Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Peasant food is now rich people’s fare

That earlier GMO Eucharist thread got taken over by a discussion of gluten and celiac disease. I will re-post these lines from Ocholophobist, quoted in the original post, in hopes that y’all will want to discuss it here:

[T]here is something disheartening in having to go to an upscale store or the upscale aisle at your local grocery in order to purchase something which is natural and relatively unmolested. As we see in so many arenas in the late modern American life, what was once a good quotidian human act or experience shared by the many is now only kept for the rich. One pays top dollar today to eat the sorts of foods once eaten by peasants — a simple stew with a couple ounces of pasture fed beef and organic vegetables and grains which have been processed in a traditional manner might cost you $60 at the right place. Purchasing the requisite items at Whole Foods might still cost you $20. Thus unless you are a person of means, you either grow/raise the food yourself or you eat laboratory foods


Here’s a quote from Bill Buford’s excellent book “Heat” that speaks to this issue:

The metaphor is usually one of speed: fast food has ruined our culture, slow food will save it (and is the rallying manifesto for the movement of the same name, based in Bra, in northern Italy.) You see the metaphor’s appeal. But it obscures a fundamental problem, which has little to do with speed and everything to do with size. Fast food did not ruin our culture. The problem was already in place, systemic in fact, and began the moment food was treated like an inanimate object – like any other commodity – that could be manufactured in increasing numbers to satisfy a market. In effect, the two essential players in the food chain (those who make the food and those who buy it) swapped roles. One moment the producer (the guy who knew his cows or the woman who prepared culatello only in January of the old young man who picks his olives in September) determined what was available and how it was made. The next moment it was the consumer. The Maestro blames the supermarkets, but the supermarkets are just a symptom. (Or, to invoke a familiar piece of retail philosophy: the world changed when the food business agreed that the customer was right, when, as we all know, the customer is actually – well, not always right.) What happened in the food business has occurred in every aspect of modern life, and the change has produced many benefits. I like island holidays and flat-screen televisions and have no argument with global market economics, except in this respect – in what it has done to food.
When I started, I hadn’t wanted a restaurant. What I wanted was the know-how of people who ran restaurants. I didn’t want to be a chef: just a cook. And my experiences in Italy taught my why. For millennia, people have known how to make their food. They have understood animals and what to do with them, have cooked with the seasons and had a farmer’s knowledge of the way the planet works. They have preserved traditions of preparing food, handed down through generations, and have come to know them as expressions of their families. People don’t have this kind of knowledge today, even though it seems as fundamental as the earth, and, it’s true, those who do have it tend to be professionals – like chefs. But I don’t want this knowledge in order to be a professional; just to be more human.

(Via Arturo)

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posted July 14, 2010 at 2:28 pm

“As we see in so many arenas in the late modern American life, what was once a good quotidian human act or experience shared by the many is now only kept for the rich.”
I think it’s worth remembering that there are also even more experiences that were once only possessed by the rich but are now shared by many. I think that when it comes to food, the average Medieval peasant would gladly trade places with an early 21st century American who never has to worry about going hungry. While it’s certainly worthwhile to advocate for more natural food, it’s important to have some perspective and remember that modernity has both costs AND benefits.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 2:33 pm

I blame the French. They are the ones who decided we needed a cheaper replacement for butter and started hydrogenating inedible oils to make margarine. Bastille Day is a good time to remember that little contribution to modern cuisine.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 2:37 pm

I think it’s worth remembering that there are also even more experiences that were once only possessed by the rich but are now shared by many.
Yeah, that’s true. My great-great granddad likely lived his entire life without ever tasting pineapple. I’m quite sure my granddad never tasted sushi or sake.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 4:56 pm

I hate to do this, but the analysis on the food issue is wrong, wrong, wrong. So-called “natural,” organic or local foods did not go from peasant food to yuppie fetish because food has become commodified and somehow un-artisnal.
The issue here is abundance. Through research, mass education and infrastructure investment, consumers have been freed from the constrictions of scarcity. Even before currency, food was a commodity (THE commodity), it was just more valuable.
What keeps fast food cheap and fresh food expensive is the web of subsidies and protective tariffs for water and grain. That’s why it’s possible to be both obese and malnourished in this country. Focus subsidies what’s best for eaters and not agribusiness and the market will respond.
As with much as all of Rod’s philosophy, his take on food is nostalgie de la bouie for an imaginary past scrubbed of all the hardship and uncertainty that actually defined life when we had to eat locally and organically. We yuppies love our precious food co-ops and farmers markets, but it’s nice to know that we have a multinational supermarket chain to rely on during a drought year or following an early frost.

