Tag Food and Drink

We can has cheeseburger!

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted new items over at Culture Making, but this week I’ve found myself feeling it may be time again. Besides, “what does a cheeseburger say about the world” is just the sort of question Andy Crouch and I started that blog to investigate (or at least to catalog others’ investigations thereupon).

Further reflection revealed that it’s quite impractical—nearly impossible—to make a cheeseburger from scratch. Tomatoes are in season in the late summer. Lettuce is in season in spring and fall. Large mammals are slaughtered in early winter. The process of making such a burger would take nearly a year, and would inherently involve omitting some core cheeseburger ingredients. It would be wildly expensive—requiring a trio of cows—and demand many acres of land. There’s just no sense in it.

A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh. The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.

from “On the impracticality of a cheeseburger,” by Waldo Jaquith, 3 December 2011 :: via kottke.org

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Why can’t we eat spaghetti too?

Earlier this summer, I posted an earlier excerpt of culinary anthropologist Rachel Laudan’s defense of the Bimbo-ization of Mexican bread. Here, she makes a wider historical, cultural, and sociological critique of certain ersatz-traditionalist beliefs of the foodie set.

So the sunlit past of the culinary Luddites never existed. So their ethos is based not on history but on a fairy tale. So what? Certainly no one would deny that an industrialized food supply has its own problems. Perhaps we should eat more fresh, natural, local, artisanal, slow food. Does it matter if the history is not quite right?

It matters quite a bit, I believe. If we do not understand that most people had no choice but to devote their lives to growing and cooking food, we are incapable of comprehending that modern food allows us unparalleled choices not just of diet but of what to do with our lives. If we urge the Mexican to stay at her metate, the farmer to stay at his olive press, the housewife to stay at her stove, all so that we may eat handmade tortillas, traditionally pressed olive oil, and home-cooked meals, we are assuming the mantle of the aristocrats of old.

If we fail to understand how scant and monotonous most traditional diets were, we can misunderstand the “ethnic foods” we encounter in cookbooks, at restaurants, or on our travels. We can represent the peoples of the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, India, or Mexico as pawns at the mercy of multi­national corporations bent on selling trashy modern products—failing to appreciate that, like us, they enjoy a choice of goods in the market. A Mexican friend, suffering from one too many foreign visitors who chided her because she offered Italian food, complained, “Why can’t we eat spaghetti, too?”

from “In Praise of Fast Food,” by Rachel Laudan, Utne Reader, September–October 2010: via The Morning News

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Terraced Rice Field, Yunnan, China, photo by Thierry Bornier

Cultivation meets topography, this stunning landscape looks more like a geological map than somebody’s workplace.


Terraced Rice Field,” Yunnan, China, by Thierry Bornier, National Geographic Daily, 22 June 2010

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Fasting for the mind

Every now and then I wonder whether my time is better spent reading the great books I haven’t yet read, or rereading the pretty-good ones that I already have.

A student pursuing a degree in the humanities can expect to run through 1,000 books before graduation day. A wealthy family in England in 1250 might have owned three books: a Bible, a collection of prayers, and a life of the saints—this modestly sized library nevertheless costing as much as a cottage. The painstaking craftsmanship of a pre-Gutenberg Bible was evidence of a society that could not afford to make room for an unlimited range of works but also welcomed restriction as the basis for proper engagement with a set of ideas.

The need to diet, which we know so well in relation to food, and which runs so contrary to our natural impulses, should be brought to bear on what we now have to relearn in relation to knowledge, people, and ideas. Our minds, no less than our bodies, require periods of fasting.

from “On Distraction,” by Alain de Botton, City Journal, Spring 2010 :: via The Browser

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Food culture and the Last Supper

I suppose this finding would fall into the “interesting but unsurprising” category, but I’m nevertheless overjoyed that historians of art, food, and culture do this kind of stuff.

Wansink teamed up with his brother Craig Wansink, a religious studies professor at Virginia Wesleyan College, to look at how portion sizes have changed over time by examining the food depicted in 52 of the most famous paintings of the scene from the Last Supper.

“As the most famously depicted dinner of all time, the Last Supper is ideally suited for review,” Craig Wansink said.

From the 52 paintings, which date between 1000 and 2000 A.D., the sizes of loaves of bread, main dishes and plates were calculated with the aid of a computer program that could scan the items and rotate them in a way that allowed them to be measured. To account for different proportions in paintings, the sizes of the food were compared to the sizes of the human heads in the paintings.

The researchers’ analysis showed that portion sizes of main courses (usually eel, lamb and pork) depicted in the paintings grew by 69 percent over time, while plate size grew by 66 percent and bread size grew by 23 percent.

from “Portion Sizes in ‘Last Supper’ Paintings Grew Over Time,” by Andrea Thompson, LiveScience, 23 March 2010 :: via kottke.org

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Flinty and grassy with finesse and subtlety

From an essay on the culture and history of dirt-eating, often undertaken by pregnant women (presumably craving specific needed minerals), but until recently surprisingly widespread. “In the 1970s, fifty percent of Black women admitted to eating clay, about four times the frequency among white women …” I like the idea outlined below, of sniffing the soil and then tasting produce grown in it.

