Food Fights: How History Matters to Contemporary Food Debates

Unlike most of the books I review on this site, Food Fights is an edited volume of thirteen chapters written by individual authors and fitted into five sections encompassing producing, choosing, regulating, gendering, and cooking & eating food. Charles C. Ludington and Matthew Morse Booker are the two co-editors of the book. Back in my scholarly days I read many of these types of books with food scientists or those from other disciplines as chapter authors. In this book, however, the authors are food historians, and they think quite differently than I do.

Historians place trends and perspectives in context in a way that escapes most “natural” scientists as they label me. Within the book, I found some spots that induced my anger, but I also found some real nuggets and passages that caused me to do some serious rethinking about food and our current food system. Thus, as I typically do, I respond to their words in bold:

“while scholars in the natural sciences who work on food generally see themselves as practical problem solvers who have slowly but surely helped to increase crop yields, extend shelf life, and thus reduce starvation—and in wealthy countries to provide consumers with all sorts of specialty foods and drinks—scholars in the humanities and social sciences have overwhelmingly come to food studies from the perspective that the current American food system is unhealthy in almost every way.” (page 3, Charles C. Ludington and Matthew Morse Booker) This long quote in the Introduction of the book sets the tension that pervades the book. I like to read books by food historians as they have a different way of looking at things than food scientists and challenge my way of thinking.

Most chapters in the book fit in the latter category suggesting that the United States has an unhealthy food system. I am obviously firmly planted in the former category with my background in food science and a bent towards traditional agriculture. Yet, there is an underlying thread through the volume that the argument against the current food system has some serious flaws.

“What we traditionally do well is bulk not batch, quick not slow, cheap not luxury, big box not boutique.” (p.46, Peter A. Coclanis) From this quote it won’t be any surprise to readers of the blog that this chapter was one of my favorites in Food Fights. He points out that there seems to be a disconnect between how we will be able to rely  on small, local farms to feed our overall population. “Local—organic—slow” is how food is produced and distributed in Africa which is unable to feed its population now. Africa is likely to see the greatest growth in population around the world in the next thirty years as we face the challenges of global climate change. He presents some very interesting statistics about farmland and food distribution, the implications of which seem to be ignored by the other authors of the book.

“When we talk about green juices and sugary drinks, or any other “good” or “bad” foods or diets, we are inevitably talking about social values and social ideals established by the economically and culturally dominant members of society.” (p. 139, Charlotte Biltekoff) Who sets the standards for what is good and bad in a country’s food supply? Is it based on science and logistics or is it dictated by a cultural elite? Biltekoff, who has serious issues with our food system, presents changes in society’s values and ideals that fit cultural perspectives that may or may not be beneficial to a country as a whole. She asks some penetrating questions. Are we pushing a diverse country into a white, middle-to-upper class moralistic food ideal? Is thinness the basis upon which we judge the character of a person? Too many pat answers by supporters and critics of the current food system tend to produce much more heat than light in bringing about a reformation.

a display of books including Omnivore's Dilemma, Missing Microbes, Stuffed and Starved, The Case Against Sugar, Swallow This, In Defense of Food, Baddititves, and The Food Babe Way
There is no shortage of advice on how to eat healthy

“The paradox of modern life is that we demand government protect us from an ever-greater range of risks . . . but many of us decry excessive governmental control. Even fewer of us acknowledge this as a paradox.” (p. 147, Matthew Morse Booker) Booker reflects the growing tension in the country between underprotectors and overprotectors when it comes to our interaction with government and even the tension within each of us between these two poles.  This statement takes us back to the initial quote above where the scholars in the natural sciences tend to decry overregulation and those in the social sciences and humanities claim that we are underregulated. The chapter provides an excellent description of the conditions that led to the formation and early development of the FDA.

I reached out to the chapter author via email to clarify the quote as written in the book. Part of that sentence is confusing and was published in error. In our subsequent conversation, I learned that we both agree that the FDA does an excellent job at regulating the current food system under challenging times. Should the federal government develop more strict regulations on processed foods, particularly food additives which may or may not pose serious health consequences? As a “natural scientist,” I do not believe that the current data merit more strict regulation, but social scientists provide a different perspective.

“[Women’s histories] lets us see kitchens and home cooking as places of joy and power, authority and possibility, tradition and resistance. It gives us even some models for rethinking home cooking without turning to large corporations. Women’s history reminds us of the hierarchies reinforced in households that need to be undone before food politics can be changed.” (p. 211. Tracey Deutsch) Part of the push for an improved food system and improved health is the push for more home cooking, particularly as expressed by male authors. Such a push ignores that the burden of home cooking falls largely on women here and around the world. This burden persists even though a much higher percentage of the American workplace is female than when these male authors were served meals by their mothers.

promotional material for a dish from a meal-kit featurening creamy dill chicken, asparagus and fried potato cubes
Meal kits shorten preparation time but are only accessible to wealthy clients

The convenience of takeaway, processed foods, and meal kits eases the burden on both affluent home cooks and those who are just trying to make ends meet as so eloquently documented in Pressure Cooker. It is also important to note that home cooking is about “so much more than cooking.” Deutsch tells us that not much will change until there is much more gender equity in the kitchen!

