the past in pop culture

Category: Food

Foods of our Fathers


Foodie (Photo credit: Sybren A. Stüvel)

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.

Sowing Wheat, Reaping Thorns

Grain Elevator

Grain Elevator (Photo credit: nouspique)

In a country that finds beauty in its heartland’s amber waves of grain, investigative reporting by NPR and other publications on a series of deadly accidents at grain silos hits the solar plexus hard. In the most recent incident, two teenage workers—one fourteen, one nineteen—suffocated to death after they fell through a crust of dried corn and were buried in a sinkhole of grain. A third worker, a close friend of the other two, survived six hours in the bin because a co-worker threw him a bucket as he went down. He put it over his head and was able to breathe while he waited to be dug out. Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. As NPR shows, too often safety regulations such as requiring workers to wear harnesses while they walk on top of the grain are ignored by companies due to lax enforcement, low penalties, and few criminal prosecutions. This has made such accidents a depressingly regular occurrence—179 deaths since 1984. One in four victims has been under eighteen years old. In addition, explosions at grain elevators caused by the combustion of grain dust have claimed more lives making employment at such places the most dangerous occupation in Kansas.

In the early twentieth-century, pioneering director D.W. Griffith made a short film titled A Corner in Wheat that comes to a dramatic climax with a man drowned by grain. In a spectacular triumph of cross-cutting, Griffith assembled a three part story about poor wheat farmers sowing their crops, impoverished city dwellers unable to afford bread, and Wall Street speculators cornering the market in wheat. The editing implies the moral: that the speculator is profiting from the powerlessness of the farmer and the bread customer. In the film’s signature scene, the wheat king and his friends decide to end their celebratory banquet with a visit to a grain elevator to see the source of their riches. The elevator operator motions the wealthy revelers away from the edge of the grain bin as the chute spills wheat down into it. Just then, the wheat king’s secretary arrives to deliver a telegram informing him that he has gained a monopoly over the world wheat market. As he jumps for joy, he loses his balance and plunges over the edge into the bin of wheat where wheat pours down on him. He is suffocated by the very source of his wealth and power.

The United States is the world’s largest grain producer. In the mid-nineteenth century, Joseph Dart of Buffalo, New York developed the modern grain elevator to take advantage of economies of scale by storing vast quantities of grain in bulk and loading it directly into railroad cars or ship hulls. Such innovations transformed the international trade in grain by tying it to modern systems of transportation and finance. Grain elevators came to dot the plains of the nation’s interior. Nearly every agricultural community had its own. They were the largest buildings on the horizon and came to be part of the region’s visual iconography. In their time, they were symbols of modernity that impressed European architects with their sheer size and functionality. Many have since fallen into disuse as they have been replaced by fewer, larger, and more modern storage facilities. The older buildings now inspire nostalgia for a rural past that seemed simpler.

This is the paradox of American agriculture. It remains one of the nation’s core industries even as the number of Americans directly involved in it has relentlessly shrunk. The inefficiencies of the once extensive system of small-scale family farms have led to their replacement by larger and larger ones. While undoubtedly more productive, an entire way of life has withered away. These days, agricultural workers are more likely to be low paid employees than land owners or operators. And however efficient, the ability to produce and stockpile mountains of corn, wheat and soybeans have long raised questions about the morality of speculating in futures for basic food supplies. On the one hand, the profit motive provides an incentive for storing food when it’s plentiful so that it is available when it becomes scarce. This helps keep people fed. On the other hand, speculating in food also has the potential for corruption.

Griffith’s depiction of the wheat speculator drowned by his own greed was so powerful that later filmmakers employed it to make similar comments on struggles between good and evil. In 1931, Danish director Carl Dreyer had an evil doctor who was in league with the undead Vampyr of the film’s title suffocated by flour at the town mill. In 1985, Peter Weir made Witness a city-versus-country drama starring Harrison Ford as a jaded Philadelphia cop who has to go into hiding in Pennsylvania farm country to protect a young Amish boy who witnessed a murder. When the corrupt city cops show up at the farm to kill Ford, he survives in part by luring one—the original murderer—into the silo and then opening the chute to crush him in grain. In both cases, the goodness and bounty of agricultural production are what balance the moral debt owed to society by the evil doers.

Away from the silver screen, it has been workers who have suffered and died in grain handling accidents. In 1993, Ron Hayes lost his son Patrick when sixty tons of grain fell on him in a Florida silo. In the years since then, he and his wife have founded The F.I.G.H.T. (Families In Grief Hold Together) Project to assist other families who have lost loved ones due to preventable workplace accidents. Too little has changed since then. In the late 1890s, Mary Elizabeth Lease, better known as Mother Jones, a labor activist and Populist, supposedly told farmers who were oppressed by bankers to “raise less corn and more hell.” The United States is not likely to cut back on its corn production, but raising hell is still an option.

But Some of My Best Friends Are Bananas

The title page of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, ...

