Few letters have the power to stop conversation in its tracks more than MSG, one of the most infamous additives in the food industry. The three little letters carry so much negative weight that they’re often whispered sheepishly or, more often, decidedly preceded by the modifier “NO” that seems to make everyone breathe a collective sigh of relief when they go out to eat. Nobody wants MSG in their food—the protest goes—it causes headaches, stomachaches, dizziness and general malaise. It’s unhealthy and, maybe even worse, unsexy, used by lazy chefs as an excuse for flavor, not an enhancement.
On the other side of the spectrum lies umami: few foodie buzzwords pop off the lips with such entertaining ease. Enterprising young chefs like David Chang (of Momofuku fame) and Adam Fleischman, of the LA-based chain Umami Burger, have built their culinary careers on the basis of the fifth taste, revitalizing an interest in the meaty-depth of umami. It’s difficult to watch the Food Network or Travel Channel or any food-based program without hearing mention of the taste wunderkind, a host or chef cooing over the deep umami flavors of a Portobello mushroom. Where MSG is scary, umami is exciting.
What few people understand is that the hated MSG and the adored umami are chemically related: umami is tasted by the very receptors that MSG targets.
The full post is worth a read; check it out here.
Thanks to Nicola Twilley of the Edible Geography blog, I learned of an interesting book that was recently published. Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal—which Kirkus Reviews calls “a dense but enjoyable history of American food culture”—examines how breakfast, lunch, and dinner as we know them came to be. As an overview of the book describes,
In “Three Squares,” food historian Abigail Carroll upends the popular understanding of our most cherished mealtime traditions, revealing that our eating habits have never been stable–far from it, in fact. The eating patterns and ideals we’ve inherited are relatively recent inventions, the products of complex social and economic forces, as well as the efforts of ambitious inventors, scientists and health gurus.
Twilley concludes that
the book’s lasting value, at least for me, lies in its reminder that the three-meal structure is “only a cultural heirloom, not an ordinance of nature” — and thus open to intentional reinvention, as well as reactive evolution.
For a teaser of the book, listen to Carroll’s interview with Virginia Prescott on New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth. Then check out a chunky excerpt of Chapter 5 on the history of lunch at The Conference Board Review.
Last month Slate ran a fascinating article by Michele Humes that was subtitled “A brief history of the children’s menu.” A she describes,
When the English novelist Anthony Trollope toured the United States in 1861… he was astonished to see 5-year-old “embryo senators” who ordered dinner with sublime confidence and displayed “epicurean delight” at the fish course.
Prohibition spelled the end for 5-year-old epicures. Taking effect in January 1920, the dry laws forced the hospitality industry to rethink its policy on children: Could it be that this untapped market could help offset all that lost liquor revenue? The Waldorf-Astoria in New York thought so, and in 1921 it became one of the first establishments to beckon to children with a menu of their very own. But even as restaurants began to invite children in, it was with a new limitation: They could no longer eat what their parents ate.
Humes identifies pediatrician Emmett Holt as the the early 20th century’s chief designer of children’s nutrition guidelines, a “hodgepodge of medicine and morality” that dictated to “mothers, nurses, and, apparently, chefs that young children were not to be given fresh fruits, nuts, or raisins in their rice pudding. Pies, tarts, and indeed ‘pastry of every description’ were ‘especially forbidden,’ and on no account were such items as ham, bacon, corn, cod, tomato soup, or lemonade to pass a child’s lips before his 10th birthday.”
The full article is well worth a read, especially since it encourages a questioning of the current state and continued existence of the children’s menu. Check it out here.
Edible Milwaukee recently ran a lovely feature by Martin Hintz on Old World Wisconsin. As Hintz writes,
The living museum features more than 60 buildings gathered from around Wisconsin to form a crossroads village and a series of ethnic farms. The complex makes up one of the world’s largest facilities dedicated to the history of rural life, opening in 1976. Each building was painstakingly dismantled, shipped to [Old World Wisconsin] and then rebuilt and opened for exploring. All this is only about a hour’s drive west of Milwaukee, tucked into the flower-bedecked Kettle Moraine countryside.
