March 7, 2012
If you were to point to the most marvelous product kicking around in your pantry right now, would it be your loaf of bread? It is one of the most mundane staple foods, but as Aaron Bobrow-Strain shows in his book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, the lowly loaf is so much more than the sum of its simple parts. In American culture, bread is a status symbol, and the book provides a fascinating look at how store-bought white bread rose and fell in prominence. The book also answers the big question: Why do we have pre-sliced bread, and why it was the greatest thing to hit grocery store shelves?
To understand sliced bread, one must first understand the dramatic shift in bread making habits in America. In 1890, about 90 percent of bread was baked at home, but by 1930, factories usurped the home baker. Considering that bread making had been a part of domestic life for millennia, this is a fairly rapid change. In the early 20th century, Americans were highly concerned with the purity of their food supply. In the case of bread, hand-kneading was suddenly seen as a possible source of contamination, and yeast—those mystical, microscopic organisms that causes dough to rise—were viewed with suspicion. “Bread rises when infected with the yeast germ because millions of these little worms have been born and have died,” Eugene Christian wrote in his 1904 book Raw Foods and How to Use Them. “And from their dead and decaying bodies there rises a gas just as it does from the dead body of a hog of any other animal.” Images like this hardly make someone want to do business with the local baker.
Mass-produced bread, on the other hand, seemed safe. It was made in shining factories, mechanically mixed, government regulated. It was individually wrapped. It was a product of modern science that left nothing to chance. It was also convenient, sparing women hours in the kitchen to prepare a daily staple. Factory loaves also had an attractive, streamlined aesthetic, dispensing with the “unsightly” irregularities of homemade bread. Americans fed on factory bread because the bread companies were able to feed on consumer fear.
But factory breads were also incredibly soft. Buying pre-wrapped bread, consumers were forced to evaluate a product under sensory deprivation—it’s next to impossible to effectively see, touch and smell bread through a wrapper. “Softness,” Borrow-Strain writes, “had become customers’ proxy for freshness, and savvy bakery scientists turned their minds to engineering even more squeezable loaves. As a result of the drive toward softer bread, industry observers noted that modern loaves had become almost impossible to slice neatly at home.” The solution had to be mechanical slicing.
Factory-sliced bread was born on July 6, 1928 at Missouri’s Chillicothe Baking Company. While retailers would slice bread at the point of sale, the idea of pre-sliced bread was a novelty. “The housewife can well experience a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows,” a reporter said of the sliced bread. “So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.” The bakery saw a 2,000 percent increase in sales, and mechanical slicing quickly swept the nation. With Americans all agog at the wonders of the mechanical age, sliced bread was a beacon of the amazing things the future might hold. At least that was the mindset. “Technology,” Bobrow-Strain says, “would usher in good society by conquering and taming the fickle nature of food provisioning.”
March 5, 2012
In 2008, Rachel Herz, an expert in the psychology of smell, judged a rotten sneakers contest in Vermont. She told her friends the research was for a sequel to her book The Scent of Desire. She wasn’t joking. Her new book is called That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion. Now, what does it have to do with food? Well, for one thing, the same bacteria responsible for smelly feet shows up in expensive cheeses.
That’s not all. Herz devotes an entire chapter to maggot-infested cheese, fermented shark meat, and entomophagy (insect-eating). Why do we eat shrimp when they so closely resemble the wood louse? Why did we once think food pickled in vinegar would lead to idolatry? Or why is consuming cats off-limits in the West? Why don’t more Americans eat sticky fermented natto (Japanese soybeans) when we think Taleggio cheese is delicious? Many foods that evoke disgust are made through controlled rot—“or,” she says, “to put it more politely, ‘fermented.’”
One of the more interesting ideas Herz mentions (which comes out of a paper called “Cultures and Cultures”) is that the learned associations turning food from delightful to disgusting reflect a kind of terroir. As Hertz wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
We learn which foods are disgusting and which are not through cultural inheritance, which is very much tied to geography. One reason that certain foods carry so much local meaning is that they capture something essential about a region’s flora and fauna. The same is true of the microbes that make fermented foods possible; they vary markedly from one part of the world to another. The bacteria involved in making kimchee are not the same as those used to make Roquefort.
