The detrimental effect on the dairy industry of lockdowns state governments have instituted in reaction to the coronavirus could have long term consequences, tipping the balance abruptly toward greater production of plant derived milks, butters, and cheeses. Traditional dairy has been losing market share to plant derived dairy for decades, with losses getting larger especially in the past decade. Now loss of revenue due to coronavirus lockdowns of schools and restaurants could mean bankruptcy for many dairy farms and a long term shift toward lower production as traditional dairy transforms into a lesser role.
There will no doubt always be demand for traditional dairy products, but if supermarket shelf space is an indicator of what consumers want, then plant derived milks have taken the largest chunk of shelf space away from traditional dairy, while butters, and particularly cheeses have been less competitive. The consumption of animal milk products has always been a peculiarly human practice. The desire for milk and associated products is so great that people will go to great lengths to produce and consume ersatz milk derived from nuts and grains. It is beyond the scope of this article to investigate why that is; it is enough merely to point out that consumption of milk fulfills for many people a deep-seated need, a need met for all other mammals in infancy, and then forgotten.
Different brands of oat milk available in a German organic supermarket in September 2015. Photo by Fretdf.
“Milk. n.s. [meelc, Saxon; melck, Dutch.] 1. The liquor with which animals feed their young from the breast. 2. Emulsion made by contusion of seeds.”
— fromA Dictionary of the English Languageby Samuel Johnson.
It follows then that animal milk production for human consumption is an artificial activity, consequently involving some pain and suffering by the animals, both mothers and their artificially weaned young. We have done these things for so long, for centuries going back ten thousand years or more to the beginning of agriculture, that we think the activities are natural. They are not. The closest parallel in the rest of the animal kingdom can be seen with how ants tend to aphids in order to secure for themselves the aphids’ honeydew secretions. Those secretions are not intended for consumption by the aphids’ young, however, but are merely a byproduct of their ingestion of plant juices. The relationship is closer – but not entirely the same – as our relationship to honey bees than it is to our relationship with dairy animals. The relationship we have with dairy animals is mere exploitation, closer to that of vampire bats with their prey, or to bloodsucking insects with their victims, or even to a virus with its host.
Like everything else in our culture, food has gender associations. Steak is masculine, and salad is feminine. That’s a gross generalization, of course, but one that is valid enough for advertisers and marketers to recognize and exploit. The television commercials for Arby’s restaurants are an obvious example, wherein a narrator announces in his sonorous baritone that Arby’s has “the meats.” It’s not easy to imagine a female narrator making the same pronouncement.
Marketing campaigns and the tactics advertisers deploy in them are a window into a culture’s true underlying motivations, into its id, because advertisers understand the greater value for them and their clients of appealing to emotion over reason. They don’t create cultural stereotypes; they only exploit them. What follows is a short list, by no means comprehensive, of the preferred foods of men and women as advertisers see them.
For men – steak, hamburgers, pizza, beer, hot peppers, sausages, peanuts, fried chicken, barbecue, chili, chips, liquor, bacon, salami, shepherd’s pie, the keto diet (when employed as a scientific-sounding excuse for eating more meat).
Michelle Obama serving food on March 5, 2009 at Miriam’s Kitchen, a local non-profit organization that provides healthy, nutritious meals to the homeless in Washington, D.C.. White House photo by Joyce Boghosian.
For women – salads, cupcakes, chocolate, wine, baked chicken, vegetarian lasagna, quiche, souffle, casseroles, soups, cottage cheese.
What a lot of nonsense! It would be easy to blame advertisers for gender prejudices toward food if it weren’t for the reality that they only exploit and reinforce the prejudices already held by their target audiences. Having enough quality food to eat should be the first priority for people of any gender. Of the two stereotyped cuisines, however, the one supposedly preferred by men is overall unhealthier for the eaters and for the planet. Maybe leave the testosterone aside and make room on the plate for mushroom risotto, fruit salad, and an effort to help make the world a better place.
“It ill becomes us to invoke in our daily prayers the blessings of God, the Compassionate, if we in turn will not practice elementary compassion towards our fellow creatures.”
— Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
Anyone who has ever been a vegetarian or vegan even for a short time has probably at some point encountered hostility from a meat eater, perhaps on several occasions from many different people. The experience can be baffling, particularly if the vegetarian or vegan does not make a big show of their practices. Self-righteous and preachy behavior can be annoying, certainly, but even when a vegetarian or vegan abstains from being a smug boor, some meat eaters will attack them as if they had been. A couple of recent news items help illustrate the innate hostility some people harbor for those who don’t adhere to mainstream dietary practices, even though it’s no one’s business but their own and the majority of them do not go out of their way to bother anyone.
Arby’s, an American fast food chain specializing in roast beef sandwiches, has come out with turkey meat processed to look like a bloated carrot, and in London two men have been found guilty of disorderly behavior after they ate raw squirrels in front of a vegan food stand. The actions of both Arby’s and the London squirrel eaters are obvious attempts to troll vegetarians and vegans, and their reasons for doing so say more about their own stunted mentality than anything else. Arby’s has for some time used an advertising slogan which proudly declares their enthusiasm for meat, and plenty of it. It is a fair guess that even if the political culture of Arby’s management is not necessarily right wing, they do assess their customer base as right wing, and trolling the perceived political correctness of their fast food competitors who have lately been offering vegetarian menu options is a good way to appeal to them.
Marzipan carrots for carrot cake. Marzipan consists primarily of almond paste and sugar or honey, and vegetarians would partake of it, though if honey were in it, vegans would not. Photo by SKopp.
Like everything else in our society, there is a political division in people’s dietary choices. Vegetarians and vegans are mostly liberals. Other liberals who are meat eaters are more likely to react to alternative diets with indifference or polite curiosity. At any rate, most of them do not perceive vegetarians and vegans as threats. Not so political conservatives, particularly those with authoritarian leanings. The difference is so striking that it can almost be used as a reliable indicator of political beliefs: hostility to diets at variance with the mainstream is a good clue that a person might be right wing. Often these people will appoint themselves to keep an eye on vegetarians and vegans for backsliding, no matter how innocuous their target is about minding their own business and not actively posing a threat to them. If threats are not real, they will be imagined! We have met the enemy, and it is Them, the Others!
Nothing delights these self-appointed guardians of imagined societal standards more than catching a vegetarian or worse, a vegan (and therefore probably a liberal!) in an act of perceived hypocrisy, because then they can denounce the entire belief system and not be bothered anymore by any of its implications, such as cruelty to animals or environmental degradation. A problem ignored is a problem solved! Meat eaters who worry about the perceived sanctimonious behavior of non-meat eaters occasionally like to bring up the supposed fact of Adolf Hitler’s vegetarianism, as if the actions and beliefs of one ogre tarnish all vegetarians. That is like suggesting the beliefs and actions of all Christians are suspect simply because some white evangelical Christian leaders are terrible human beings.
In this Merrie Melodies cartoon from 1947, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd are at odds with each other as always, and the cartoon finishes with action that for its time was considered normal.
It is interesting to note that in dealing with hostility from some meat eaters, non-meat eaters discover they can assuage the unease of their interrogators when they ask about the reasons for their choice by stressing the healthful benefits over the other issues. That approach is not entirely dishonest, since there are real benefits for human health in foregoing or at least restricting meat eating. The American diet of meat with nearly every meal is not the most healthful, nor is it the historical norm. Most Americans could stand to reduce their consumption of meat, and in doing so they would benefit their own health as well the health of the environment and the quality of life for billions of animals. It is interesting and sad to note that of the three primary benefits of an alternative diet, only the first sets well with right wing authoritarians, and only on account of selfish reasoning.
And that is by no means a comprehensive list of all the chemicals that may be found in hamburgers made from ground beef produced from factory farmed cattle and sold at grocery stores nationwide. Just about everything we eat can be made to sound pretty scary when it’s broken down like this into terms only chemists might understand.
Critics of the Impossible Burger, a substitute for hamburger that contains no meat, have been using the tactic of decrying the unpronounceable ingredients in its production as well as tacking on the argument that an Impossible Burger is no healthier than a regular burger. The Impossible Burger is necessarily highly processed in order to imitate ground beef in flavor, texture, and the many other characteristics that signify to our bodies and brains that we are eating meat. The goal is to offer meat eaters an alternative to factory farmed beef which contains residues of hormones, antibiotics, herbicides and pesticides, heavy metals, disinfectants, and which is wrought at the cost of enormous animal suffering and the dehumanization of people working the production line.
