The Argument for Processed Food

If you are a certain type of Billfold reader, you probably own at least one historical cookbook, possibly themed around a work of popular fiction: The American Girls Cookbook, The Little House Cookbook, A Feast of Ice and Fire. I spent plenty of hours in both childhood and adulthood making Samantha’s corn oysters, Diana’s raspberry cordial, and Bran’s beef and bacon pie — the latter which involved making the upper pie crust out of latticed bacon.

Those were the days, right? When someone like Kirsten Larson or Almanzo Wilder could work up a hearty appetite and then come home to eat three different kinds of homemade pie. Sure, somebody had to spend all day weaving bacon into a pie crust or whatever, but those were still the days, right? All-natural food? Nobody thinking that a McDonald’s hashbrown in a paper wrapper counted as “breakfast?” Healthy, nutritious meals?

Well. As Rachel Laudan writes for Jacobin, we’ve got it all wrong:

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. For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad.

Fresh meat was rank and tough; fresh milk warm and unmistakably a bodily excretion; fresh fruits (dates and grapes being rare exceptions outside the tropics) were inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Even today, natural can be a shock when we actually encounter it.

Her essay, “A Plea for Culinary Modernism,” is a must-read. The thesis? We need more high-quality processed food and we need it now.

First, let’s dismantle the nostalgia. What we think of as healthy “peasant food” — the hearty soups, the golden loaves of fresh bread — is actually the food of the upper class, cooked by a kitchen of servants. The peasants were eating bread with sawdust mixed in, or literal fast food that they would pick up at local shops (instead of grabbing a McDonald’s hashbrown, you could get some dubious fish and noodles). If we are going to eat well in the future, we have to continue to modernize our food production instead of looking to the past.

This is a global nostalgia, by the way. As Lauden explains:

Greek moussaka? Created in the early twentieth century in an attempt to Frenchify Greek food. The bubbling Russian samovar? Late eighteenth century. The Indonesian rijsttafel? Dutch colonial food. Indonesian padang food? Invented for the tourist market in the past fifty years.

Tequila? Promoted as the national drink of Mexico during the 1930s by the Mexican film industry.

What does this modern food future look like?”Far from fleeing them,” Laudan writes, “we should be clamoring for more high-quality industrial foods.” She wants more mass-produced, affordable, easy to prepare foods so that we can all eat well.

Laudan does not specifically write about environmental sustainability, but I’d argue that our food future also depends on finding food solutions that do not contribute to drought, for example. We also need to re-examine our factory-farming system (which also contributes to drought as well as a whole list of other environmental problems).

It’s a bit of a challenge to imagine an affordable, mass-produced, healthy, high-quality food product that does not take an unsustainable amount of environmental resources to create. (If you’re currently thinking “Soylent!” we are going to be discussing Soylent later this week.)

But if Laudan’s food vision came to pass, would you happily pop your new processed healthy foodstuff into the microwave? Or would you continue to dream of the days when people whipped their own cream and wove together their bacon pie crust by hand?

This story is part of our food month series.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.