“For some the past century has been a triumph in providing adequate food and nutrition to a rapidly growing population despite a number of lingering inequities. For others, the food industry and convenience foods have robbed us the benefits of cooking from scratch, sharing food, and eating together.” (p. 250, Ken Albala) Cooking at home is the theme of Albala’s chapter as well. More of us have been cooking from home during the current crisis while working from home, sheltered in place or shut out of restaurants except for takeaway. Have we been using the opportunities of extra time in our homebound world to be creative or gravitating to convenience food? How many of these changes will carry through and how much will revert back to pre-crisis mode?

It is refreshing to read the dedication of a man who enjoys cooking from scratch. I find nothing wrong with that, but does he hold down a job and cook three meals daily to a crowd of four or more three times a day 24/7? I once heard a speaker at a national conference describe how she loved to be a creative cook and prepare food for others a few times a week. It was the drudgery of preparing routine meals day-after-day-after-day that got her down. Cooking from scratch will continue to be part of the battle of the sexes as noted in the previous quote.

“I prefer to throw my lot in with those who believe that a twin program, of on the one hand, continuing to modernize and improve the long-standing food system, and, on the other rethinking republican culinary to open it to, say, greater enjoyment of food, more equity between men and women, and more sensitivity to the environment is the best way forward. (p. 279, Rachel Laudan) The crowning glory of the book was the last chapter by Laudan who captures the zeitgeist of the times. It continues to amaze me how writers across the food spectrum praise her work. When I see others who disagree with me right down the line praise her work, I wonder what are they seeing that I am not! This concluding chapter urges us to embrace the diversity in food culture when so many are arguing for a food monoculture.

potato chips, chocolate, beer. pasta, Oreo cookies, organic tomato sauce and potato buns
Is there room in our food system for ultra-processed foods?

A short quote like this one does not do justice to her chapter. I confess that I am smitten with Rachel Laudan’s writing and thought-style and hope that her vision will lead both advocates and critics of the American food system to value it for what it does while trying to make it more open and more equitable for all persons in our society. She provides a fitting end to a wonderful, yet provocative book.

BREAKING NEWS! Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, a message came across my screen that Rachel Laudan had just posted an item on the food system, declaring that there is no food system. Rather we have “multiple cris-crossing supply chains, some connected, some not.”  Once again she has cut through all the polemics to get to the heart of the matter.

Bottom line is that a thought-provoking book raises more questions than the answers it provides. Food Fights definitely fits that description. On that note I ask

  • Why does food need to be such a divisive issue in our culture?
  • Where do we go from here?
  • Can’t advocates of processed food acknowledge that a healthy infusion of fresh, whole food can improve most American diets?
  • Can’t members of the new food movement see that there is much to value in the current “food system” although there are areas where reform is needed?
  • Can’t we all agree that the way food is currently produced, processed, and distributed places an undue burden on the working poor?
  • Can’t we also agree that as long as home cooking is primarily women’s work the burden is not equitable, and only when that burden is lessened will home cooking return as a standard practice in American households?

Next week: Some questions for the new food movement

6 thoughts on “Food Fights: How History Matters to Contemporary Food Debates

  1. An observation from the post “It is also important to note that home cooking is about ‘so much more than cooking.’ Deutsch tells us that not much will change until there is much more gender equity in the kitchen!”

    Leads to the final question “Can’t we also agree that as long as home cooking is primarily women’s work the burden is not equitable, and only when that burden is lessened will home cooking return as a standard practice in American households?”

    Not necessarily. When food = fuel I guess anyone can do the drudgery so sharing the burden makes for better gender equity. But is that all we ask of the home cook?

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    1. So, I take it, Linn, that your answer to that question is that you could not agree. My sister and I grew up in the 50s and 60s in family where my father went out to work each day, brought home the paycheck, gardened, and did household maintenance. Mother cooked all dinners and suppers, canned or froze all the surplus fruits and vegetables. It was simple fare, but we were well satisfied. The point that Tracey Deutsch makes is that the expectations of a working mother today should not be the same as they were in the 50s and 60s, particularly with increased demands for extensive chopping and gourmet dishes my mother never dreamed of. This situation becomes even more problematic in homes that cannot afford or have access to ingredients necessary to prepare even a few culinary delights for their family, particularly if burdened with unpredictable work schedules, inadequate kitchen facilities, a lack of skills or abilities and unconventional family structures as documented in “Pressure Cooker.” There may be many home cooks like you and Ken Albala, and even Michael Pollan who love to prepare home meals from scratch at every opportunity. I suspect that many women, however, look for easy ways out just to get a meal on the table with a minimum of complaints.

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  2. Points taken, but the national conversation on food policy is about so much more than science, just as the COVID-19 policy is about so much more than science. The purpose of this blogsite is to speak up for food science to occupy a place at the table in that conversation. What disturbs me more than what historians or the new food movement says is what the scientists that do know what a protein and a calorie are, the nutritionists and the dietitians, when they are more likely to recommend avoiding ultra-processed and even processed foods while ignoring basic principles of food science. One of our problems is that we are inextricably linked to Big Food, particularly when it favors economics over safety and health.

    When the current crisis is over, there will be major changes in the way food is produced, handled, processed, and distributed. That is why Rachel Laudan’s input on the food system is so important. Are we going to see a dismantling of the so-called food system or are we going to develop supply chains that are more resilient in times of crisis, more accessible to the poor and disadvantaged, more concerned about the health of employees, more attentive to reducing food and packaging waste with more emphasis on sustainability and health consciousness? These goals are part of the recommendations called for in Best Before; Future Food; and Molecules, Microbes and Meals. My goal is to get interested people from various points of view to start talking to rather than past each other about food policy.

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