by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-history

Apr 7 2020

Food and Coronavirus: the good news (!)

In this week’s updates of items related to food and Coronavirus, let’s start with the good news (yes, there is some).

I.  Free meals for New Yorkers

The New York City Department of Education has announced that it will make three free meals available every day for any New Yorker, at more than 400 locations.

  • No one will be turned away at any time
  • All adults and children can pick up three meals at one time
  • Vegetarian and halal options available at all sites
  • No registration or ID required

What, you might wonder, is in these meals?

This is no time to criticize, and I won’t.

This is a monumental undertaking and city officials deserve much praise for making what look like typical school meals available to everyone.

Much praise also to the school food service and other personnel who are preparing these meals.

II.  Recognition that the lowest-paid workers are essential

The economy and society run on the work of farmworkers,  many of them immigrants and undocumented, health care employees, restaurant delivery and food service personnel, and so many others involved in our food system.  The indispensible value of their work has suddenly become visible.   That’s a good first step, but not enough, of course.

III.  An opportunity to document history

A crisis of this magnitude calls for analysis.  It’s hard to do that when you are right in the middle of it, but the Association of Public Historians of New York State has issued a call for documentation and offers suggestions about what to write and collect right now.  We can all do this and lay the groundwork for future historical analysis.  I’m interested in the food and food politics aspects that I’ve been posting about on this site.  All suggestions welcome.

IV.  A return to home gardening and cooking

Salon’s recent article about renewed interest in gardening, canning, and baking focuses attention on how difficult it has become to get seeds and find flour, yeast, and eggs in supermarkets.   My local CSA baker (Wide Awake in Ithaca) is offering sour dough starter, flour, recipes, and instructions along with weekly loaves.  It’s still too cold to plant anything up here in the Finger Lakes, but the robins are back, the forsythia is in bloom, and it will soon be time to start the peas.

Dec 20 2019

Weekend reading: History and Ethics of Jewish Food

Aaron S. Gross, Jody Myers, and Jordan D. Rosenblum.  Feasting and Fasting: The History and Ethics of Jewish Food.  New York University Press, 2020. 

This book comes with heavy-duty endorsements: a Foreword by Hasia Diner, and an Afterword by Jonathan Safran Foer.

I was interested to read it and did a blurb for it.

Feasting and Fasting is a fascinating account of the history of Jewish food, within and outside of dietary laws.   The authors engage in Talmudic debates about how specific foods and diets as a whole do or do not define Jewish identity.  Crisco is for Jews?  Peanut oil caused such debates?  Who knew.  This book is a great read.

What to quote?  So many choices.  Here’s a snippet from Jordan Rosenblum’s chapter on Jews and garlic:

After the Exodus from Egypt, when the Israelites wandered in the desert, they grew tired of eating only manna.  Comparing the varied diet that they ate as slaves in Egypt to the unvaried diet that they now enjoyed as free women and men, a few troublemakers complained: “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”

This, as it turns out, is the only mention of garlic in the Hebrew Bible.  In this chapter,

we shall briefly explore the historical association between Jews and garlic that develops over the next three millennia.  In doing so, we shall see how garlic eventually functions both internally (by Jews) and externally (by non-Jews) as a symbol that represents Self and Other—or, in the terminology favored in anthropology and food studies, how garlic operates as a metanym for Jews.

 

Nov 29 2019

Weekend reading: history of American cuisine

Paul Freedman.  American Cuisine: And How it Got that Way.  Liveright Publishing, 2019.

Paul Freedman is an historian at Yale who in recent years has taken on food history.  His previous book, Ten Restaurants that Changed America, was on my weekend reading list in 2016.

This one covers the history of cuisine in America, addressing basic questions such as “is there such a thing as American cuisine?,” “What happened to it?,” and “What is likely to happen to it?”

The chapters cover such things as culinary nostalgia, community cookbooks, industrial food, ethnic restaurants, and the food revolution.  My favorite chapter title: “Have your cake, choose from our fifteen fabulous flavors, and eat it too.”

It’s a good read.  Here is a sample from page 367:

Americans have been enthusiastic consumers of modern products.  It is not just that historically the United States was technologically precocious or that its citizens value convenience, although these are true.  The key factor is a peculiar attitude toward food.  Americans have attempted to apply ideas about health and efficiency to diet.  Obsessed with technological progress, anxious about time-saving, and worried about physical well-being, Americans for well over a hundred years have embraced scientific nutrition, industrial food, and convenience.  They have been willing to sacrifice tradition and regional variation in favor of standard brands and their array of flavor and style.  Infatuation with science, convenience, and variety require giving up the natural taste of food in favor of texture, color, multiplicity, and simplicity of preparation.  Quick, easy, and healthful have been more important than flavor.

