Tuesday, November 24, 2009

From the Food Network to Foodsheds

This week’s mail brought the Food Issue of The New Yorker--fittingly enough for Thanksgiving week and the season that saw the demise of the magazine Gourmet. The first article I turned to was Adam Gopnik’s essay on our hunger for cookbooks and the role they have come to play in the era of the celebrity chef. Every age gets the cookbooks it deserves, he writes, and it says something about us that our cookbooks have become as much about memoir and spectacle as about putting something delicious on the table. Home cooks are left chasing an ever-receding ideal.

The desire to go on desiring, the wanting to want, is what makes you turn the pages—all the while aware that the next Boston cream pie, the sweet-salty-fatty-starchy thing you will turn out tomorrow, will be neither more nor less unsatisfying than last night’s was.
But as I look at the cookbooks in my own kitchen—and they occupy a long bookcase under the dining room window, which they share with field guides to birds and bugs and shells and the binoculars—I see something else: cultural anthropology, shared ethnic heritage, what food says about where our ancestors made their own hearths and what of that heritage we still carry with us. To me, cooking is an initiation into a long chain of human ritual of applying fire to food that stretches back and back and back to the first moment that humans cooked game over a fire and decided it might taste better with some salt on it.

Cookbooks in America were created for homesteaders, young married women setting up house far from their birth families and learning to “stand facing the stove.” English cookery books had no advice on how to cook such New World wonders as crawfish, corn, turkey, cranberries, and squash. It was women such as Eliza Smith, Amelia Simmons, and Fannie Farmer who taught American women (and home cooking was women’s work) how to turn the fruits of the American plains into hoppin’ john and rhubarb pie. As early as the eighteenth century, cookbook writers stepped up to offer advice and recipes and by the middle of the nineteenth century American publishers were putting out hundreds of cookbooks.

You can explore this rich history through the digital collection of American cookbooks at the Michigan State University’s Feeding America project. For the 200th birthday of the cookbook in America back in 1996, the university digitized 76 examplars from their collection of 7000 American cookbooks, representing the late 1700s to the early 1900s.

Gary Nabhan, known for his book with Stephen L. Buchmann, The Forgotten Pollinators (Island Press, 1996), has moved in recent years to writing and thinking about “foodsheds” and endangered foodways. As a counter to the cult of personality on the Food Network and the high theatrics of Iron Chef America, the whole slow-and-local food movement is shining a light on vanishing food traditions and heirloom varieties of native foods that are in danger of passing from our culture. Nabhan is an ethnobiologist, nutritional ecologist, and leading proponent of preserving old foodways and thinking about food ecologically, tracing food from source to table in a foodshed the way we trace water from its source to the sea in a watershed.  You can check out his many books at his website. I’m looking forward to reading the one (Why Some Like It Hot) that will explain my nine year old’s obsession with Cholula hot sauce.

Finally, I’m marking my calendar to attend this upcoming talk in January at the Harvard Natural History Museum by Richard Wrangham on the cooking hypothesis, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Wrangham is a biological anthropologist who has put forth the hypothesis that cooking back in Paleolithic times “drove large-scale changes in our physiology, behavior, and cognition and has defined our species to this very day.”

One by one,  traits long touted as uniquely human--to play, to grieve, to use language and tools--have been found among the other taxa. But so far, cooking is still ours.

More about Nabhan’s Renewing America’s Food Traditions iniative at Slow Food USA.

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