McWilliams on "The Persistence of the Primitive Food Movement"

Over at Freakonomics, McWilliams gives us a neoclassical view the modern food movement.
Americans are currently embracing a strange sort of primitivism.....But nowhere has our love for the supposed simplicity of the past been more evident than in food trends.  Guided largely by Michael Pollan’s seductive mantra—“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”—millions of earnest consumers are declaring loyalty to the stripped-down essence of a pre-industrial diet. We eat local, buy organic, and support small farms....Like so many other stories America tells itself, the narrative of modern food is a classic jeremiad, a linear tale of success and virtue brought to a halt by modernity and greed.....For all their moral impact, our linear jeremiads fail to capture the circularity of history. This is especially true with our back-to-the past reaction to “industrial food.” Current calls for dietary simplicity might have a revolutionary ring to them. But what’s overlooked in all the enthusiasm is this: Americans have always idealized, or at least harkened back to, an agricultural era when production was supposedly simpler, closer to the land, and unadulterated by the complexities of modernization. What we’re seeing right now with the food movement is, for all its supposed novelty, a stock (even banal) reaction to broad historical changes.
World War I was an era of voluntary rationing and, as a result, national discussions about food were common and heated.  Herbert Hoover, as head of the Food Administration, beat Michelle Obama to the publicity punch when he exhorted Americans to “Go back to the simple life, be content with simple food.” The Food Administration itself urged Americans to make Christmas dinner “according to ancient custom.” An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer evoked the importance of returning to “simple food” and “wholesome pleasures.”  Many commentators at the time highlighted the Civil War as a time when Americans ate in a way that reflected a more ascetic ideal, one that Americans were evidently losing by the time of WWI. (Hat tip: Helen Veit’s wonderful Yale dissertation, “Victory over Ourselves: American Food and Progressivism in the Era of the Great War.”)
But did people living in the 1860s really see themselves as eating a simple diet?  Not so much. This was an era of frequent food adulteration, with consumer goods being leavened by sawdust, engine grease, plaster of Paris, pipe clay and God knows what else. Responding to the increasing complexity of food in 1870, John Cowan, author of What to Eat; And How to Cook It, lambasted Americans for eating “conglomerate mixtures”—ingredients “mixed in all shapes, in all measures, and under all conditions.” He insisted that these overly processed foods not only led to “a clogged brain” but also a “sickly and unenjoyable life.”
His solution could be mistaken for a line from the muckraking film Food, Inc. Cowan wrote: “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.”  It was in the spirit of Cowan’s advice that mid-century Americans evoked early Americans for their simpler, more natural, and thus more virtuous eating habits.
.....I wonder if 100 years from now—when our meat will be engineered in laboratories, our crops will be grown hydroponically or on vertical farms, and cloning and biotechnology will determine yields— we’ll look back on the second half of the twentieth century and glorify the primitive simplicity of growing plants in soil, spreading crops across vast acreages, and relying on slaughterhouses to provide our meat. If the past is any clue, it seems likely.
I did not know all of this, but I can't say I'm especially surprised.  But while I am in-some-way critical of Michael Pollan, I find McWilliams' cynicism somewhat overwrought as well.  Maybe it's because I'm so used to this hearing this kind of perspective from libertarian-leaning economists.  Nevertheless, I think McWilliams is mainly right.

The difference between today's movement and the past is that we have data that show real costs to health stemming from cheap and highly processed food.  The obesity crisis is real.  Growth in diabetes is real.  The broader causes are pretty clear.  I expect we will find solutions to these problems and those solutions may or may not have anything to do with going back to the food our grandmothers ate.  But I think it's easy to see where this current fad is coming from and why it resonates with Bobos in Paradise


  1. McWilliams makes it sounds like we want to eat what our grandparents ate: "simple food". But maybe it's more a desire for quality. Economics and sustainability aside, highly processed food doesn't taste as good. There seems to be greater awareness high quality food and more interest in cooking now. Look at all the food shows on TV (e.g., Iron Chef America) and TV chefs are household names now (Rachel Ray). The new interest in quality is probably driven by affluence.

  2. great info- I am researching slow food and this was just the "movement" I was looking for.


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