Have you ever wondered if the past tasted differently? If so, you’re not alone. Indeed it’s hard not to notice the new love of all things retro in food and food preparation. In fact, there’s an entire borough of New York City so excessively devoted to the painstaking, handmade, and pre-industrial production of comestibles that the artisans there go Portlandia one better and caricature themselves. (Yes, Brooklyn, we’re talking about you. But you already know that. The message was for those who live elsewhere.)
But it’s not just in the heart of hipster heaven. No, canning and pickling, cheese making and beer brewing, coffee bean roasting and meat smoking have infiltrated the daily lives of many Americans who, just a couple of decades ago, probably never imagined that they would someday seriously consider raising chickens in the backyard of their suburban split-level. Then there are the actual foods of our fathers. Well, at least the drinks. Would you like to try George Washington’s whiskey? Come April 4th, Mt. Vernon will start selling whiskey brewed to GW’s own specifications at a distillery re-created along the lines of the original. You can also sample the Ales of the Revolution from Yards Brewing in Philadelphia: they make ales based on original recipes from Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. You can almost taste the red coats coming.
We could go highbrow and suggest that this is all very Proustian. There’s nothing like the sense of smell or taste to bring back the past. Really though it’s more Pollan-ian. As in Michael Pollan who suggested in his book In Defense of Food, as one of his three rules for eating, to consume only foods that your great-grandparents would have recognized. In short, this would mean rejecting processed foods in favor of things prepared from natural ingredients. Who could argue with that? One might quibble and point out that Twinkies were first introduced in 1930 when great grandma and grandpa were around but back then, the cream-filled cake was actually made with eggs, flour and milk and stuffed with banana cream, or seasonal strawberries. It had a shelf life of just two days. Which means, of course, that it had nothing whatsoever in common with the Frankenfood presently known as Twinkie.
If only it were so simple. B.R. Meyers in The Atlantic kicked off the backlash a couple of years ago with a piece on how contemporary foodie-ism looks a lot like gluttony. Now there’s a blast from the past: one of the seven deadly sins lurking in the shadows as you hesitate over the pink Himalayan salt or the French fleur de sel. He’s probably right that our great grandparents might well have been appalled at such shenanigans as characterize foodie behavior. Meyers sure stepped on a few toes with that one but the backlash hasn’t backed off. Nor is it just about skewering the pretensions of those who treat every restaurant meal as worthy of the kind of criticism formerly reserved for European art house cinema.
More seriously, the anti-foodie faction has pointed out that not only is it classist to blame the poor for their poor taste in food, it’s delusional to think that returning to the foods of our fathers is a possible solution to the problems of obesity, epidemic diabetes and other nutritional ills of the first world countries. The argument runs, in short, that while it might not be a mortal sin to advocate eating fresh, well-prepared, locally sourced food, it isn’t a scalable approach to changing the diets of the majority of the population who regularly eat processed, mass produced and fast foods and depend on their low prices. This, instead, might require re-engineering the way foods are processed to improve their nutritional profiles and for this to happen, foodies have to stop with the ad hominem attacks on the junk food industries. For their part, the foodie defense claims that any recent improvements to the quality of fast food are a result of “trickle down gastronomics”—a case of the elites leading by example. If Marie Antoinette were around today, we have to imagine that the peasants would be asked to eat whole wheat chocolate zucchini cake. Let’s see how that works out for her.