the children. Scrambled eggs with tomatoes and/or onions. Chilis on the side to spice it up. Every day.Every meal. Breakfast=lunch=supper. There is some fruit consumed. This is a moderately prosperous household that owns its own farmland, so the food has more quantity and variety than poorer households would have.

While the area is a big producer of cardamom, no one uses it in the local food. BTW, Arabs add cardamom to their coffee.

There is a traditional turkey soup for Christmas. Deelish, but that is for only one day a year, and perhaps for weddings.

I don't drink much coffee in the US, but at a Guatemalan household w coffee grown no more than a mile or two away, it is deelish in addition to being a safe source of water.

Tortillas in Guatemala spoiled me. They are thicker than the corn tortillas in TX, with less lime used, and they actually taste like corn- in contrast to corn tortillas in TX.

Delicious french-style baguettes are readily available in Mexico. My understanding is that their introduction into the Mexican cuisine was the result of some French soldiers who were stranded- or who chose not to go back- after Maximillian's failed takeover of Mexico in the 1860s.

Several months into my post-baccalaureate tour of South America, I purchased an East German camp stove so that I could do my own booking. I had tired of the monotony of bland rice and beans in the cafes. However boring the rice and beans were, the soup in the cafes was always tasty.

Sam L. said...

Kinda like the inhabitants of Versaille Palace playing at being peasants.

jaed said...

Someone pointed out in the comments that the "authentic food traditions" were sometimes authentic traditions of holiday or special occasion food, the kinds of dishes you'd eat at a feast once a year. The comparison is to someone eating an "authentic American meal" consisting of a typical Thanksgiving dinner menu, but as everyday fare. People may eat like this a couple of times a year, and spent the rest of the year eating the relatively boring meals Richard mentions in Guatemala. Naturally we think the "special occasion" meals of other countries are tastier than the boring everyday meals we eat, but that's the wrong comparison to make.

jaed said...

Imagine turning it around: "The American food tradition is so rich and wonderful. They get together as an extended family for dinner, and they cook wonderful things. They'll have roasted turkey stuffed with delicious herbed breadcrumbs, or roast beef and homemade gravy, along with two kinds of potatoes and three kinds of roasted vegetables, and finish with the most luscious sweets—two kinds of pie a la mode, then coffee and little shortbread cookies. The whole family, brothers and sisters and cousins and grandparents, around the table. The meal may last for hours, with conversation and rejoicing. It's so spiritual. While we Guatemalans, we just take ten minutes to eat some boring quick meal of tortillas and beans. We're missing so much and should take in these authentic traditions from elsewhere. The Americans have so much to teach us about family and food!"

I mean, it's ludicrous, but it's what you get when you compare special feasts with ordinary meals.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Good turnaround, jaed

Texan99 said...

I had to laugh at that article: "Oh, I'd never set foot in a Taco Bell or an Olive Garden!" Granted that I rarely do, either--if I'm going to the trouble of eating out, I have other favorites--nevertheless I know you can get perfectly palatable cheap food at both of those places.

It's still true that some of the best food I've eaten comes from simple peasant traditions, such as cheap homemade Mexican or Central American food from the kitchens of very poor recent immigrants. And yet I can remember finding almost nothing worth eating in the non-resort backwoods of the Yucatan 30 years ago or so, before a lot of fancy restaurants had set up shop there. Every cafe served the same dab of refried beans and maybe a little rice. I had remembered terrific soups and stews with coffee and hot milk in little hole-in-the-wall cafes in Mexico City from the 1970s. And then in the 1990s I often was taken out by Mexican co-counsel to what they thought of as the great local restaurants, which were rather dull French retreads.

Some of my favorite food memories are the lunches of fresh vegetables and cornbread from my grandmother's and aunt's farm kitchens in the summer in North Carolina, the same every day and always wonderful. I never tried to eat there in the winter. All their meat was a complete crime against the palate.

The whole issue is as confusing as the one over why some music is so unsatisfying. It's not as simple as fresh or authentic ingredients. Something does sometimes happen to degrade food--or music--but I can't put my finger on it. Sometimes we just go wrong, as we do with textiles or anything else: there are beautiful, soft artificial fabrics, and then there are yucky rubbery polyester double-knits.

jaed said...

My (disorganized) thought about that is that it's the rise of mediocrity.

1. We start with a few people having access to wonderful, handmade [food, clothes, fabrics, coffee tables...] but the vast majority having pretty terrible [food, etc.[, mostly due to high cost. You can't afford the best (ingredients, components, wood...), and the occasional person becomes very skilled but most are of indifferent skill.

2. Mass manufacturing ahoy! Most people now have access to pretty much OK [food, etc.]. The quality can't touch the old high-level handmade (food, etc.), but is far better than the old (food, etc.) most people had access to.

