Monthly Archives: June 2015

Learning from History

As a food historian, I read a lot about the past–not just where our foods come from, but also how the whole process of obtaining food works. There are a lot of things we can learn from the past that might actually help with our own survival.

Most of the history of the world has focused on getting enough to eat. Avoiding starvation is remarkably hard work. Things that worked well didn’t always work for long. For example, ancient Rome. As the city of Rome grew, more and more food was needed—more food than could be supplied by the surrounding farms. So Rome started conquering everyone around them, to get more farms and, as conquered people were enslaved, to get cheaper food. They set up fabulous trade routes, and food poured into Rome. Unfortunately, the cheap food coming in from distant lands dropped food prices to where farmers near Rome couldn’t compete. They left their farms and moved into the city. So more food was needed, but now most of it had to come from far away. That was great–until the pirates became a problem. When pirates cut off all food coming by sea, Rome was in danger of starving. That’s when they decided that, to guarantee their food security, they’d turn almost limitless power over to Pompey. And thus, the republic finally disintegrated.

So it sounds as though eating local is the answer, right? Well, one historian spoke of the “tyranny of the local.” Local food is wonderful until there is a drought or an especially long winter or locusts come through. Then, eating local means dying of starvation.

Sound hopeless? I don’t think so. I think the key concept is balance. Eat local when you can. Support local farmers. You want to make sure they don’t go broke and move to the city. Go to farmers’ market or shop at stores that buy at least some of their produce locally.

But don’t abandon the imports. If local isn’t available, usually because of climate, don’t stop eating. However, try at least to buy things that you could get from somewhere reached by truck or train, as opposed to something that needs an airplane or ocean voyage. Garlic from California vs. from China, for example, at least if you live in North America. Support the people who will be able to feed you if transportation is disrupted. (Remember how long planes didn’t fly after 9/11?)

Feel free to enjoy exotica–things that simply don’t grow where you live. But don’t rely on it. It’s great that we can get food from everywhere, and it’s great that we don’t starve every time there’s a tough winter, but we need balance. And, whatever else happens, we need to make sure we take care of our farmers.

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Fun Fact: Daily Grind

We still talk about the daily grind, but generally without thinking too much about the origin of the phrase. It dates back a few thousand years, to when people had to grind their own grain — every day. It took at least a couple of hours of grinding or pounding to create enough meal or flour for that day’s porridge or bread for a family. It was hard work, which is why people generally didn’t grind more than they needed each day. (Plus, of course, there was the issue of things spoiling faster once ground.) Worth remembering is that most of those doing the grinding were doing it at the end of a full day’s work or travel.

Various people at different times developed easier ways to grind grain, using animals or slaves or running water, but on the march or on the frontier, hand grinding remained the only option until the last few hundred years — though it is still the main method of processing grain in some places.

So next time you pick up a loaf of bread on the way home for work, you can be grateful that your daily grind doesn’t actually end with a daily grind.

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Supersizing History

I love studying food history. I read a lot of books. I do a fair bit of travel. I interview experts. Happily, thanks to YouTube, I also have access to a wide range of wonderful videos that focus on different periods of food history. Among the many options I’ve discovered, one of the delightful ones is a BBC series known as the Supersizers. This is a program in which restaurant critic Giles Coren and entertainer/comedian Sue Perkins pick different periods of history and then relive them. They wear the clothing of the period, live in suitable housing, and, most importantly, eat or discuss every aspect of the culinary arts from the period. The programs are tremendously varied, and include, among others, ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the French Revolution, pretty much every age defined by who was on the throne (Elizabethan, Victorian, Edwardian), the Regency period (Jane Austen’s times), and one year, they went through England by the decade (once they got to the ’70s, things began to look familiar, which actually made them even more entertaining).

The show employs top chefs, to prepare the period-appropriate foods, and a wide range of experts (culinary historians, cultural anthropologists, farmers, foragers, politicians,and so on) to comment on how food was obtained and consumed in each period. So while Giles and Sue focus on being entertaining, the scholarship is excellent.

Since we’re just a few days past the anniversary of D-Day (June 6), I thought that perhaps the best example to post would be dining in England during World War II. This video, while still entertaining, contrasts somewhat with the lavish repasts that are the focus of most of the videos. However, it is a period that many still remember and that had a lasting impact on the world. Still, do check out some of the other videos. So many fascinating eras, fabulous costumes, and over-the-top dinners — truly delightful. But now, here is dining in Wartime.

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Filed under culinary history, Culture, Food, History, Video