Cuisine and Empire

Great episode of the podcast Econtalk featuring guest Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire, an instant purchase for me. Host Russ Roberts has a fascinating diversity of guests on his show, but always takes an interesting angle into the conversation, one that is driven a lot but not entirely by economics.

Some of my favorite moments from this episode. First, on the history of the potato, and just think about how many ideas are packed into just this short exchange.

Russ: And, just to stick with basics for a minute: At one point, quite surprising to me, quite late in the book, you mention the potato. I think of the potato as a very basic foodstuff. But you point out that the potato is a relatively late invention. Talk about its cultural significance and a little bit about its history. 
Guest: Well, the potato is one of a series of roots--roots in a culinary sense, that is, underground bits of plants that can be cooked into edible foods. They have--the roots have always been of less interest to civilized societies because they are so wet and heavy you cannot provision them [?] fit to use with roots. Now, the one exception or partial exception to this is the high Andes mountains where they did grow potatoes and use them from early on. But they developed an incredibly elaborate way of freeze drying them to make them light enough and storable enough to go into cities as well as combining them with maize, which by then was down there. So when the potato comes into Europe, it's an enormous cultural effort to integrate the potato into the European food system, because for anyone who lives in a settled society with cities, root-eating is a sign of basically being more like animals. Roots were animal food in Europe. And so basically the poor of Europe had to be bludgeoned into adopting the potato in the 17th and 18th century. 
Russ: It's a little hard to understand because I really love French fries, and it's hard to imagine how someone could resist this. But they didn't have French fries. Talk about what they had. 

Guest: Well, basically, fat is very expensive for most people. So French fries, until the 1960s, 1970s, well they weren't invented until the middle of the 19th century, late 19th century. But until the invention of frozen French fries in the 1960s and 1970s, French fries were for the elite. Only the richest people could afford the potatoes that were cooked in that much fat. And double-cooked in that fat--which is what you have to do for French fries. What you find in the 19th century, as fats become more available for a large bulk of the population is that potatoes become more acceptable. Because you can put butter on your boiled potatoes; you can layer potatoes with milk and cheese and make a gratin; you can bake them and add butter. And that fat makes them much, much more palatable. 

Russ: But the point you make in the book is that the potato that was first introduced--I think in the early 18th century-- 

Guest: Right. 

Russ: was bitter, and nothing like the Idaho baked potato that we might envision at a potato bar. 

Guest: No. I've been concentrating in talking to you on the cooking and processing side, but there was also this agricultural trick they had to pull off to turn a plant that lived 8,000, 10,000 feet in the Andes, where seasons are reversed from Northern Europe, into a plant that would grow successfully and be palatable in Europe and the United States. And that took 100 plus years. 

Russ: And that's true of a lot of the things that we eat, I assume. I assume that if we went back to the 15, 16, 1700s and looked at what they called a 'blank'--whatever blank is, we would find it almost unrecognizable and very unattractive. Is that fair? Or am I being too harsh? 

Guest: Yes. Very few fruits--there are a few: dates, grapes--are palatable [?] without breeding. But most fruits have been systematically bred over the centuries. Animals have been bred. Probably the only things that we regularly eat but taste as they would have done hundreds of years ago are fish of various kinds. But everything else is the result of human breeding. 

Russ: Yeah, the goal of fruit has been to make fruit more like an M&M, and it's working evidently. 

Guest: Exactly.

Many parallels to the invention and then diffusion of technology. First, it's available to just the aristocrats, wealthy, and/or elite. The cost of production comes down with scale, and then it's brought to the masses. Finally, the wealthy go in search of some other way to signal their status, to differentiate. It's one reason behind the rise of extravagant $250 prix fixe menus in which guests photograph each dish as if it were their newborn child.

Food has replaced music at the heart of the cultural conversation for so many, and I wonder if it's because food and dining still offer true scarcity whereas music is so freely available everywhere that it's become a poor signaling mechanism for status and taste. If you've eaten at Noma, you've had an experience a very tiny fraction of the world will be lucky enough to experience, whereas if you name any musical artist, I can likely find their music and be listening to it within a few mouse clicks. Legally, too, which removes even more of the cachet that came with illicit downloading, the thrill of being a digital bootlegger.