Still, there's a perception that quality has suffered, because people are comparing it to the highest level rather than the common low level. There's nostalgia for the restaurants people could afford to eat at twice a year (instead of once a week, as now), and people remember how wonderful the handmade suits were and forget that you had to wear them threadbare because they were so pricey.

Nostalgia being what it is, in the next generation this becomes even more pronounced and takes on the air of legend. People remember their grandmother's handstitched wedding dress as though it were typical of everyday clothes. And there is a real loss here, although not as severe a one as people think, because the wedding dress is likely to be mass-produced too. There's a leveling out of experience, where the lows are much, much better but the highs not quite as good.

3. Over time, the level of the mass-produced product improves and/or the cost decreases. (The newer restaurant chains tend to offer better food, for example. With clothes, the rise Chinese manufacturing is a confounder because it tends to be lower-quality than American mass manufacturing...but even here they're cheaper than they used to be. Etc.) But people don't notice this because it happens gradually. Meanwhile, the nostalgia sometimes comes completely unmoored from reality as the older generation—who remember that they couldn't afford these nice things often, and sometimes not at all—loses influence in people's perceptions.

4. Eventually, "artisanal" [food, etc.] becomes popular, and people level up their domestic skills and/or pay artisans for special occasions and special items. At this point we have restored the situation of 1), except that the everyday items are much, much, much better and cheaper. (And people are still nostalgic for "the old days, when every single meal was prepared with the best, freshest ingredients"... because we're people, I guess.)

Texan99 said...

Often I see a mix of the sublime and the awful, as in factory-stitched clothing. The long, straight rows in the middle of big sections are a triumph of tiny, absolutely even stitches that are the envy of any expert hand-seamstress, but look at the finishings and the edgings: careless messes that no mediocre seamstress would tolerate. A master pastry chef can make a pie crust that's hugely superior to my grocery store's frozen offerings, but their frozen offerings are frankly better than any piecrust I've ever produced, and quite good enough for my purposes. Pie dough seems to lend itself to large-scale factory treatment. But then the difference between a pie fresh out of the oven and anything that was previously cooked, then sealed in plastic and stuck on a shelf! That part is where homemade care really shines. The most primitive freshly homemade tortilla is a triumph, despite its cheap, rough ingredients. With even moderate skill, anyone can turn out pretty good freshly made food. The trick often is to preserve food well, so I appreciate things like kimchee and fish sauce and cheese and yogurt and salami.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

We may be narrowing in on a consensus here.

@jaed - it may be true that we have taken off the very top of homemade quality as a very reasonable tradeoff of no longer having to eat the very bottom of homemade quality. Yet even that may not be so. The amount of effort needed to hand-produce crusts, or stitches, or dance tunes, is part of the value. Nana was able to produce this sauce even through trial and poverty. I can't match her

Texan99 said...

Not just the effort of the handmade approach, but the exercise of human judgment in the detailed and immediate choices, adapted to the circumstances. If it's good human judgment, you get something superb.

I'm interested in 3D printers. If I understand them properly, they make it wildly easy for any artisan to mass-produce whatever he can craft by hand once, though of course only in certain materials. Imagine being able to produce a fabulous cherry pie, then hit "print 200 copies."

I've been spending a lot of time lately carving a stool out of a tree stump. It's very satisfying, and will be charming when finished, but it doesn't scale. If I want chairs for a party, I appreciate being able to run out and buy a set of cheap, waterproof, durable, stackable, reasonably comfortable ones on a moment's notice. But they're typically ugly and rather deadening.

jaed said...

...which is at least partly because of priorities persisting, I think. Decades ago, the important thing was that they were cheap, because otherwise the mass market (that mnufacturers rely on) wouldn't be able to afford them. And "cheap" is still a big thing. Also that they are easily manufactured—that their construction is amenable to the manufacturing process itself, doesn't take extra steps or waste material, etc. Later, the important thing was that they were pragmatic—easily stackable, waterproof, strong enough for the purpose. Beauty wasn't a big deal, and the artist who designed the chairs probably wasn't paying as much attention to how they looked as to how cheaply they could be made and whether people could sit in them without breaking them.

Maybe that's part of what's due to change.

(The other thing that interests me about 3D printing is the scope it gives to customization. I pick a chair and make it 15% bigger because I am tall and have a... well, large butt. Someone else picks the same chair and scales it down a bit. Easy to do with 3D printing. Clothes, too—one genuinely good thing about handmade clothes is that there are not standardized sizes, and you can make the legs longer without making the body longer.)

Texan99 said...

There are people working on 3D printing for replacement body parts and, I'm not kidding, they retrofitted an Epson printer to 3D print with kidney cells, resulting in miniature kidneys that are producing small amounts of urine. Nothing they can transplant into a person yet.

Donna B. said...