Burgers and hotdogs cooking on a charcoal barbecue grill. Photo by Luke.
The argument that the Impossible Burger is not a health food is a straw man, set up not by the makers of the product but by critics so that they can knock it down, and by extension get people to dismiss the whole crazy idea of a meat alternative. Critics intentionally ignore that Impossible Foods never claimed its burgers were a health food, and that if consumers are seeking healthy dietary options, perhaps hamburgers should not be high on their list. Vegetarian options have always been synonymous with health food, and whether that was ever entirely true was besides the point since it was the perception people had that vegetarian food was healthier food. The Impossible Burger is a vegetarian meat alternative, hence it’s supposed to be healthier than a regular hamburger, right?
The point again of producing a meat alternative that appeals to meat eaters is to wean them away from supporting the factory farming of animals, with its disastrous consequences for the animals, the environment, and ultimately for the people producing and consuming the meat. The beef industry has a powerful lobbying influence on government, and it has the means and the ability to employ mouthpieces everywhere who can disguise their links to the industry. It’s still early in the development of competition between the beef industry – and agribusiness as a whole – and producers of meat alternatives, but perhaps the meat producers see down the road to where consumer preferences shift away from them in a big way as buying satisfying meat alternatives becomes easier and cheaper.
Oingo Boingo performing “Weird Science”, with songwriter and film composer Danny Elfman singing lead.
It’s wise to read labels and to be skeptical of genetically engineered foods, keeping in mind not all of them are inherently as harmful as Roundup Ready crops, which introduce herbicide residue throughout the food supply. Making informed decisions requires at least a modicum of research rather than merely listening to the loudest voices in print, on the air, or on the internet. It’s also prudent to look ahead and not stay stuck in old ways of doing things when newer, better alternatives present themselves. Ask the makers of BlackBerry smartphones, and any of the other true believers in the status quo throughout history as changes swirled around them. This Memorial Day weekend, if you’re able to grill some tasty, ethically produced meat substitutes then that’s great, and since the holiday cookouts will most likely be hot and thirsty occasions, you may like to accompany your meal with a glass of cool, refreshing dihydrogen monoxide, otherwise known as water.
Vegetarian or vegan substitutes for meat are not necessarily aimed at people who don’t eat meat, but rather at those who do, because by getting those people to eat less meat the environment will benefit, the animals being raised for meat will certainly benefit, and the meat eaters themselves will be healthier. The problem has been in developing a suitable substitute for meat at a reasonable cost and without creating a Frankenmeat with all sorts of nightmarish unintended consequences. Reading the reviews coming from the latest Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, it appears the company founded by Stanford University biochemistry professor Patrick O. Brown, Impossible Foods Inc., has gotten the formula right with the latest iteration of their Impossible Burger.
Other meat substitutes, such as the Boca Burger, have been geared toward vegetarians who wanted to retain some of the meat eating experience, and they were and are pathetic imitations. Attending a backyard cookout where everyone else was eating real beef burgers and then making do oneself with a Boca Burger or equivalent was an experience similar to being relegated to the kids’ table, with miniature versions of the adults’ dinnerware. Why bother? There are a multitude of vegetarian and vegan recipes available for real dishes, making it unnecessary to have to settle for dry, grasping imitations of what the grown-ups are eating.
The vegan Amy Burger at Amy’s Drive-Thru in Rohnert Park, California. Photo by Tony Webster. Amy’s Kitchen started in 1987 making organic and vegetarian frozen and convenience foods for sale in supermarkets around the country, and in 2105 opened the Rohnert Park restaurant, their first.
The point of the Impossible Burger is not to satisfy vegetarians or vegans who miss eating meat, but to replace meat in the much larger percentage of the population who are committed carnivores. Those people might have tried one of the previous meat substitutes out of curiosity, and they were right to scorn them as alternatives they could never embrace and still satisfy their nutritional and taste requirements for meat as well as a more nebulous, deep psychological need satisfied by eating meat. Professor Brown and his Impossible Foods colleagues intend their meat substitute to fulfill all those needs, and apparently they are well on their way to succeeding.