People living in San Francisco can find a soil tasting in a nearby art gallery; the rest of us can e-participate through a website (tasteofplace.info) run by performance artist and “agricultural activist” Laura Parker. Parker strives to answer the question “how does soil touch our lives and affect our food; and why does it matter?” To stimulate public dialogue, Parker fills wine goblets with various soils and adds a few teaspoons of water to release the aromas and flavors. The soils aren’t ingested, but participants place their noses deep into the wine bowls, inhaling the newly released molecules to the backs of their tongues, where taste receptors lie. The website even provides “Tasting Notes,” such as the soil of “Apple Farm-Indian Camp Ground, ‘Arrowhead Reserve,'” which has a “texture like ground espresso between your fingertips with a rich, chocolate color. The nose is both flinty and grassy with finesse and subtlety.” After the soil tasting, participants dine on food grown in the various soils and identify the qualities of the dirt in the food to strengthen the connection between what we eat and where it’s grown.

Originally published at culture-making.com.

Everything is Everything, by Koki Tanaka

There’s an odd decisive joy to this short film of odd decisive actions. I love the sense of deadpan discovery as the filmmaker finds abbreviated new uses and gestures for everyday plastic things, conjuring up a dance of objects for an audience of food. Really.

Everything is Everything: Alternate Version for Single Channel,” by Koki Tanaka, 2007 :: via Coudal Partners

Originally published at culture-making.com.

You Are What You Eat, photos by Mark Menjivar

You can tell a lot about people by the contents of their refrigerators. Photographer Mark Menjivar’s series of fridge portraits from across Texas (and a few other states) offers food for thought and contemplation, and spurs in me a cleaning impulse I’d forgotten I had.


Clockwise from upper-left: “Midwife/Middle School Science Teacher”; “Owner of Defunct Amusement Park”; “Bar Tender”; “Graphic Designer/Print Shop Owner”, from the series “You Are What You Eat,” photos by Mark Menjivar, featured in GOOD, 13 May 2009 :: via edible geography

Originally published at culture-making.com.

You need a good chopping scene

Chopping is also excessively cinematic in that it mimics the very techniques of film production and editing, the precise chopping of continuous reality into 24 images per second, the mini-guillotines used to trim and edit film stock, the terminology of cuts and splices.

One of the delights of watching food-centric films is to see the main characters demonstrate their culinary skills. The breaking of an egg, the flipping of an omelet, the chopping of an onion (or a carrot or a piece of celery) become impressive feats when performed with dexterity and brio. The food writer Michael Pollan has noted that television cooking shows have come to resemble athletic events, showcasing the spectacular, often competitive talents of their chefs. In narrative film, however, the spectacle of cooking is always more than spectacle; it is also a dynamic means of representing character. Chopping, in particular, in being both precise and violent, is an exceptionally cinematic activity, capable of expressing repressed emotions of rage, bitterness, and passion. It is no wonder that most every film in which food plays a role invariably has a chopping scene.

from “Eat Drink Actor Director,” by Paula Marantz Cohen, The Smart Set, 22 January 2010 :: via Arts & Letters Daily

Originally published at culture-making.com.

What food books say

Our shelves of cookbooks are fascinating not so much as a body of knowledge, but as a body of ignorance: they contain what we don’t know (or no longer know) about food, but our ignorance and aspirations take on very specific, trend-sensitive forms, a bit like—come to think of it—a good bundt pan waiting for batter.

“Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are,” Brillat-Savarin challenged his readers in 1825, and his wisdom if not his brio was already old hat. Human meals serve those mixtures of raw and cooked that make up anthropological codes. Nearly every prescription or preference blends irrational faith and scientific requirements, as Marvin Harris shows in his fascinating Good to Eat: look long enough at a seemingly arbitrary food rule (cloven hooves, sacred cows) and one can probably discover a self-preserving logic behind it, but look hard enough at an apparently sensible directive (a glass of milk, a handful of supplements) and one will like as not detect a prejudice posing as sense. Omnivorous and hungry, body and spirit, we sit down at a table spread with necessary choice; we cannot eat to live, that is, without in some measure living to eat. As Laurie Colwin once put it, then, cookery books will always “hit you where you live.” What seems distinctive and disquieting now, what seems to have increased in the two centuries since Brillat-Savarin shot a turkey in Hartford or even in the two decades since Colwin roasted a chicken in her New York apartment, is the number of volumes hitting us combined with the force of their impact. A nation with a lot of food books is a nation without much sense of food, as The Economist recently pointed out.

from “What We Talk About When We Talk About Food,” by Siobhan Phillips, The Hudson Review, Summer 2009 :: via The Smart Set

Originally published at culture-making.com.