There are all sorts of historical tidbits waiting to be discovered. For example, at the Schulz farm representing the 1860s, “you won’t find tomatoes in the garden here; folks back then were still getting used to the notion that they weren’t poisonous.”
Check out Hintz’s full piece here, which includes wonderful photos from Joe Laedtke and Rob Gustafson, as well as details about fall happenings at Old World Wisconsin.
Listening to the Radiolab episode on “Guts,” I was reminded of Richard Wrangham’s great book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. (Both discuss William Beaumont’s research into human digestion with his patient Alexis St. Martin in the early 19th century.)
As described by Dwight Garner in his review of the book for The New York Times, Wrangham’s thesis is simple, novel, and compelling:
Apes began to morph into humans, and the species Homo erectus emerged some two million years ago, Mr. Wrangham argues, for one fundamental reason: We learned to tame fire and heat our food…. The energy that we formerly spent on digestion (and digestion requires far more energy than you might imagine) was freed up, enabling our brains, which also consume enormous amounts of energy, to grow larger. The warmth provided by fire enabled us to shed our body hair, so we could run farther and hunt more without overheating. Because we stopped eating on the spot as we foraged and instead gathered around a fire, we had to learn to socialize, and our temperaments grew calmer.
The book isn’t without it’s flaws, but it’s well worth a read. If you want to get a flavor of it, check out Garner’s review, Christine Kenneally’s review at Slate, and especially Wrangham’s appearance on NPR’s Science Friday.
The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on June 18, 2012.
One of the great food books that I read in the last year was White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. Written by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, professor of politics at Whitman College, it’s a fascinating look at the history of industrialized bread in the US and the shifting sociological and cultural factors that influenced its production, marketing, and consumption from the 19th century to today. It’s well-researched and well-written, and much of the analysis — of concerns about purity and contamination, for example — is highly relevant to today’s food debates.
Portions of the book have also been adapted and/or excerpted in a number of pieces online, and all provide nice slices (pun intended) of the book.
- This essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “What Would Great-Grandma Eat?”, takes a piece of Michael Pollan’s advice a bit too literally but poses a useful question: “… as I dug into the history of battles over bread, I realized that this whole nostalgic perspective had a bigger problem: What if Great-Grandmother was just as conflicted about food as we are?”
- This excerpt in The Believer looks at “Atomic Bread Baking at Home: A Yucatan-Based American Tries to Re-create the ’50s-Era Market-Tested USDA White Pan Loaf No. 1, and In Doing So Reveals How Today’s Miracle Food Can Become Tomorrow’s Catastrophe.”
- This excerpt at Salon focuses on “The rise and fall of white bread: [how] we learned to hate the processed loaves not just because of health — but because of class, status and race.”
- Finally, this piece at Huff Post Books taps similar themes about “How White Bread Became White Trash (And What This Tells Us About Food Justice and the American Economy).”
The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on May 26, 2012.
Not surprisingly, it turns out that folks put out summer reading lists as well, so I thought we’d consider some mid-year recommendations.
I’ve been aware of the latest brouhaha surrounding Paula Deen, but I didn’t work to follow it closely. I don’t pay much (any?) attention to cable-TV cooking personalities in the first place, and I wasn’t interested in spending time and energy on Deen in particular. But a friend (thanks, R!) recently shared a piece from HuffPost, an open letter to Deen from cultural historian Michael W. Twitty. In part, Twitty writes to Deen that
I want you to understand that I am probably more angry about the cloud of smoke this fiasco has created for other issues surrounding race and Southern food. To be real, you using the word “nigger” a few times in the past does nothing to destroy my world. It may make me sigh for a few minutes in resentment and resignation, but I’m not shocked or wounded. No victim here. Systemic racism in the world of Southern food and public discourse, not your past epithets, are what really piss me off. There is so much press and so much activity around Southern food and yet the diversity of people of color engaged in this art form and telling and teaching its history and giving it a future are often passed up or disregarded. Gentrification in our cities, the lack of attention to Southern food deserts often inhabited by the non-elites that aren’t spoken about, the ignorance and ignoring of voices beyond a few token Black cooks/chefs or being called on to speak to our issues as an afterthought is what gets me mad. In the world of Southern food, we are lacking a diversity of voices and that does not just mean Black people — or Black perspectives! We are surrounded by culinary injustice where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating. Barbecue, in my lifetime, may go the way of the Blues and the banjo… a relic of our culture that whisps away. That tragedy rooted in the unwillingness to give African American barbecue masters and other cooks an equal chance at the platform is far more galling than you saying “nigger,” in childhood ignorance or emotional rage or social whimsy.