Replacing meat in the diet of the world’s people is enormously important, and probably the biggest single step toward ameliorating climate change other than reducing fossil fuel use, which would incidentally also be a byproduct of reducing livestock farming. Animal suffering would also be greatly relieved, because the situation now is horrific and getting worse as Americans and other Western peoples eat meat at least once a day, and in some places for every meal, and hundreds of millions people more in China and India aspire to the same relatively affluent lifestyles of Westerners. Factory farming of animals will become a larger industry still as the demand for meat goes up worldwide.
A scene from the 2002 film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, directed by Joel Zwick and written by Nia Vardalos, who also portrays the bride, with John Corbett as the groom. Eating meat is such an ingrained part of personal identity and social custom that most people give it little thought. Anyone who has ever been vegetarian or vegan, however, soon becomes aware of how others react to that news with bafflement or acceptance or, oddly, hostility, because refusal to eat meat is to such people a repudiation of their hospitality and identity, and possibly an indictment of their morality if the chief reason for not eating meat is because of animal suffering or the environment. It’s interesting that often the best way to smooth the ruffled feathers of meat eaters upset over learning of a vegetarian or vegan in their midst is to tout the health benefits of giving up meat, a reason that will usually gain their understanding and assent.
Consumers want more meat even though it’s not healthy for them. People will also eat more sugar than is good for them if they have the money and the opportunity. These are desires hard wired into human beings, and while some people can overcome them through will power however gained, most cannot, or even have a desire to try. For those people, the majority, give them a meat substitute at a comparable price to real meat, and satisfy their other needs for taste and nutrition and the most difficult need of all, but probably the most crucial, the carnivorous kernel in the brain that is the cause of all the social customs around eating meat or not eating meat, give those people that and the climate and the environment will be better for it, the animals all around the earth will be better for it, and those meat eaters themselves will be better for it, whether they understand and acknowledge it or not.
Since 1968, when the New England Journal of Medicine editors precipitously and unfairly saddled adverse reactions of some people to Monosodium glutamate (MSG) with the name Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG has been stigmatized as a food additive that is apart from and somehow unhealthier than other food additives. The first person to report symptoms to the Journal was a Chinese-American doctor, Robert Ho Man Kwok, who complained of numbness at the back of his neck, general weakness, and heart palpitations after eating at a Chinese restaurant. On this slim testimony and that of several others, the Journal coined the phrase Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.
A type of kelp known as Dasima in Korea, and Kombu in Japan, is a key ingredient in Dashi, a broth from which Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda identified the quality of umami in 1908 that led him to the discovery and production of MSG. Photo by freddy an.
Use of MSG is not limited to Chinese cookery, however, and it can be found in many processed American foods such as Doritos, which millions of Americans appear to consume regularly without complaint. It would be interesting to see if more people would attest to adverse reactions to eating Doritos if they were made aware the product contained MSG. It is listed among the ingredients on the package, and using its most recognizable name, too, rather than one of the many names that can hide its presence, such as autolyzed yeast.
This is not to say no one can have a real adverse or allergic reaction to MSG. But for just about any ingredient in food there are some people who react badly to ingesting it. The main thing to remember is that in scientific studies of MSG, as opposed to the purely anecdotal stories that appeared to satisfy the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968, no one has found that MSG is any more dangerous than any of a multitude of other food additives. If it were as dangerous as some people appear to believe it is, not only would the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) likely take it off its generally recognized as safe (GRAS) list, but thousands or even millions of Asians and Asian-Americans would be suffering every day from its effects.
Yet Asian chefs and home cooks continue to add MSG to their meals. They are either perverse in their determination to eat the possibly unwholesome ingredient, or they are unconvinced by the nearly hysterical denunciations of it coming from some people in North America and Europe. Given the ubiquity of MSG in highly processed foods that Americans eat and enjoy every day, any real or imagined adverse reaction to it could just as easily be called American Junk Food Syndrome. There is already one name for that, which is Obesity. American food processors discovered around the time of World War II that MSG was a useful flavor booster for otherwise bland or even flavorless foods like canned vegetables and corn snacks. MSG by itself does not encourage obesity, but its overuse in helping to make some rather unpalatable and non nutritious foods delicious does contribute to obesity.
Shavings of Katsuobushi, a preserved and fermented skipjack tuna used in Dashi, the umami broth from which Professor Ikeda first isolated MSG. Photo by Sakurai Midori.
