Friend and intellectual community-builder extraordinaire, Nicky Twilley, who I met at Postopolis 20101, asked this question to kick off her editorship of the Food Section of Good. Here’s the executive summary.
I’m a researcher first, a writer second.
I research the history of food because I believe it has been a major driver of human history.
My theory is that changing ideas about good food changed the world. Change from pagan to Christian, from monarchist to republican, from believer in the humoral theory to believer in modern dietetics, your ideas about good food will change, and your cuisine will change. Decide that processed food is unhealthy. Your cuisine will change.
Sound innocuous? Not really. It runs in the face of most writing on food history which puts change down to change in domesticated plants and animals (Jared Diamond, Columbian Exchange) or to commerce (trade in grains, spices, cod, salt, beans, bananas which “changed the world”).
Those histories, I hope to show, are back to front. Changes in ideas or culture first, then changes in cuisine (modifications made to turn plants and animals into food that fits our values, changes that take place between farm gate and plate) and then changes in trade and farming follow.
I think about food politics because what I know about food history convinces me that most fashionable contemporary ideas about good food are leading us down a dangerous path. Far from being a disaster, modern food is, for all its faults, more equitable, safer, healthier, and tastier than any in the past. We don’t need artisanal, organic food. In fact it’s a terrible idea.
Need I say that this is a hard sell.
And what about taste, recipes, gastronomy? Well, I love to cook, I love to eat, but hundreds of other people write about these activities better than I could ever hope to.