Regardless of whether or not you are interested in the current media feeding frenzy surrounding Deen, Twitty’s full post is really worth a read; check it out here.
On the heels of Tuesday’s post about small-scale maltsters who are supplying microbreweries with an essential beer-making ingredient, I thought I’d share a fascinating piece [PDF] from Wisconsin Historical Magazine about a Wisconsin maltster who lived and worked a century ago.
In his look at a bygone age of industrial brewing, Jeff Haas details the experiences of his great-grandfather who heads to Japan as the U.S. is on the brink of Prohibition.
Although Haas touches on aspects of Wisconsin brewing history in his piece, he begins with a focus on his forebear:
On July 16, 1917, after a three-day train trip from Duluth to Seattle, thirty-nine year old August Groeschel found himself aboard the S. S. Sado Maru on his way to Yokohama, Japan. The Wisconsin native carried with him a one-year contract with the Kirin Brewing Company, which guaranteed him $125 per month plus living expenses. The generous salary (which Groeschel would re-negotiate to $225 shortly after his arrival) was for his expertise as a maltster and an engineer, a career he had begun more than two decades earlier in his hometown of Kewaskum in Washington County, just forty miles northwest of Milwaukee’s lakefront. The salary was significant for the time, but it was not the only incentive for Groeschel to leave the U.S. and his beloved family. He believed this international assignment would garner him a level of prestige that would ultimately allow him the higher management responsibilities that he desired, but that were out of reach at home. The contract with Kirin, however, was not the only thing that he carried with him. August Groeschel had tuberculosis, and his career ambitions would rest as much on his overall health as well as his two decades of expertise. In a series of letters home, he brought a Wisconsin perspective abroad, and he described the frustrations and the satisfactions of doing the most familiar work he knew in the most unfamiliar place he had ever been.
The full piece is an interesting look at an earlier era of domestic and international beer-making through the lens of one man’s life, so I encourage you to check it out [PDF].
Today’s “best of” lists have some overlap with yesterday’s nominations for the best cookbooks of 2012. That’s because, while some outlets do a nice job keeping cookbooks separate from other food-related books, others just lump them together.
Tejal Rao of The Village Voice, for example, offers 18 selections, many of which are recipe collections. Non-cookbook recommendations include Robin Shulman’s Eat the City (“elegant, fascinating stories about New York’s culinary geography with rich portraits of the people — past and present — who have taken part in its food production”) and Kate Hopkins’ Sweet Tooth: The Bittersweet History of Candy (“a smart, rambling meditation on the history of candy that dips a little into the food memoir genre without feeling formulaic or turning into a confection.”)
Rao and team also recommend Lucky Peach from McSweeney’s:
We know this isn’t a book, but this quarterly food journal has been consistently delivering some of the most exciting food writing, interviews, and design all year long. And it’s the kind of magazine you actually want to read from cover to cover, you know, like a book. If you don’t already have a subscription, consider one for 2013.
For others to consider, The Observer has a photo slideshow of 20 recommendations, with suggestions that include Edible Selby, photographer Todd Selby’s view of the culinary world, and Nicholas Lander’s The Art of the Restaurateur.
Zoe Williams offers suggestions at The Guardian, including Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat and Steven Poole’s You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up With Gastroculture.
Leah Douglas at Serious Eats has recommendations like Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating and the essay collection Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers.
For still more suggestions, check out lists from Paula Forbes at Eater; the librarians of Schaumburg Township; Jamie Frater at Listverse; and Josh of Potter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts (who give another thumbs up to Lucky Peach).
Happy shopping, and happy reading!