The simple foods

James McWilliams comments on the simple, local foods movement: “The Persistence of the Primitive Food Movement”. His theme, with several interesting historical examples, is that Americans have always looked nostalgically on a simpler, rustic diet.

But did people living in the 1860s really see themselves as eating a simple diet? Not so much. This was an era of frequent food adulteration, with consumer goods being leavened by sawdust, engine grease, plaster of Paris, pipe clay and God knows what else. Responding to the increasing complexity of food in 1870, John Cowan, author of What to Eat; And How to Cook It, lambasted Americans for eating conglomerate mixturesingredients mixed in all shapes, in all measures, and under all conditions. He insisted that these overly processed foods not only led to a clogged brain but also a sickly and unenjoyable life.

McWilliams seems to intend his essay as an argument against Michael Pollan and other local food-ists. I don’t agree; it seems to me (and many commenters on that essay) that observing the recurrent ideological basis of American diet doesn’t detract from the basic economic and health arguments for small foods. In some ways, the American diet has always been pulled by opposing trends. In one direction, industrialization and mass production. In the other, tradition and the craft of cookery. The uniquely American character is the integration of dozens of regional and international traditions into a mass market culture.

It’s a pleasure here in Madison to go to the market and rely on local produce, meats and cheeses. And beers. It’s an appreciation of the craft that goes into their production.