I'm getting my son-in-law a 3D printer for his retirement. It will be one he assembles himself and is (supposedly and hopefully) customizable to work with materials other than plastic. (Um, this gift is also for a few father's days, birthdays, and Christmases.)

Back to food... I've acquired a temporary roommate and she likes Blue Apron mainly because it introduces her to new spices and techniques. It's surprisingly affordable ($60 for 6 meals, sometimes with enough for leftovers for one) and the only thing you need have on hand is olive oil. My only complaint is their attempt to foist collard greens on us more often than need be. And the need to taste some of the spices before we use the whole packet. We get 3 meals for 2 every other week. It's been fun.

And funny. One of the meals we haven't made yet cracks me up. It's chicken "chili" with chickpeas, sweet potatoes, currants, and Moroccan seasoning served with toasted pita chips. I was raised in southern Colorado, northern New Mexico, and Texas. Call it Moroccan chicken soup and I wouldn't laugh so hard. The pretentious names of many of the meals are funny. And that "chili" is pretentious is even more hilarious.

In a different direction, many of my cousins are attempting to keep alive certain food traditions in our families. It's not all that easy. Our parents and grandparents gleefully took to convenience and low cost. The recipes we are trying to keep alive were eventually done only on special occasions. This includes such simple things as cornbread. They were also caught up in the low fat/salt/sugar trends.

There are 2 things I've not even come close to. One is the purple hull peas my aunt cooked. Her daughter, who lives in the same house and grows the peas in the same garden spot CAN do them. I'm beginning to wonder if it's the soil. I've helped and watched both my aunt and my cousin harvest, preserve and cook these peas -- they aren't doing anything special that I can tell. The other is the fresh churned butter. No milk cows near any of us now and it's just not the same without fresh cream. I'm fairly sure the taste was altered by the cow's diet too.

I'm not nostalgic about every food from my childhood. I still don't like collard greens and venison is far from a favorite.

As for crafty side of things, sewing is a skill I grew up learning beside my mother. I am proud that she made my wedding dress and I'm proud that I made my daughter's wedding dress (and those of her six bridesmaids -- Momma would have been proud of me.) I'm okay at piecing quilts, but I'm lousy at the actual quilting. I keep telling myself that all my female ancestors would have loved machine quilting. But maybe not -- their weekly quilting sessions were also valued social occasions.

Also I cannot even pretend to match their productivity. My father's mother made a quilt for each of her grandchildren and step-grandchildren. I don't know how many of us there are, but there were 13 children and step-children... so quite a few! I cherish mine and also inherited 2 that she'd made for my father. (He always said he was her favorite. He might have been right, but then I always thought I was my step-grandfather's favorite. I was in my 20s before I learned that every single one of his grandchildren -- step or not -- thought the very same thing. He was a great man.)

However, there's some snobbery even in my fond reminiscence of family daily and special occasions. We were very poor until I was 7 years old, then *almost* upper middle class by the time I was 14. It was due entirely to my Dad being a hard worker and skilled. I became very spoiled (but not nearly as spoiled as my younger sister who didn't remember the very poor part at all). Still, my favorite meal and ultimate comfort food is pinto beans, fried potatoes, and cornbread. Cornbread the way my mother made it which I still cannot reproduce. Or, maybe I've just never been that hungry in 50 years.

Texan99 said...

Ha--I love collards, had them for dinner tonight and the last 3 nights. And we often make a Moroccan stew with chickpeas, tomatoes, and butternut squash, but it wouldn't occur to me to call it chili. Marketers must have decided that "chili" sells better than "stew." I think those services like Blue Apron sound great, but my husband will have nothing to do with them.

Donna B. said...

Until recently, I would have been in league with your husband. I've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the meat and produce provided as well as the detailed instructions. I'm a good cook and with 15+ years of restaurant kitchen experience not unfamiliar with the techniques nor with most of the ingredients. The relatively low cost is a pleasant surprise too as is the convenience of having ingredients not readily available at local grocery stores (creme fraiche, special cheese and mushroom varieties, verjus blanc, farro, for example). I have commissary privileges which gives me access to a variety of ethnic ingredients, but that store is still 20 miles away and the selection is not consistent, especially for anything perishable.

I'm also impressed that reusable containers and ice packs can be shipped back free of charge. Some of the boxes we've received have obviously been used multiple times. There's been nothing that has triggered my "that can't be sanitary" button. (It's an easily triggered button -- I keep disposable food service gloves on hand and my roommate is reluctantly learning to use them! She's also learning proper sanitary cutting board and truly sharp knife usage. She's taught me to use a garlic press.)

I don't know why I don't like collard greens as I'm fond of turnip and mustard greens. And poke salad. Kale reminds me of a cross between poke and spinach.

I wouldn't recommend Blue Apron for a family. Kids and teenagers are not going to like it. Nor would I recommend it more often than the 3 meals every 2 weeks. It's not THAT great. It's best as a fun diversion.