Once, it felt like watching music videos on MTV was a form of rebellion in plain sight. Nowadays, the channel doesn't play any music videos. Instead, we have dozens of food and cooking shows, even entire channels like The Food Network dedicated to the topic. Chefs have become elevated to the status of master craftsmen, with names that have risen above the status of their restaurants, and diners revere someone like Jiro of Jiro Dreams of Sushi fame the way a previous generation worshipped the guitar sound of a rock god like Jimi Hendrix.

The food scene today offers a seemingly never-ending supply of scarce experiences, ingredients, and dishes. Cronuts you have to wait in line for a few hours to get your hands on. Pop-up restaurants that serve only on a few nights a week for a few weeks, then disappear forever. Restaurants that you have to sacrifice a goat to just to get a reservation, and then they'll actually take that goat you killed and prepare your entire dinner from it, nose to tail. A white truffle add-on that tacks $80 on to a single piece of cured hamachi, and oh, the truffle is only available for four weeks a year and came over on a gondola from Alba, Italy, and the hamachi is one of the last of three members of its species so you know, you should probably try it before...oops, sorry, the chef says someone just ordered the last of it. Yep, it's that couple at the corner table, and that's the last plate that she's Instagramming right now.

It's not just the scarcity of the actual food that offers such signaling opportunities. You can generate your own scarcity just by having a broad palate. When it comes to dining, many people still have narrow bands of taste, so if you're from the Jonathan Gold school of adventurous dining, you can easily set yourself apart by ingesting something exotic, like tripe stew, or some part of an animal that most people didn't even know was edible and certainly wouldn't dream of consuming.

In more recent history, the tech world has spawned yet another branch of food religion with the invention of Soylent, representing the polar opposite of the foodie religion, with its reverence for organic ingredients, elaborate preparation, and theatrical plating. Soylent is the food for people who find cooking and eating to be a waste of time, a complex job in need of simplification. It is dining function over form, with Soylent promising to deliver an exact and efficient dose of the nutrition we need as humans. I love food and dining with others too much to ever be an acolyte of this school, but that it exists is proof enough of how broad and diverse the world of food has become.

In contrast, punk rock and other formerly edgy genres of music have been assimilated by the mainstream to such an extent that flying your freak flag is harder and harder through your musical tastes. Ironically loving Taylor Swift or pop music has somehow become more iconoclastic than listening to some indie band. That Apple has so dominated the act of musical consumption (through ubiquitous iPhone and iPods and white earbuds, TV commercials for said devices and the music services accessible through them, and the massively popular bands that play at their keynotes) has mainstreamed the very idea of listening to music.

Back to the Laudan episode of Econtalk. Here she is on how French high cuisine came to be the eponymous fine dining of the world. 

Russ: You are what you eat, I guess, is an appealing idea, and to some extent true. But maybe not to the extent they used to believe. So, we have the British having a big influence on world cuisine at the end of the 19th century. Somehow, French cuisine becomes the standard of sophistication and high dining. How did that happen? And it still persists, to some extent. It's lost some of its caché, I'd say in the last 50 years. But it still remains a standard of high dining. How did that come about and why was it important? 
Guest: I think it's first important to say it's French high cuisine, because the high cuisine of France that became the international standard was something that most French people had never seen and never ate. It did not come, swell up from the peasantry. There's a slightly complicated story about what happened around 1650 when you get a rapid political change and the establishment of, after the Peace of Westphalia, a series of nations in Europe, on supposedly equal terms, combined with a shift of the scientific revolution and the Protestant revolution. And in complicated ways these would act together to produce a new cuisine that the world had never seen before. It's a really striking example of radical and rapid culinary change. The old cuisines of spiced food that--ultimately stemming from Persia but that had really influenced China, dominated in the high cuisine of India, right across to Southern Europe, were displaced by this new Northern European cuisine. And the people who developed it in its most elaborate form, because they had the greatest resources--the richest courts--were the French. And they developed it really terribly rapidly between 1650 and 1700. And that's the point where diplomacy is become important because of this national state system. And the national state system needs something to use for diplomatic dinners, to demonstrate modernity, Europeanness against the Persian-type cuisines that existed before. And so French high cuisine becomes the cuisine of European diplomacy in the 18th century, and then of international diplomacy and the international elite in the 19th century. So that by 1880 you could go to Tokyo, you could go to Santiago de Chile, you could go to Sydney, you could go to San Francisco and the thing to be eating was, if you were really rich or you were really high in politics was high French cuisine.

