Factory food

By MIKE MILIARD  |  June 25, 2009

Kurlansky — who's previously explored the often surprising significance of particular foodstuffs in such books as Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and Salt: A World History — learned a lesson while researching that latter book, which traces sodium chloride's role in the rise and fall of economies and empires.

"It's very difficult to grasp the notion of value," he says. "Things we think are valuable and are worth fighting and struggling over could very well be not worth anything. It's pretty arbitrary. That's an important lesson, I think."

Lately we seem finally to be learning that lesson when it comes to our food — realizing that, in the long run, so-called value meals offer precisely the opposite.

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Uprooted
Let's not pretend that all those hearty, healthy, home-grown meals in bucolic pre-WWII America were delightful and delicious. The writers compiled in The Food of a Younger Land set out to survey the provinces and pockets of ethnic influence across the lower 48, and sometimes returned having queasily sampled such regional delicacies as Scandinavian lutefisk (a slimy, smelly concoction of codfish cured in lye) in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and "prairie oysters" in Oklahoma (the harvesting of which is described in one tour-de-force of dramatic narrative).

Luckily, in this 10th year of the 21st century, "I don't think many people are eating beaver tail," says Kurlansky. "And I hope people aren't eating wildcat and cougar."

The old days had other drawbacks, too: eating local didn't always mean eating fresh. "They were very reliant on canned and preserved food," says Kurlansky of our forebears. "In most of America, there's not a lot of food produced between November and April."

Not to mention that it's unlikely someone from, say, Maine — whose clambakes, game suppers, and hot-buttered rum are all described in the book — would ever get to taste "A Los Angeles Sandwich Called a Taco" (as the title of one chapter describes it).

So clearly, on one level, foodies should be thankful for air travel and interstate highways. "On my book tour," says Kurlansky, who lives in New York City, "a journalist in Seattle said, 'You're coming at just the right time, because the Copper River Salmon is coming in!' I didn't have the heart to tell him that I know the Copper River Salmon is coming in because my local fish store carries it."

Yet for all the gastronomic convenience of refrigerated transportation, reading Kurlansky's book one can't help feeling sentimental for a past many of us never experienced — a simpler time when regions had their own dishes and libations: the California grunion fry, Kentucky Burgoo, Oregon Blue Ruin.

"Before World War II, people were much more rooted to the place they lived in, and that was reflected in the food," says Kurlansky. "Not only because the food was locally produced, but the recipes were local, the traditions were local. People had their own approach that varied literally from county to county, sometimes from town to town."

Now, as has been said ad nauseum, 50 states filled with chain stores and strip malls have ensured that everything looks and tastes the same. "It would be nice to travel around America and have the food change everywhere you went," says Kurlansky. "I just got through doing a book tour, a different town every day. I just struggle to find something local everywhere I go."

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