At the same time as food scientists and agribusinesses were discovering how to make cheaply made, highly profitable junk food flavorful, they were also inadvertently taking the flavor out of healthful foods by manipulating them to improve qualities like pest resistance, standing up to shipping, or tolerating being confined on factory farms, all at the expense of flavor and nutrition. Those practices yielded bland, watery supermarket produce, and meats needing seasoning and breading and all sorts of treatments in order to taste like much of anything. It’s not all that mysterious why shoppers, particularly poor ones who can’t afford to seek out higher quality ingredients, turn to highly processed, highly flavorful foods, even at the cost of poor nutrition and cumulative destructive effects on their health.
In this country, people like to blame the victim. After all, free enterprise and free choice means people don’t have to eat junk, doesn’t it? It’s also useful to have an Other to blame, as in Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. The sensible thing would be to teach children in schools about moderation in all things, including sprinkling additives on their food. A little bit of MSG on already healthful food gives an umami flavor boost and has not been shown to do harm to the great majority of people who eat it that way. MSG put on every unwholesome, processed food cannot be healthy since the bad effects of poor quality food combine with excessive amounts of this otherwise relatively harmless additive. Enormous amounts of any additive are probably not healthy, not just MSG. School administrators could stress in the curriculum healthful eating instead of allowing vending machines full of snacks, sodas, and sugary fruit drinks in the hallways. In the case of young people at least, free enterprise and free choice should take a back seat to learning healthy habits.
The Three Sisters of Native American agriculture are corn, beans, and squash, grown together where they can complement each other and, when eaten together such as in succotash, they can complement each other nutritionally. The Three Sisters get on so well together that it’s tempting to ascribe their harmonious relationship to one of the many Native American legends describing it, ignoring the thousands of years of human trial and error, experimentation, and opportunistic capitalization on circumstance that played into the development of the relationship.
Corn provides a tall stalk for the bean vines to climb upon, and her deep roots help stabilize the soil and pull up nutrients from deep down. Beans fix nitrogen from the air, providing fertilizer for herself and her two sisters. Squash sprawls on the ground where her large, prickly leaves keep away some pests and provide a living mulch for her sisters, keeping the soil moist and inhibiting weeds.
Gateway image of the Three Sisters of Native American agriculture: corn, beans, and squash at Little Turtle Waterway in Logansport, Indiana. Photo by Chris Light.
The nutrients available from all three plants provide most of what a person needs. Add to that the capacity for all three to keep dried in storage through the winter, and it’s easy to understand how Native Americans in North America adopted them as the foundation of their diet. This Thanksgiving, along with hearing or reading some entertaining and philosophically informative legends about the Three Sisters, there can be great enjoyment in tasting one of the many recipes for succotash as part of the holiday dinner.
“Single Girl, Married Girl”, an Americana song from the Carter Family catalog, sung by The Haden Triplets on their eponymous 2014 album, produced by Ry Cooder. The song, the singers, and the producer all share deep roots in American music. For more of The Haden Triplets, view their NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert, where they lead off a four song set with “Single Girl, Married Girl”.
Most succotash (derived from a Native American word, like numerous others) consists of a base of corn and beans, leaving out the squash, but for autumn dining, and especially for Thanksgiving with its reminders of the autumn harvest and the debt of European immigrants to Native Americans, adding squash to a succotash recipe can only improve it for the season. The squash and its seeds will add many of the benefits a person could get from eating turkey, another native of North America, including tryptophan, the chemical many believe is responsible for a satisfied diner’s desire to relax on a couch after Thanksgiving dinner, as well as lazily escaping from kitchen cleanup duty.
The federal government sends out mixed signals about dietary health by promoting the establishment of fast food restaurants in poor city neighborhoods on the one hand, and then on the other hand advocating healthier eating by limiting consumption of fast food. It boosts the use of cheese in fast food items, and then suggests consumers curtail their dairy consumption. It works hand in glove with ranchers in the beef industry by leasing grazing rights to federal lands at minimal cost, and then warns the public off eating too much red meat. That’s a lot of taxpayers’ money wasted on bureaucrats working at cross purposes with each other.
The Dane County Farmers’ Market in September 2007 on the grounds of the state capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. It is the largest producers-only farmers’ market in the nation. Photo by Kznf.