I think French high cuisine is on the decline from its perch atop the world's dining hierarchy, at least among the most passionate U.S. based food lovers. Japanese cuisine is a strong competitor, and the overfishing of the world has added an element of barbarism but also scarcity to eating sushi that gives an extra thrill. That it is perceived as healthier than French high cuisine, with its butter-based sauces and rich, fatty cuts of meat, makes Japanese cuisine better-suited to carry the banner forward in this decade in which a healthy diet has become a high status problem. For a variety of reasons, at its high end sushi can also justify the nosebleed prices that people expect from high status symbols and pastimes.

In the first world, access to enough food to survive is no longer an issue, and so cooking has ascended into the realm of art. Some meals I've had in the past few years are as much performance and theater as they are a way of refueling. With our insatiable desire for narrative, we've enlisted a meal out as a story we first consume and then that we tell about ourselves.

Given America's relative youth as a nation, our national dining habits have always been a cultural battleground. The U.S. came about long after the age when food was a scarce commodity, so most of our wrestling with its meaning has been first around its symbolic value, and now more recently about how to optimize our relative consumption of different types of food like carbohydrates, fat, and protein.

If any food symbolizes American dining today, it's the hamburger. Laudan can take such a humble food item and connect it to forward and back through our nation's culinary history.

Guest: Well, if I may I'd like to back up a tiny bit about presidents serving French dinners, because the American presidency has had a terrible time deciding what to do at diplomatic dinners from the get-go. There were those, like Jefferson, who said we've got to be part of international culture as well as the economy, and we should go with high French cuisine. But there is also this extraordinarily strong republican--with a small 'r'--tradition in America that's part of what the Revolution is about. And the republican strain in American thought said very emphatically that, 'No, we do not want high French cuisine. We do not want aristocratic dining. That is not appropriate. And they looked back to the Roman republic and to the Dutch republic and to other republican movements in Europe and said, 'What we need is a decent cuisine for all citizens.' And that is very much the origin of Thanksgiving, which is not a fancy French dinner for diplomats but a dinner that essentially all Americans can afford and can cook, of American ingredients. It's a kind of striking symbol of the republican tradition exemplified in an American custom, and was deliberately designed to be so. But what happened--I mean the hamburger is just sort of amazing. People say, 'Well, the British had fish and chips.' Well, fish and chips don't cut it, because fish and chips are not this beef, bread, French fry phenomenon. And what Americans managed to do beginning with White Tower but pulled off triumphantly by McDonald's is to make the food of aspiration worldwide something that in America everybody can afford, and in much of the rest of the world the middle class can afford, namely a kind of ersatz piece of roast beef or steak that is a beef hamburger on a piece of white bread with a bit of fresh vegetable out of season, even in the winter, with a sauce which is part of high cuisine, with French fries, which, you know, are popular--which become really widespread with McDonald's and the frozen French fry, which Simplot perfects--until then the French had said it was the apex of French civilized food--and washed down either with a sparkling cold drink or with a milkshake, sweet and rich and cold and foamy. That is just--it makes the food of aspiration accessible to all, and you have it in this brightly lit dining room that is clean, that you have access to. I think only if we understand how McDonald's taps into all these competing traditions that go back so deep in our culture can we understand why it became such a kind of fire point for and against modern American food.

If McDonald's has been the 600 lb. gorilla of American dining in the past several decades, perhaps Chipotle is a more suitable totem of this current age of our culinary anxieties and obsessions, if one even exists anymore given our increasingly diverse dining habits. Chipotle serves an ethnic food, derived from one of our largest immigrant populations, but transformed into something palatable for the masses, claiming to be sourced with only GMO-free, organic ingredients, served in franchises that are clean if somewhat generic, available in the places we inhabit, from cities to suburbs to highway stops. It's not food prepared by ourselves, and we eat our burrito bowls at our desks, alone, a fork in one hand, our smartphones in the other, scrolling one of our many feeds while we feed our stomachs. Chipotle represents something America does better than any country, this assimilation of the world's people and ideas and then a subsequent radiation of that back out to the world in a form more agreeable to the masses. Harvey Weinstein used to do the same to niche independent films.

