For most of humanity starvation was on the table.
Until approximately the 1700s, drought and famine were synonymous. Famine means that people die due to lack of food.
Even in the United States, food insecurity was a huge deal. I read a book called Caja de Cartons (Cardboard Boxes). Which is a series of short stories about a young Mexican boy who migrates in and around California and Texas as his parents work as pickers. His food was often too much fruit. It gave him diarrhea.
Not that I should have told you that story. Because I want to reject, "I know a guy" logic, but at the same time it's powerful. Thus, I'm going to keep going with it.
In fact, in parts of the world, they are still synonymous. I distinctly remember learning about famine in Sudan and Ethiopia between 1998-2000. My parents let me send money to aid organizations working in that region. Later, I found out that the only the very most effective aid groups managed to help people in need. Much of the aid (including that from the WorldBank) wound up extending a bloody civil war.
I start my post with this depressing saga because it's the background for my rant.
What do I mean by romanticism?
I love food. I love cooking. I think that we can learn so much from culinary culture. But I completely reject romanticism when it comes to food.
What do I mean by romanticism? I mean the idea that organics, or Non-GMO or Local or Slow or Farm to Table or "authentic" somehow offer a superior food experience.
Each of these notions try to harken us back to some mythical yesteryear.
This yesteryear didn't exist.
Food culture, for much of history was just high culture and low culture (starvation). High culture was labor intensive, but perhaps not that good. After all, the ingredients used were inferior to the ingredients used today.
Picture a ripe heirloom tomato. Were those the tomatoes eaten by the kings of Greece? Not so much. Heirloom tomatoes became delicious through centuries of genetic modification.
The choke cherries eaten by Native Americans? Not very good until Native Americans cultivated them.
Honestly, I've got wild chives growing in my yard. Would they work for seasoning in a pinch? Sure, but they aren't good.
Even once we had agriculture down, humans still struggled with delicious and cheap. Flour, sugar, salt and lard were the most common foods mentioned in the Grapes of Wrath. What do you make with those? Donuts?
The move towards local and artisan is especially crazy to me. Do you know what we called it when we only traded with people that we knew and trusted? Do you know what we called it when all food was processed by hand instead of industrialization? The middle ages. That was not that good of a time people. The beer was weak, the chairs hard, and the houses cold.
When I hear people talk about connecting with their roots through food, it drives me a little bonkers. Unless the roots you're considering are less than three generations ago, the people you're trying to connect to are thankful that you're eating better food than they were.
The idea that peasants somehow ate better, more nutritious food is patently false.
Middling food culture- my favorite!
Throughout most of the Western world we've developed a fantastic middling food culture. It's called middling because it's reminiscent of the foods only enjoyed by the rich, but it's on the scale that even the poor can afford.
Consider a hamburger. It's meat, on white bread, with a sauce... maybe a bit of vegetable. It's toned high French cuisine. And it's delicious! Middling food culture at it's finest.
I'm thankful that I can afford to eat meat with every meal. It doesn't have to be "Portlandia" style meat for me to enjoy it.
Sometimes, when it's just me ranting on my blog, I think to myself that romantic notions of food want to resurrect classicism by destroying a delicious food culture. Middling food culture is something we can all afford (or at least most can). Romantic notions of food are primarily for elites.
What about authenticity?
I might like middling food culture more than average because I grew up on it. My mom authentically made hot dish. My grandma's best dish was cheesy potatoes which includes frozen potatoes and Velveeta cheese food.
I don't have many "treasured family recipes" that don't involve some super processed ingredient or another. My mom's famous cookies use Crisco.
But authenticity is a fairly good argument for romantic notions of food. If your Nonna made homemade gnocchi, or you remember eating your mom's chittlins then you should enjoy those from time to time. You could make them yourself at home, or you could go to a restaurant that makes a slightly inferior, but still authentic version of them. Go ahead. Enjoy the taste of your memories.
However, not every bite needs to be chockful of memories. Sometimes we eat for enjoyment; sometimes for necessity.
Feel free to indulge your romantic notions of food, but recognize it as an indulgence.
Does this really save money?
I'm pretty sure that rejecting romantic notions of food saves money. I'm pretty sure that my health isn't suffering for it.
I still eat vegetables, fats, fruits, lots of meat, eggs, some dairy, legumes, whole grains and more sugar than is likely healthy for me. I still get tons of enjoyment out of trying new recipes and returning to old favorites. I still love connecting with the people that I love around a table.
Of course, the drawback to eating like this is that I can't feel more virtuous than you when I eat. In my opinion, most romantic notions of food allow people to pay more money to feel more virtuous. If that's how you want to spend your money, I'm cool with that. It's your money. That's just not how I choose to spend mine.
I'm a wife, a mom, an employee, and a personal finance nerd who is devoted to spreadsheeting my way through life.