People are so inured to confusing messages about what’s healthy to eat and what isn’t that most of them pay little mind to medical experts and bureaucrats, or rather they take their advice with a grain of salt, and that would be in the form of sea salt or Himalayan salt for foodie elites, and regular old table salt for everybody else. Like everything else in America over the past thirty or forty years, food culture has split into two halves, something akin to the haves and have nots. There are the foodie elites of the professional and upper classes, and then there is everybody else, from the lower middle class which is frantically scrabbling to keep from sliding down into the working class, which is itself struggling to stay one step ahead of poverty.
Americans can make a quick, cheap meal of sorts from a one or two dollar box of macaroni and cheese mix. For some, meals like that are their only option. It’s disgraceful that people of limited means should have to bear the disdain of people with nearly limitless means because their diet is based on calorie value per dollar over nutritional value. The poor and the economically struggling don’t have the luxury of being absolutely sure of their next meal. As to how the well off view their meals, anyone who has ever worked as a table busser or as one of the waitstaff in a high end restaurant can attest to the tremendous amount of food wasted by the patrons, even though they may be spending for one meal what a working class person can expect to earn in a day. The upper classes have that luxury because they have the security of knowing there’s more where that came from.
Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca as The Hickenloopers, Charlie and Doris, visit a health food restaurant in a skit fromYour Show of Shows, with appearances by Howard Morris as another customer and Carl Reiner as a waiter.
Unlikely as it seems, the fast food restaurants scorned by foodie elites as obesity enablers for the great unwashed may hold the key to turning things around for people who can’t afford to buy groceries at Whole Foods, aka Whole Paycheck. Taking their cue to keep promotions of healthier options low key so as not to arouse the suspicions of poorer customers whose purchases are based on calorie value per dollar, yet feeling increased pressure from public health groups to offer healthier foods, fast food restaurants increasingly change ingredients and practices in a balancing act to satisfy both constituencies. No one will ever claim that a cheeseburger and fries are healthier than a homemade meal of vegetables from a farmers’ market, but given the realities of human psychology and the country’s current economic conditions, demonizing those who choose to eat the former more often than the latter is ultimately unhelpful in lessening the obesity epidemic, while reinforcing the widening economic inequality that is driving it.
“The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.” — M.F.K. Fischer (1908-1992)
Supermarkets are often not the most appealing places, despite the efforts of the owners to entice buying by using attractive layouts and presentations, but the one biggest sales pitch they can offer is a byproduct of their work, and it is the alluring smells emanating from the bakery section, early in the morning especially. It is an amazing occurrence that in an otherwise stale, uninteresting place, the aroma of bread baking should catch our noses and take us to a comforting place of memory or imagination and draw us toward it, if not to buy, to at least inquire of the baker what is in the oven at the moment that is wafting toward us such heavenly smells.
Bread-Baking, an 1895 painting by Charlotte Mannheimer (1866-1934).
The sense of smell is more closely and directly tied to the sense of taste and of memory than are the senses of vision, hearing, or touch, and that is understandable when we consider that it is a chemical sense which cuts to the essence of things quickly. No one, after all, has suffered intestinal distress from eating something merely because it looked unappetizing. Should I eat this? It looks okay and doesn’t feel strange other than being a bit soft, and of course it doesn’t sound like anything, but it smells a little off. No, I will not eat it. Useful information to have before putting the substance in one’s mouth and possibly ingesting something sickening. It’s why smell is tied so closely to taste that people who have lost the sense of smell, as can happen in old age, also lose the sense of taste, and therefore appetite.
Why smell and memory should be linked tightly together is more of a mystery. An American who has visited France and smelled the aroma of freshly baked baguettes might have memories of that visit elicited unbidden simply by walking past an excellent bakery in this country early in the morning as various breads are baking in the shop. The nose will pick out the one particular smell and, with its direct link to memory, evoke that long ago trip anew. What evolutionary purpose could that serve? It perhaps rings back to a time when we weren’t the highly visual creatures we are now, and instead relied on smell to tell us whether something we were encountering currently had positive or negative connotations in our memory.
Freshly baked bread for sale at Granville Island Markets in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Photo by Schellack.
