Commentary: Thoughts on ‘modern food’
By Justin Isherwood
Modern diets, which is to say industrial diets, are fueled by a food delivery system that puts the world’s food spectrum and production at our doorsteps. To recall in my childhood there was no such thing as that lettuce salad from mid-October to late March. At some point in the new spring our mother would begin to bring to the table a new spring assortment of green weedy leaves; dandelion, lambs-quarter and watercress were obvious, coltsfoot and nettles less obvious. Dandelion greens were pretty good as sandwich greens if they tend to bitter quickly that mayonnaise could only modify.
Our father, with a food consciousness a generation older, was not a willing subject to salads as they grew in popularity. He characterized salads as “silage” and “cattle fodder.” Our dad held a species prejudice, he was a meat and potatoes carnivore, and proud of that fact. His status as an apex carnivore was ordained by God and human superiority. When visiting some of our sophisticated urban kin where meatless, potato-less meals were “normal” and duly championed as healthy, gave the impression he had to disinfect his tongue after eating such an unnatural way, and to his mind un-American diet.
I was in high school when our mother, she ever-faithful to the Extension bulletins and follower of consumer consensus presented in Better Homes and Gardens, began to include iceberg lettuce at the family meals. Strange it was to have lettuce in the winter in place of cabbage, sauerkraut, canned spinach. Salad dressing itself was a new element, when she served a salad at harvest dinners where there were older neighboring farmers, they didn’t know what to make of salad and salad dressing. As a matter of record, salad and salad dressing appeared on the farmhouse table a decade before pizza. Our father eventually became a salad eater himself in part because of the early on-set of heart disease, in part our mom’s insistence, if always a little grudgingly as salads never outgrew the infamy of “cattle fodder.” He did ritualize oatmeal at every breakfast, by his notation “good horse feed”. His one allowance for the apex carnivore diet was to eat like a work horse, meaning the oats. To suspect a certain Scots prejudice may have infected his sentiment.
Our dad never did eat pizza. A solid Midwesterner he distrusted seafood except for canned oysters. His favorite meal was a plateful of mashed potatoes with a slab of roast beef, the assembly covered over with gravy sufficient to float a wood-hulled bass boat. Being my father’s child I still believe the saving grace of any meal is the amplitude and frequency of the gravy.
Our mother, whether out of desperation or art, did feed the potato shed’s crew with heaps of boiled white potatoes anointed by a cauldron’s worth of milk gravy rendered soulfully savorous by garlic the size of a cucumber. The harvest table had two basic tenets; the first is sheer volume, as any Rock Band can attest, the other is that perky saveur, from the French meaning less the flavor as the spell. Onions the most obvious option, garlic that other elementary particle, to add pepper, if for the farmhouse chicken broth was the secret weapon. No actual chicken being necessary. Here then was the humble potato, provided in heaps and moraines brought to the table steaming in ample quantities with butter flowing like lava down the sides of the serving bowl.
This was the age of the burlap hundred pound sacks, hand-sewn, and a potato crew worth 8000 calories each per day. The task was for them to walk away jubilant from a table filled with boiled potatoes, a plenitude of gravy, emboldened by hard porn garlic. It was simple, it was cheap, it was filling.
I come to food as that innocent farmhouse child. When I go to the grocery store it is as a pilgrim, modern food is a museum experience same as the Guggenheim. The offerings of the modern “food-liner” amaze me. Never mind they are not called food-liners any more because even that measure is not descriptive enough of the variety and extent of the modern food spectrum. A food supply that rarely sees any of our food choices out of season. I began eating sweet corn this summer sometime in early June, it’s source was Mexico. I feel distinctly sinful because corn on the cob is for me a near sexual experience. Raised Methodist, the casual sensual elements of life were denied as a matter of faith: coffee, wine, beer, single malt, dancing, kissing other than fossilized aunts. The whole point of this Methodist approach is to raise up carnal pleasure to the point of gnawing ache. This, revealed, was the Methodist systematic approach to life, sex and dietary option. The one real carnal event we could participate in came when some neighbor’s sweet corn field is known to be more advanced in maturity than your field. Being a carnal event, you wait until dark. Some hushed gibbonous moon, some July night. And a quick Viking/ Iroquois raid on the dark side of the field for the fresh scalp of new corn. That corn had as a result a saveur, again as the French intended. It was not only good eating, it was experience. Next on my list was kissing a real girl.
My hope for retailers is they will someday establish a field of sweet corn or its facsimile near the parking lot of the grocery store and for a substantial fee let patrons collect their sweet corn after dark. The field will be protected by electric fencing and several loose large dogs. Despite the corn is paid for, the customers will be required to “steal” the corn, after dark, better yet in the rain. Ideally this would be a buck-naked experience. I think Whole Foods will be up to this, if Roundy’s might have some corporate reticence.
The sheer availability and amplitude of our modern well-traveled diet sometimes bothers me. I’m not sure why. Maybe because year-round asparagus seems unnatural, and to know that asparagus has more air miles on it than President Trump’s lawyer. It is this same long delivery chain that brings cherries and strawberries to Central Wisconsin in January. Same for those fresh grapes that are always available. As the child of the farmhouse I believed the root cellar was a Biblical commandment same as Thou shalt not kill. Another commandment was the potato cellar. It is said the average American household only has enough food on hand for two days. My mama’s house could have fed Grant’s Vicksburg siege through the winter without resupply.
Funny how you feel about a house, a farmhouse, when it can feed you through the winter, without resupply.