Omnivore - 'In praise of fast food'

Are you a culinary Luddite?

Image From time to time, I've questioned the ethos of our romantic view of the culinary past. It doesn't take much to deduce that if everyone tried to eat now in the way we assume our forbears did — only local, unprocessed food — much of the world would end up starving.

A few people have begun to question the foodie movement's tirade against industrialized food production. One of the best recent essays to do so is excerpted in the Utne Reader this month. It's provocatively entitled "In Praise of Fast Food," by Rachel Laudan, reprinted from The Gastronomica Reader, a collection of essays from my favorite food magazine, Gastronomica.

Laudan refers, sarcastically, to unfashionable non-foodies as "culinary Luddites." A sample of the essay:

Culinary Luddism has come to involve more than just taste, however; it has also presented itself as a moral and political crusade—and it is here that I begin to back off. The reason is not far to seek: because I am a historian...

As a historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by this movement: the sunny, rural days of yore contrasted with the gray industrial present. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast; artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.

For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad. Fresh meat was rank and tough, fresh fruits inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Natural was unreliable. Fresh milk soured; eggs went rotten. Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger. Natural was also usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied 50 to 90 percent of the calories in most societies, have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible.

Please read the essay. American foodies need to have this discussion.