Laudan's most controversial opinion, though one that is likely quite widespread among economists, is that our reverence for natural food and distrust of industrialized, processed food is the reverse of what it should be. Her piece In Praise of Fast Food was published years ago but is as relevant as ever given current attitudes.

As a historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by this movement: the sunny, rural days of yore contrasted with the gray industrial present. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast; artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.
That food should be fresh and natural has become an article of faith. It comes as something of a shock to realize that this is a latter-day creed.


Eating fresh, natural food was regarded with suspicion verging on horror; only the uncivilized, the poor, and the starving resorted to it. When the ancient Greeks took it as a sign of bad times if people were driven to eat greens and root vegetables, they were rehearsing common wisdom. Happiness was not a verdant Garden of Eden abounding in fresh fruits, but a securely locked storehouse jammed with preserved, processed foods.

As for slow food, it is easy to wax nostalgic about a time when families and friends met to relax over delicious food, and to forget that, far from being an invention of the late 20th century, fast food has been a mainstay of every society. Hunters tracking their prey, shepherds tending their flocks, soldiers on campaign, and farmers rushing to get in the harvest all needed food that could be eaten quickly and away from home. The Greeks roasted barley and ground it into a meal to eat straight or mixed with water, milk, or butter (as Tibetans still do), while the Aztecs ground roasted maize and mixed it with water (as Mexicans still do).

What about the idea that the best food was country food, handmade by artisans? That food came from the country goes without saying. The presumed corollary—that country people ate better than city dwellers—does not. Few who worked the land were independent peasants baking their own bread and salting down their own pig. Most were burdened with heavy taxes and rents paid in kind (that is, food); or worse, they were indentured, serfs, or slaves. They subsisted on what was left over, getting by on thin gruels and gritty flatbreads.

The dishes we call ethnic and assume to be of peasant origin were invented for the urban, or at least urbane, aristocrats who collected the surplus. This is as true of the lasagna of northern Italy as it is of the chicken korma of Mughal Delhi, the moo shu pork of imperial China, and the pilafs, stuffed vegetables, and baklava of the great Ottoman palace in Istanbul. Cities have always enjoyed the best food and have invariably been the focal points of culinary innovation.

I excerpt Laudan heavily, but it's only a fraction of her output not just on the podcast episode but in writing. All of what I've read thus far is fascinating.

This tendency to romanticize the past, to imagine it as a pastoral paradise of harmony between people and nature and each other, is an odd human trait. Dissatisfied with the present, we look to the past for an answer, as far back as our caveman days when it comes thing like the paleo diet, even if we hardly realize just how much harder and treacherous and brutal life was back then. Your pastoral fantasy? Here's how it ends, with you stepping in cow shit, contracting cholera, and dying after several feverish nights in an unheated bedroom, at the age of 20.

As for the future? Well, most of our most popular visions of the distant future are dystopic, either tales of stragglers trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, or prophecies of human enslavement by AI run amok. When our society does survive into the next century, it has often morphed into a nightmarish surveillance state, where all human diversity in thought and being has been stamped out. You are both funny and headstrong? You are...divergent. Still one of the silliest ideas for a book and movie in recent memory.

All this despite a steady rise in the quality of life throughout human history, with increasing tolerance and leisure and life expectancy. All evidence is that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. From scarcity to abundance. And taller, healthier people. I myself am very happy I wasn't born in an age when I'd have to be a farmer just to feed myself. 

Watch enough movies, though and you'd think that the arc of human life bends into a black hole, an apocalypse, from which we have to start over again, with the seeds of of the rebirth of civilization being resown by a lone hero, most often a white male, and the beautiful woman who grew to love him sometime during the second of the three acts of the script.

Beware your nostalgia for an age you never lived in. It was probably worse then than it is now. Given our increasing resolution of detail in recorded history, I wonder if future generations will be more immune to nostalgia. I'm somewhat hopeful. I told my nephew recently that when I was his age, I had no iPhone or iPad. I hadn't even seen a desktop computer yet, let alone the web.

“Whaaaaaaaat?” he said. “That sounds terrible.” Then he went back to playing a game on his mom's iPhone.