This is also a beautiful book, printed on high-quality paper, in an attractive easy-to-read font, and lavishly illustrated with menus, recipes, and pictures of advertisements, book covers, places, and people, many of them in color.

Reading it made me want to re-read Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad and Something From the Oven, both cited by Freedman in his chapter titled “women and food in the twentieth century.”

May 17 2018

Annals of history: medical advice about sugar, 1918

The JAMA issue of May 1 reprints an article first published 100 years ago.  If I hadn’t seen the original date, I would have thought it had just been published for the first time.
The 1918 article is called “Sugar in War Time.”
It was published originally on April 6 that year.  JAMA. 1918;70(14):1003.
It begins:

During recent months, many physicians have been asked regarding the possible effects of the various newly imposed or proposed dietary restrictions or innovations on the health of the individual. … Among other plans for conservation, a reduction in the use of sugar has been urgently requested and, indeed, made inevitable at times when local shortage has curtailed the available supply so that the customary quota is not forthcoming. ..The most pertinent information is that respecting the actual use of sugar in the United States in recent years. The amount consumed in 1917 was approximately 9,100,000,000 pounds, or 88.3 pounds per capita. In 1916 it amounted to 8,300,000,000, or 84.7 pounds per capita. It is thus apparent that if these statistics are correct there has been some increase in the consumption of sugar.

Eighty-eight pounds of sugar per capita used each year represent about 110 gm. (nearly 4 ounces) per day for every man, woman and child in this country. Expressed in terms of food fuel units this is equivalent to 440 calories, a not inconsiderable portion of the daily energy needs of an adult man. The sugar of the daily diet consumed in the measure indicated by the government statistics would furnish one seventh of the food fuel where 3,000 calories are required, and even a larger proportion where the daily energy requirement is put on a lower basis. Four ounces of sugar, as the accusation now stands, is the calorific equivalent of two thirds of a quart of good milk or of eight slices of bread approximating one third of a pound.

When it is recalled that this great per capita consumption of sugar is largely a phenomenon of recent years and the result of the development of an industry whereby the price of the product has been lowered, the necessity for the inclusion of this carbohydrate up to one seventh or even one fifth of the daily energy requirement in the diet will obviously be questioned.

The article concludes with this statement:

Sugar is well utilized in the human organism; from the standpoint of cost its food value is very high, and its popularity need not be debated. But there is no consideration of nutrition that seriously demands so large an inclusion of sugar in the diet or forbids considerable reduction in its use, especially when the best interests of the civilized world demand it.

Mar 5 2016

Three books about eating: 3. A Short History

This is the third book about eating I’ve been posting about.  The first two were here and here.

Graham Dukes & Elisabet Helsing.  A Short History of Eating.  The London Press, 2016.

Dukes and Helsing, married couple, English and Norwegian respectively, and friends of long standing, have produced a light-hearted, entertainingly illustrated romp through the history of the human diet, from breast milk (on which Helsing is expert) to bubble gum, based on their research into a wide range of sources, literary as well as anthropological.   The authors quote poems in appropriate places:

When mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman’s food,

It ennobled our brains and enriched our blood.

Our soldiers were brave and our courtiers were good

Oh! the Roast Beef of old England.

The illustrations display cartoons, ads, portraits, and botanicals.

Here is an excerpt to give you the flavor…

Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France before the Revolution, is often cited—almost certainly wrongly—as having suggested that since during a famine the starving population lacked bread they should eat cake instead…But if Marie Antoinette truly did propose that the populace eat cake, what sort of cake, familiar in her royal circle, might that have been?  Modern reference sources define a brioche today as a light yeast bread with butter and eggs…A better clue…may be that provided by that infamous rascal of the day, the Marquis de Sade.  In July 1783, from his prison cell in Vincennes…he wrote a letter to his patient wife imploring her to send him: “…four dozen meringues; two dozen sponge cakes (large): four dozen chocolate pastille candies with vanilla….”

Dec 7 2012

Holiday weekend idea: visit a food exhibit!

If you happen to be in Washington DC, take a look at FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000 at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

 

Julia Child’s kitchen is the featured exhibit, but the history of the industrialization of the U.S. food supply is well worth a look.

I especially like quirky collections of food objects.  Here’s one from the exhibit:

 

If you are in New York City, you can see Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture at the American Museum of Natural History and check out the New York Times review so you know what to look for.

Also in New York is Lunch Hour at the New York Public Library.  If you can’t get there, the library has an online version of the exhibition.

If you happen to be in Switzerland and anywhere near Lake Geneva, Nestlé’s Alimentarium in Vevey has a special display of quirky collections: sardine cans, sugar cubes, and fruit wrappers, for example.  You can find it easily from its fork stuck into Lake Geneva.

Food exhibits seem to be the current Big Thing.  I’m trying to take advantage of them while they are around.  You too?