The title page of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, also known as The Wizard of Oz, a 1900 children’s novel written by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W. W. Denslow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a clip titled “Bananas” from Oz the Great and Powerful, Finley the flying monkey takes offense when Oscar (who later becomes Oz) offhandedly remarks that he must surely like bananas. Finley calls him out for stereotyping monkeys. Oz tries to make amends by asking whether he likes bananas. To which Finley replies, “Of course I love bananas. I’m a monkey. Don’t be ridiculous. I just don’t like you saying it.” Ba dum bum.

It’s a short scene, a lot shorter than the version of the same joke in Crash (2004). In that one, Peter and Anthony, two young African American men, come out of a restaurant in an upscale L.A. neighborhood. Anthony starts ranting about how all white people assume they must be criminals because they’re black.

Anthony: Do we look threatening? No. Fact, if anybody should be scared around here, it’s us: We’re the only two black faces surrounded by a sea of over-caffeinated white people, patrolled by the trigger happy LAPD. So you tell me, why aren’t we scared?

Peter: Because we have guns?

Anthony: You could be right.

And then they carjack a white couple who just walked by. Ba dum bum CHING. Crash, though, is a movie about the collisions that racial fears cause and it tries to disrupt expectations by alternating between playing to the stereotype and upending it.

In Oz, the joke is a throwaway. It’s funny because it’s harmless: of course monkeys like bananas! Now, Hollywood cartoons have a long history of taking cute animals and giving them human traits that wouldn’t quite pass muster if they were played by people instead of pixels or paint. But as suspicious as it might be that a monkey is being made fun of for being over sensitive, let’s let the monkey go even if he is dressed as a bellhop. Finley is in good company. Lots of other monkeys have played second banana to humans: Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat, Ronald Reagan and Bonzo, Justin Bieber and Mally, Han Solo and Chewbacca (c’mon: he’s a monkey).

If we really want to run with the theme of excessive sensitivity, how about some concern for the humble banana in the joke? Oz tells Finley, “I’ll get that big pile of gold, and you can have that nice pile of bananas.” This lets us know that Oz has some character issues. Gold is a prize, bananas are for chumps. They’re cheap and common and considered the world’s most popular fruit. It hasn’t always been that way, at least in the United States where bananas are not grown commercially.

L. Frank Baum does not have any character, monkey or human, eating bananas in the original book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). At that time, bananas were only just starting to become popular and inexpensive enough to be accessible. Besides, Oz takes off from desolate Kansas. Baum’s book was influenced in part by the time he spent out west in the Dakota Territory in the 1880s and 90s. He lived through a serious drought and experienced firsthand some of the conflicts between debt burdened farmers and the eastern bankers and western railroad men—robber barons all—who made their lives impossible. Some scholars suggest that the Wizard of Oz is one big political allegory about the struggles of the little people against the money power.

Which brings us back to bananas. Railroad magnates and bankers didn’t just expand to the west, they also went south to Central America. In 1899, after a series of mergers of railroad, steamship, land, and telegraph companies, the United Fruit Company was born as a monopoly along the lines of Standard Oil or Carnegie Steel. They brought Americans a steady supply of cheap bananas, but often at a steep cost to the countries that produced them. Ruthless exploitation and political meddling on the part of the company contributed to government instability in a number of countries. Now we think of Banana Republic as a clothing store. It used to be a derogatory term for a country that was really little more than a dependency of a large corporation. UFCO eventually acquired such a negative reputation that, following a 1972 payola scandal in Honduras known as Bananagate, it shed its original name in favor of the cuter and sweeter Chiquita.

These days, Chiquita is a cartoon lady with a basket of bananas and other fruits on her head. In the past, she was actually a banana in a tropical style dress, frequently shown winking or posing seductively, ripe for the plucking. It’s a false suggestiveness. The bananas on large commercial plantations are actually virgin fruits. They have no seeds and are reproduced via parthenocarpy, or asexually. And however abundant the bananas in the hat, they are all depressingly the same. Endlessly propagated from the same genetic material, the type of banana cultivated for export is predictable enough to base a gigantic industry on. The fruits are picked green, packed in refrigerated containers, and chemically ripened at their destination. So Finley, the faithful little friend, can have his pile of bananas. And Oz, the pile of gold.

Extreme Couponing on the Prairie

Little House on the Prairie book - original cover

Little House on the Prairie book – original cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Laura Ingalls Wilder often wrote about stockpiling food in her childhood homes. From the big woods of Minnesota to the barren plains of North Dakota, making it on the frontier meant having enough food to last the winter. For the extreme couponers of TLC’s reality show, stockpiling runs year round. Revealing walls of paper towels in the garage, racks of soup cans in the kid’s closet, and tubs of toothpaste under the bed, featured couponers revel in their readiness not for a single winter, but for years to come. These underground bunkers of abundance bring out the armchair psychologist in all of us. Where couponers see thrift and prudence, the audience sees OCD and hoarding. To this, one woman on the show replied that hoarders’ piles have dust on them. And that makes all the difference.