While disgust originally protected us from potential poisons, it eventually gave rise to cultures with defining flavors and odors, all perhaps tied back to local microbes. Moreover, among what some psychologists identify as the six basic emotions (fear, anger, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise)—only disgust has to be learned. As such, Herz writes, disgusting foods can be a powerful reminder of place and also a sign of luxury. After all, we’ll forgo this emotion in the most desperate of times—and eat (almost) anything.
February 24, 2012
In 1947, the United Fruit Company released the Chiquita Banana’s Recipe Book. The book was a strategic attempt to market the still “exotic” banana and make it palatable for the entire American family. How did they do it? Well, the banana would appeal to everyone (“Doctors recommend fully ripe mashed bananas for infant feeding”; “Old folks find bananas a pleasant, satisfying treat because they are a bland food, easy to chew, easy to digest, and low in fat content”). The book’s recipes include ham banana rolls with cheese sauce, salmon salad tropical, broiled bananas with curry sauce, and an obligatory Jell-O mold with bananas.
In a recent paper, “The Banana in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” Christina Ceisel, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, writes, “While these recipes have fallen to the wayside, the United Fruit Company succeeded in making the banana as commonplace as peanut butter and jelly.”
The cookbook also showcases Miss Chiquita (originally drawn in 1944 by Dik Browne, who’s probably better remembered as the creator of the comic series “Hagar the Horrible”). Her character invokes Latin American women such as Carmen Miranda, and this, Ceisel argues, symbolically links the banana to a prevalent stereotype of Latin America and the Caribbean as “tropicalized“—marked by bright colors, rhythmic music, and brown or olive skin. Miss Chiquita’s ruffled skirt and fruit basket hat have become icons of Caribbean ethnicity.
Of course, Chiquita’s spokeswoman also acts as a kind of distraction—weaving a trope of the tropics as lazy and primitive, Ceisel argues. Miss Chiquita is a piece of the symbolic groundwork for the enduring involvement of the United States government and multinational corporations in Latin America. Ceisel again:
The image of Miss Chiquita as a tropicalized Latina does the cultural work of providing Americans with an affordable, exotic fruit year-round, while masking the labor of the very real Latin Americans who provide these foodstuffs. Thus, while Miss Chiquita’s 1947 recipes sought to include the banana in the everyday vernacular of the American household, today they also function as a none too subtle reminder of the history of cultural representation and US hegemony and intervention in Latin America.
It’s a reminder that cookbooks are not merely books filled with recipes for foods—even uncommon recipes for everyday fruits—they’re also conduits for potent political ideas.
February 15, 2012
Last weekend, I attended the Cookbook Conference in New York. One panel of historians and scholars extolled the value of texts traditionally relegated to the basements and attics: community cookbooks. Recipes collected by churches, clubs, and occasionally hippie communes. These books occupy a middle ground between printed manuscripts and word-of-mouth recipes, said Sandy Oliver, the editor of Food History News and author of Saltwater Foodways. “They’re a little bit closer to what people really cooked.”
One of these collection—the Library of Congress’s American Church, Club and Community Cookbooks—includes an 1878 book from Mobile, Alabama entitled Gulf City Cook Book Compiled by The Ladies of the St. Francis Street Methodist Episcopal Church, South. As Alison Kelly, the reference librarian who curated the collection, said, “if you thought community cookbooks were just chicken croquettes, this book will change your mind.”
Compared to today’s cooking, some of the book’s recipes—turtle soup or terrapin stew, for example—reflect a changing Southern ecology. The recipes also serve as a document of a profound cultural shift: the decline of hunting, wild game, chitlins, and pig’s feet. Perhaps this is best exemplified by the utterly mundane treatment of squirrel. Take “Squirrel Stewed.”
