For Cooks, the Good Old Days Weren’t so Good

cooking_in_the_pastFood historian Cynthia Bertelsen wonders if food writing relies too much on nostalgia, distorting our relationship to food in the process:

Seeking the “perfect” French experiences of M. F. K. Fisher and Julia Child or the Venetian raptures of Marcella Hazan and Marlena di Blasi buries certain truths:  producing food is hard, hard work, from the first sowing of the seed to the harvesting, and then finally the cooking.

Our current fascination with hands-on, farm-to-table-cooking-from-scratch encourages us to assume that our grandmothers (because it was always women who did this work) enjoyed the drudgery of getting meals on the table three times a day without any of the modern conveniences available to cooks today. Surely that is a distortion of reality.

Nostalgia simplifies history in another way as well:

Other food writers out there falling into the fallacious column include those who propose – without rigorous adherence to scholarship – that one group or another deserves credit for a whole body of cuisine, as in the currently popular assumption that slave cooks created Southern cuisine almost single-handedly and spiced it all with the aromas of Africa . And who decry efforts to publish material with which they don’t agree.

The linked article is about the controversy over a book that falsely depicted a commodious relationship between slave owners and the slaves who cooked their food, again a misreading of the past encouraged by our current fascination with home-cooked meals.

I devote a lot of attention to this issue of nostalgia in American Foodie. Given the nature of food and the fact that food is always embedded in traditions, I doubt that a certain degree of nostalgia can be avoided. Each of us has an eating history that explains our preferences and that resonates through every dish we encounter. Food is about traditions and the pleasure they bring and so it stimulates the imagination in a way that encourages the selective editing of the past that buries the bad parts. Nostalgia is by necessity a work of the imagination; the danger is in confusing the actual past with the imagined one.

Bertelsen is right to be concerned about these distortions when they are used to reinforce harmful prejudices. There is no easy solution to reigning in the imagination; the best we can do is to be reflective enough to distinguish fact from fantasy.

It’s important to realize that our nostalgic yearnings regarding food are not really about the past; they are about our future. It’s via nostalgia that we re-enchant modern life and try to imagine new ways of eating less beholden to the food industry and a form of resistance to the time compression of modern life.But our current attitudes cannot be decontextualized to provide an understanding of the past. We should leave history to the historians and be skeptical of the potted histories our imaginations concoct.

But don’t hold breath that such self-reflection is poised to penetrate culture. Surely that is a distortion of reality.

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