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Bill H

posted July 14, 2010 at 6:30 pm

As others have hinted above, this analysis is wrong-headed by orders of magnitude. Ocholophobist’s noble savages had, at best, largely two options when it came to food consumption: spend virtually all of their labor power and income producing and consuming free-range, organic, non-GMO locally-grown food, or starve. Mother Nature being a capricious beast, they often only had the latter option.
Their modern cousins in developed countries, *may* spend a large, but not absolutely prohibitively large, amount of their income on the same type of food, and still have some money left over for all of the other conveniences of modern life. They may also spend a smaller portion on more cheaply-produced food and have more money left over for other purposes. The vast majority take the latter route. Except in pathological cases, nobody in a modern developed country starves.
It’s not unfair to point out that certain subsidies and taxes (some explicit, others implicit) may distort the relative prices of the two options and thereby distort the decisions thst people make. But to pretend that the typical poor person today is incapable of eating better in terms of both quality and quantity than the average pre-modern peasant is just simply wrong.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 6:54 pm

As others have hinted above, this analysis is wrong-headed by orders of magnitude. Ocholophobist’s noble savages had, at best, largely two options when it came to food consumption: spend virtually all of their labor power and income producing and consuming free-range, organic, non-GMO locally-grown food, or starve. Mother Nature being a capricious beast, they often only had the latter option.
You have a point, but that’s still no excuse for the existence of margarine.

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Patrick Moore

posted July 14, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Rod’s comments and those of his commentators are perfectly apt, pace Rich, rj, Bill and Scott who miss the point. The point is not that modern agriculture hasn’t brought us plenty, it is that the plenty it has brought us is often sub par.
Now you can prefer a plenty that is often of bad quality, and you can prefer a quality that, if it does not necessarily mean scarcity, would at least mean that we’d have to dramatically reorganize our priorities and systems and economies, but there is no question that the statement as stated is largely if not entirely accurate.
Keep to the fucking point, people!
The same is true for most of the choices that brought us modernity: a plenty of some sort versus a diminishment in quality of another sort. Sure, electronics are better now than in 1750, but electronics — and autos and mass production and so on — are not self evidently the only reasonable choices and make up only one side of the balance. One may reasonably choose relative poverty, economic and technological (in all its senses, not just gizmos) with a higher quality of life.
Example: I lived in Kenya as a boy, during the late ’60s and early ’70s. I remember a Masai who had left his boma to go to Oxford; then left Oxford to go back to his boma, flies and dust and all. Was he a fool? How do you know?
You pays your money and you takes your choice. But one things is certain, and that is that the choice we have collectively made over the last several hundred years and ending in the consumer society we have today is not, repeat, is not sustainable; and another thing is also certain: that traditional peoples — nomadic, pastoral; I don’t mean the impoverished proletariats of modern third world metropolises or the starving villagers whose traditional economies have been wrecked by overpopulation and globalism and industrialism — are, to say the least, as happy as we are. I’ve seen them.

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posted July 14, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Oh nonsense, you can live on a diet of corn mush or potatoes for next to nothing. What does your author think peasants actually ate?

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posted July 14, 2010 at 10:55 pm

Thus unless you are a person of means, you either grow/raise the food yourself or you eat laboratory foods
This is a pretty strange lament. Where he sees only problems, many see solutions – if not perfect, at least getting close.
First, what about hunting and fishing?
Second, since we hunt/fish/garden, big whoop on on-organic grains/beans. They can’t be all that bad for you.
Third, the big problem these days is not that food is not all-natural. It is that people don’t want to cook from scratch anymore, and eat processed foods. Basically, if your family has a SAHM who gardens and a husband who hunts/fishes, eating pretty healthy is less expensive, and one can eat like a king. The only thing that is tough to replace is dairy/cheese/eggs – chickens and cow may be on our menu…

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posted July 14, 2010 at 11:45 pm

1. Modernity does make it possible for tens and hundreds of millions of people worldwide to get a consistent high quality of food that only the nobility used to receive previously.
2. The high price of the Whole Foods sort of modest ‘organic’ staples is a U.S.-specific inefficiency or gouging phenomenon. My parents are into that; they return from the EU every summer and complain about American prices in quality food staples generally being 2-3x higher than in France, Germany, Italy, etc for no good reason.