It’s odd how much a frontier mentality pervades Extreme Couponing. In reality (the real reality), the very idea of couponing is about as far removed as possible from the hardship of breaking the plains. Exploiting coupons and in-store policies like doubling designed to lure customers in is only possible given the depth and breadth of the American consumer market. If everybody tried to use coupons extremely, they’d quickly be phased out. The system only works because most people, most of the time pay full price. It doesn’t feel like that between the shoppers’ rewards cards and daily specials but we all know that these are just loss leaders. Those who manage to really game the system do so by virtue of heroic effort. They forage for coupons in dumpsters, burn the midnight oil strategizing over their spreadsheets, and wrangle herds of carts through parking lots and grocery aisles.

The extreme couponers present themselves as individualists making it on their own on the harsh plains of post-recession America. One of the plot points on every segment of the show is the moment when each woman—and the occasional man—explains why they turned to couponing. A job loss, unexpected pregnancy, or other family emergency often lurks in the background. Once the system failed them, they were forced to set out on their own and figure out how to feed a family on next to nothing. A few even supplement their couponing habit with deer hunting and gardening. Most, though, live nowhere wilder than suburbia where all the housing looks depressingly the same and the appeal of turning the basement into a personal mini-mart seems sadly universal.

Although one mother on the show tells her children that “free always tastes better,” one wonders. As the narrator helpfully points out in another segment, coupons are never for fresh produce and rarely for meat or dairy. Just as the Great Plains were much less fertile than land speculators claimed they were, coupons are generally for foods much less healthful than their makers would have us believe. The free land that tempted Charles Ingalls ever westward rarely paid off for him. Homesteading  frequently reduced the family to near desperation and even starvation. Yet the enduring appeal of the stories always allows us to overlook the failures and focus on the sincerity, ingenuity and pluck of the characters. The tale of how the west was really won is much grimmer, involving more than a few corrupt deals between banks, railroads, and politicians and a series of violent conflicts that reduced the original inhabitants of the Plains to miserable poverty and subjugation. The Great Recession of the past few years echoes some of these themes. Regardless of the causes, it also led to many families finding themselves on a new frontier where fending for themselves was the only option. This very American response rests on our belief that success is just around the corner, or perhaps over the next horizon. Until then, it’s best to stockpile food in the basement. As the Ingalls learned the hard way, the winter is somtimes longer than we expect.

Of Twain and Twinkies

American writer Mark Twain (1835-1910) in 1909

American writer Mark Twain (1835-1910) in 1909 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark Twain and the Twinkie have something in common: reports of their deaths have been exaggerated. Mr. Twain lived through two premature death notices, in 1897 and again in 1907, before finally giving in to the real thing in 1910. The Twinkie was pronounced dead for the first time on November 21, 2012 when a judge declared Hostess bankrupt and U.S. production shut down. This set off the Ebay barometer of any consumer good’s actual value. Twinkie prices soared to the six figures and suddenly it seemed obvious to all that killing off the cream filled cake was bad business. Now, two investment firms have bought the bankrupt company. Twinkies have pulled a Lazarus.

What would Mr. Twain say? He once remarked that “the only distinguishing characteristic of the American character I’ve been able to discover is a fondness for ice water.” Perhaps he’d have reconsidered had he lived during the age of plastic packed snack cakes. But he didn’t. As Andrew Beahrs has revealed, Twain was a literary locavore. Like most Americans of his day, he enjoyed regional dishes based on local ingredients. Twain traveled a lot and wrote a lot and when in one place put his longing for the foods of other places into words: Philadelphia style terrapin (that’d be turtle); Hawaiian flying fish; San Francisco oysters; Illinois prairie hen. These days Americans are more likely to yearn for ethnically specific foods from their immigrant ancestors than they are for dishes based on local wildlife.

What the Twinkie’s dance with death revealed was a common nostalgia for that truly American great uniter: the junk food of our youths. When word is that sugar is the new tobacco all the tears shed for the Twinkie seem a little odd. Nostalgia though is about the longed for past—back when that Twinkie in your lunch box didn’t come wrapped in any complexes. Now we all know to be careful what we wish for. This accounts for the artisanal Twinkie at Brooklyn bakeries and the DIY Twinkie for creative cooks. Both let you have your snack cake and eat it, too. Mark Twain had a more serious problem when he longed for that prairie hen. By the time of his death, their nesting grounds had been nearly all plowed under to make way for amber waves of grain. In the heartland, prairie hens have nearly gone the way of the dodo bird. If it’s any comfort, the West Michigan Whitecaps baseball team plans to introduce a new regional food at their ballpark this spring: the Twinkie Dog. Yes, a Twinkie split down the middle will serve as a bun for the hot dog. One wonders if this was what Twain meant when he remarked that Americans “are called the nation of inventors.” The Twinkie is dead; long live the Twinkie.

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