Is Simpler Food Better?

Published on: 17:27PM Mar 23, 2010

Anyone who goes grocery shopping in this country, or for that matter, is paying attention to food marketing trends, will acknowledge that the pursuit of politically-correct food has gotten incredibly complex.  In fact, the new rules of food, about keeping it “simple,” are creating an array of dizzying decisions that are anything but.

There was a terrific summary of this trend in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal, where the author, Jim Sollisch, exhausts himself at several supermarkets trying to make the correct choices when buying eggs, lettuce, and beef.  He offers this lamentation:

“The problem is that shopping for food is quickly becoming my only conscious act: It's consuming the rest of my intellectual life.”

The cause of his time-consuming pursuit is this trend of orthorexia, which I wrote about last March.  Essentially, it’s the pursuit of food that is pure…not from a safety or nutritional standpoint, but from a political one.   Orthorexic foods would be ones that Michael Pollan, Nina Planck and others extol in the pages of the New York Times and other trend-setting media.

But lest my blog post today be perceived as another attack on the Times, the Gray Lady does redeem itself with this long-running Freakonomics blog, where the conventional wisdom du jour often meets the cold, hard, light-of-day scrutiny of the facts. 

And thus I want to draw attention to this guest blog nugget of a couple weeks ago, where the author, James McWilliams, says that today’s criticisms of bad food, found in Food Inc., and exemplified by the quest for the holy grail of organic, local, sustainable, family-farmed, and ultimately simpler food is….really just  a rehash of a centuries-old theme.  McWilliams’ thesis:

Faced with the inevitable—and often threatening—complexity of historical change, Americans have always reacted by idealizing a mythical golden age, a time when life was understood to be simpler, people less greedy, and values more virtuous.  So it has been with food.

He goes on to say that whether it was during WW I, or even the Civil War, at least some in our society were concerned that the foods being foisted upon in America were not sufficiently primitive…sufficiently hewing to that golden age ideal that simpler is better.  And mind you, this was years ago when we knew little about how things like HACCP, pasteurization, refrigeration, and the like could actually prevent people from contracting deadly diseases.  Now that all of those technologies are commonplace, food has gone from boring back to being threatening  because it’s processed with goodness knows what in it, and all of its authenticity has been removed.

Here’s a quick quiz:  when was this idea expressed?

“To live a sweet, healthy life implies the use of simple, nutritious food, cooked in a plain, simple manner, and as nearly in its natural relations as possible.”

You might surmise it was from a 2008 best-selling cookbook, or some film documentary critique of fast food at this year’s Oscars, but in fact, McWilliams says that the author was a best-selling cookbook writer, John Cowan…from 1870.

Which is another way of saying, don’t buy too much into the notion that the good ol’ days of Grandma’s kitchen 140 years ago were really all that much better.  Primitivism has some advantages, but it also masks some convenient memory loss.