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posted July 15, 2010 at 12:37 am

Here in Montreal “stale bread” and “over-ripened produce” carts are common in supermarkets. These carts are marked down 50%. Now, is a brick-stale baguette a good buy? No, but sometimes you can find relatively fresh bread and produce for not much money.
I’ve never seen anything like this back home in the States. I’m sure the bread and produce are thrown out if not sold quickly. Yeah, the discount carts are a bit of a gamble. I’m sure that US supermarket chains don’t want to be sued for any reason. Also, I’m sure that many health departments would cringe at someone buying a pepper with a soft spot or a really squishy mango. Still, for a very poor doctoral student it’s worth the risk. Haven’t died yet.
I suspect that the relatively high cost of American food stems from an aversion to food products that aren’t perfectly fresh and blemish-free. The idea that food must be picture perfect contradicts almost all of human history before mass food marketing.

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posted July 15, 2010 at 1:47 am

Scott, I must say that while I agree, you can buy all those items for similar prices where ever you live – many people really do not want to subject our bodies to the toxins in conventionally grown products.
You mention canned fish – have you not read the reports of mercury levels that are through the roof in ALL canned goods? Do you know what excessive mercury does to you?
Most conventionally grown produce has enough pesticide residue to make a lot of people sick and guess what – it is! Slowly, mimicking other health problems. Adding to asthma and allergies that most people thing are just something we live with.
The other issue you are not addressing is quality of the food you are consuming. If it was grown conventionally “somewhere” – you can bet your bottom dollar that it’s nutrient content is very low on top of the pesticides, herbicides, toxic sludge aka fertilizer (often sewage) that your “cheap” produce was grown in.
A tomato can not manufacture nutrients out of nothing. Close, but, it can only work with what it is given to work with. You feed the plant toxic sludge, you can not expect to get a highly nutritious end product. On the other hand, if you feed the plants healthy, organic, nutrient rich soil, rich in organic matter, compost, and clean water, you might be amazed to find that not only do you grow a far better tasting tomato, you also have a much more nutritious one!
And since cows were never intended to eat corn, be injected with growth hormones, and to stand in their own muck, I am sure you can follow the logic on the difference from purely pastured beef and dairy products. Just tell us how happy and healthy you would be to live in your own excretions.
Yes, you will be far healthier eating conventionally grown “real” food over the chemical concoctions that they have to label as “food products” or on a diet of candy bars and soda pop, but the FACTS are that when you take out the chemicals and eat real, organic, foods, produced in season, close to home, not only will you be healthier beyond belief, the entire earth will be much better for it, too! On that note – can you tell me the environmental impact of eating a banana raised on the tropics and shipped to you in Iowa? It’s NOT pretty, my dear!
Until we all take responsibility and eat real foods, grown locally and environmentally responsible, we, as a people, will continue to have a plethora of health problems that we continue to blame on everything EXCEPT our diets!

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posted July 15, 2010 at 10:28 am

Scott La-de-da:
“I feed my fat ass on wholesome foods on all of $100 a month”
Congratulations. Hope it improves your mood.

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Rod Dreher

posted July 15, 2010 at 10:34 am

Judith, I have removed Scott’s comments. Scott, you post here a lot, and that’s fine, you’re often funny and insightful. But look, if you can’t make your substantive points without being profane and personally insulting, don’t bother.

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Broken Yogi

posted July 15, 2010 at 3:39 pm

The positive side of this story is that the more healthy food is associated with wealth and success, the more even poor people will aspire to eat it, and that will make it more popular and thus cheaper.
It’s important to remember that originally processed foods, white flour, white rice, etc., were originally only available to the rich, and they became associated in the popular mind with wealth and prosperity. Over time, the poor insisted that they too should be able to eat these items, and thus the mass market in processed foods. But as rich people are eating healthier and healthier organic foods, the poor are also jumping on the bandwagon, seeing health foods as a sign of success and prosperity. It takes time, but I think the future of healthy food is a good one the more it becomes associated with wealth and success and even becomes a status symbol.

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posted July 15, 2010 at 11:42 pm

Recently I reread a few of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books that I loved in childhood and I was amazed at the range of skills that were considered commonplace for a 19th-century farmer’s wife: sewing, dressmaking, tailoring, knitting, spinning, weaving, dyeing, butchering, soap-making, candle-making, baking, canning etc.
I read somewhere that very soon the public schools will abandon the practice of teaching children handwriting. Why should children learn to write their names when they can type them on a computer keyboard? So there will be no more handwriting analysis, no more handwritten letters, notes, love letters, novels or poetry–just people pecking on computer keyboards and cell phone pads. I wonder how much more of our humanity will be lost when we can no longer scrawl our own names.

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