It’s helpful to realize that the connection of the sense of smell with the brain takes place at the core level, whereas the sense of sight was layered onto the brain later in our development. That should also help explain why the inextricable connection between smell and memory often eludes our ability to describe it in language, a much later cognitive development even than sight. Smell, it seems, bypasses our more sophisticated powers and goes directly to our emotions, the core of our animal being that we share with millions of other creatures on Earth. When we smell good bread baking, we don’t need to intellectually analyze our reactions our wax poetic about it, describing the situation in a million flowery words, because our brains, nervous systems, and our entire bodies take care of telling us what we need to know. For many of us, our involuntary reactions of mouth watering and imagining of savory yellow butter melting into warm slices of bread will lead us into the shop to make a purchase, staving off for the day the hunger of the beast within us, and rewarding us with pleasant memories for days in the future when that heaven-sent smell wafts our way again.
Some of the processed food for sale at grocery stores and restaurants purports to be like home cooking, and other processed foods make a name for themselves by advertising their intention to go beyond what’s available from home cooking. The Doritos Locos Taco from the fast food restaurant Taco Bell, and the Double Down Chicken Sandwich from Kentucky Fried Chicken are advertised as so different and so unlike what home cooks could easily whip up that to get the full experience at a decent price consumers might as well visit the restaurants and order those items because it’s easier than trying to duplicate them at home.
This 1917 photograph depicts Mina Van Winkle, head of the Lecture Bureau of the U.S. Food Administration during World War I, explaining Victory gardening and food processing to support the war effort. Photo from the Library of Congress.
When processed food first became widely available to American consumers in the period between the two world wars, the aim of the purveyors was to assure consumers the products were as good as home made and perfectly safe. There was no specific attempt to manufacture exotic foodstuffs, though from the start convenience was a selling point. The trend continued after World War II, with refinements learned by manufacturers in producing canned foods like Spam on a massive scale for service members overseas. Food processors marketed TV dinners in the 1950s with assurances of quality and convenience, not with any idea that they were different or better than what a home cook could produce given the time and inclination.
World War II poster from the Office for Emergency Management of the Office of War Information.
It was in the post World War II years that fast food operations, some of them, like Kentucky Fried Chicken, with beginnings in the years before the war, really began taking off in popularity, expanding across the landscape along with the newly built interstate highway system. Their offerings were traditional, and like the processed convenience foods for sale at supermarkets they mainly stressed the convenience of their food and that it was as good as homemade. It was for pricier restaurants to claim their food was better and fancier than homemade. Consumers visiting fast food establishments mainly wanted assurance the food was cheap, fast, safe, and of a quality on a par with homemade.
World War II poster from the Office for Emergency Management of the Office of War Information.
In the past 20 years all that has begun to change as consumers have drifted away from cooking the majority of their meals from scratch themselves to either resorting to convenience foods from the supermarket or eating out. The emphasis has changed in the marketing of supermarket convenience foods and fast food restaurant offerings from nearly apologetic claims that they are as good as homemade to stating that they are beyond that and are now in varying degrees gourmet, healthy, exotic, and even comparable with fancy restaurant food at half the price. Their claims are not all hyperbole, and for the most part a well-made TV dinner of today tastes better and is a better value than a comparable TV dinner of 30 or 40 years ago. Food scientists and technologists have indeed done wonders.
A typical TV dinner of the post World War II era. Photo provided by Smile Lee.
The question remains, however, whether consumers are any better off or healthier for having largely abandoned home cooking in the first place. Yes, the taste and quality and variety of convenience foods from the supermarket and fast foods from inexpensive restaurants have never been better, but at the same time people have never been fatter, with all the health problems that come with being not just overweight, but obese. It seems there’s a hidden price to all the convenience and deliciousness whipped up by food scientists in the labs of giant food companies like Nestlé and Yum! Brands (owners of Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, among others). That’s something worth pondering the next time you’re shopping the frozen food aisle of the supermarket or cruising a commercial strip for a fast food outlet for your next meal – whether the exotic, fancy dishes they’re offering at low prices are really as good a value as they want them to appear to be, with their mile long list of indecipherable ingredients and unrealistically slight portion amounts, which make their salt, sugar, and fat percentages look more reasonable than they really are. No one but the rich can get away with eating fancy, rich foods every day, because they have the money for all the doctors and health spas it takes to balance out an indulgent lifestyle. They’re not eating the cheap, ersatz stuff anyway.