Monday, August 27, 2007

A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove

Laura Schenone's book is subtitled "A History of American Women Told Through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances", but one of the most interesting parts is when she compares the different contributions that men and women have made to food. Through the ages, cooking was done by women, and men pretty much stayed out of the kitchen area unless they were camping - hunting or fighting. Providing nutritious food from whatever was available was women's work, a daily chore as well as one of the few creative outlets available for them. However, this all changed in the mid-1800s, when fewer Americans had land to grow food or kitchen facilities to cook it, and the Civil War created a huge demand for field rations. At this point, there was lots of money to be made in producing food, and men joined the game eagerly. They started with canning vegetables, fruit, and meat, then moved on to canned milk ("No teats to pull, no hay to pitch, just punch a hole in the son of a --."), refrigerated meat, and infant formula.

"And so the industrial men proceeded forth. Theirs was a sort of creativity that America cherishes - a creativity that could be applied in a profitable way toward making products available to the masses. Here was a prototype for the democratizing forces of industry - more stuff for more people but of lower quality. ... It is fascinating to consider that men took over the foods and processes that women had originally invented for baking, butchering, dairying, and vegetable gardening. Whereas women had previously carried out these jobs for the intimate uses of family, tribe, and kin, men did so for profit. ...

In general, the male emphasis on commercial food was mass scale and uniformity, made possible by machinery. One batch is exactly the same as the previous. ... Quite to the contrary, the female emphasis on cooking and food preservation has always been dominated by the personal and the local. A woman cooks based on the individual quirks of what's in her pantry or garden at a given moment, food is flavored according to her own taste, and dinners according to her acumen or lack of skills in roasting, baking, and frying. Judgment, attention to detail, mood, and the number of children hanging on to one's legs all contribute to the unique results." (p. 192-3)

This starts to sound a lot like the current movements towards eating local or artisan foods, as fresh as possible, and celebrating the foods that are unique to a region.

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