Skin them very carefully, so as not to allow the hair to touch the flesh; this can be done by cutting a slit under the throat, and as you pull it off, turn the skin over, so as to inclose [sic] the hair. Cut the squirrel in pieces (discard the head), and lay them in cold water; put a large table-spoon of lard in a stew-pan, with an onion sliced, and table-spoon of flour; let fry until the flour is brown, then put in a pint of water, the squirrel seasoned with salt and pepper, and cook until tender.
For decades, squirrel remained one of the last holdovers of a wilder American cuisine. Even the venerable Joy of Cooking contained recipes for squirrel between 1943 and 1996—complete with a drawing of a boot holding down the rodent’s hide. What’s interesting about the 1878 recipe is that its unnamed author calls for the removal of the animal’s head—especially interesting given what may have been the final nail in the squirrel-eating coffin: Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. In an excellent 2000 essay, “Squirrel and Man,” collected in his book Noodling for Flatheads, Burkhard Bilger examines the medical hypothesis suggesting that elderly Kentucky residents who partook in the tradition of eating squirrel brains suffered from spongiform encephalopathy, related to “mad-cow disease.” While Bilger found that “mad-squirrel disease” probably did not exist, the threat—real or imagined—probably helped drive wild game out of our diet.
Recently, Heather Smith issued a call for the resquirrelification of the American diet—an effort to transform the garden-variety rodent into a “drive-through cheeseburger of the forest.” While that may seem somehow exceptional now, the Alabama community cookbook is a reminder that, at least in 1878, there was hardly anything extraordinary about stewing up a squirrel.
February 14, 2012
We have a tendency to sexualize food. The New York Times chicken, a particularly frothy Herb Alpert album cover and even fish sticks have been imbued with an air of eros to induce giggles in otherwise mature adults. But is there a connection between food and sex beyond an occasional indulgence in frat-grade humor? Biological anthropologist John S. Allen thinks so. His new book, The Omnivorous Mind, takes a look at the scientific and sociological reasons for how humans relate to food in the ways that we do. There’s lots of terrific information about why we like crispy foods and how food drove evolution. But for a first thumb-through, I skipped straight to the racy bits. Granted, a chapter called “Food and the Sensuous Brain” hardly sounds like the title for the latest bodice-ripper, but the author shares a fair bit of insight on how we sense food, how we become acclimated to unusual flavors and even how genetics influences our culinary experiences. Allen also explores how—and why—food plays a role in animal courtship.
Food and sex are two of the most basic drives for animal behavior. Creatures need food to sustain themselves and they need to continue the species—or blow off a little hormonal steam. But how are they related? Part of the answer comes from looking at our ape relatives, who have a highly developed sense of trade and exchange. In chimpanzee communities, meat is a hot commodity, so much so that if a male is willing to share a conquest from the hunting grounds with a female, he is much more likely to make a conquest in the nest. In human hunter-gatherer societies, this concept extends further; the ability to supply food establishes an economic partnership between a male and a female in which they demonstrate how well they are able to provide and take care of themselves and future offspring.
But what about physical pleasure? The neologism “foodgasm” was coined to express “the euphoric sensation upon eating amazingly delicious food.” This, however, is not the same thing as physically climaxing during sex. “But clearly some people feel something quite special, whatever that might be, when they eat something that really hits the spot,” Allen writes. Sadly, there are no brain imaging studies at this time that reveal the mechanisms of the foodgasm. But Allen turns his attention to the orbitofrontal cortex, which deactivates upon sexual release and is the same part of the brain that registers satiation and pleasantness of taste. ”The orbitofrontal cortex, where orgasm and taste perception overlap, is likely the critical region for the foodgasm. It isn’t the same as an orgasm, but it’s nothing to sneeze at either.”
All that said, discussions of brain regions might not be the best way to chat up a romantic partner unless you both really enjoy neuroscience. Take a cue from the apes this Valentine’s Day and invest some time and energy into sharing a A-plus meal together. And for a more substantial tour of human history by way of the dinner plate, The Omnivorous Mind will hit bookstores this May.