The article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. A longer version of this essay appears in “Food,” the Summer 2011 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly and is posted here with the kind permission of that magazine.
Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
—The Gospel According to Matthew
It is a hard matter, my fellow citizens, to argue with the belly, since it has no ears.
—Cato the Elder
In both the periodical and tabloid press these days, the discussion tends to dwell on the bread alone—its scarcity or abundance, its price, provenance, authenticity, presentation, calorie count, social status, political agenda and carbon footprint. The celebrity guest on camera with Rachael Ray or an Iron Chef, the missing ingredient in the recipes for five-star environmental collapse.
Either way, sous vide or sans tout, the preoccupation with food is front-page news, but in preparing for the current food issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, I’ve learned that my acquaintance with the backstory was well behind the headlines. My ignorance I attribute to a coming of age in the America of the late 1940s, its cows grazing on grass, the citizenry fed by farmers growing unpatented crops.
Accustomed to the restrictions imposed on the country’s appetite by the Second World War’s ration books, and raised in a Protestant household that didn’t give much thought to fine dining (one ate to live, one didn’t live to eat), I acquired a laissez-faire attitude toward food that, I learn from Michael Pollan, resembles that of the Australian koala. The koala contents itself with the eating of eucalyptus leaves, choosing to ignore whatever else shows up in or around its tree.
Similarly, the few primitive tastes met with before my tenth birthday—peanut butter and jelly, creamed chicken and rice, the Fig Newton—have remained securely in place for the last sixty-six years, faith-based and conservative, apt to be viewed with suspicion at trendsetting New York restaurants, in one of which last winter my asking about the chance of seeing a baked or mashed potato prompted the waiter to remove the menu from my hand, gently but firmly retrieving the pearl from a swine.
The judgment was served à la haute bourgeoisie, with a sprig of disdain and a drizzle of disgust. Thirty years ago I would have been surprised, but thirty years ago trendsetting restaurants hadn’t yet become art galleries, obesity wasn’t a crime, and at the airports there weren’t any Homeland Security agents confiscating Coca-Cola.
Times change, and with them what, where, and how people eat. In fifteenth-century London a man could be hanged for eating meat on Friday. An ancient Roman was expected to wear a wreath to a banquet. The potato in sixteenth-century Europe was believed to cause leprosy and syphilis. As of two years ago, 19 percent of America’s meals were being eaten in cars.
The history of food reaches across a span of four thousand years, during most of which time the global economy is agrarian. Prior to the twentieth century, the changes were relatively slow in coming. Humankind is the tenant of nature, food the measure of both humanity’s wealth and wellbeing. The earliest metal currencies (the shekel, the talent, the mina) represent weights and units of grain. Allowing for cultural difference and regional availability, the human family sits down to meals made of what it finds in the forest or grows in the field, the tables set from one generation to the next in accordance with the changing of the seasons and the benevolence of Ashnan or Ceres.
The contract between humankind and nature remains in force for as long as it is understood which one is the tenant and which one the landlord. Over the course of millennia human beings discover numerous ways of upgrading their lot—cooking with fire, domesticating animals and plants, bringing the tomato from Mexico to Spain, pepper from Sumatra to Salem, constructing the chopstick, the seine net and the salad fork—but the world’s population stays more or less in balance with the world’s agriculture because the landlord is careful about matching supply and demand.