Salt

As of April 29, 2020, the WHO declared that “most people consume too much salt—on average….twice the recommended maximum levels of intake,” and laid out guidelines for reducing salt intake. Increasing consumption of processed foods has gone hand in hand with the growth of cities, leading people to consume more salt, saturated fats, and sugars and less fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh food has always been one of the limiting factors for urban areas, but the modern solution of introducing heavily processed and preserved foods has introduced new health complications.

This was not always the case. Ancient cities, for instance, often relied on imported grain that could be transported long distances without spoiling. In these cases, getting enough salt was a significant concern. Before the advent of reliable refrigeration, though, food preservation required salt, which, in turn led to labor-intensive operations to evaporate salt from the seas in order to fuel the production of fermented and aged foods, and for adding directly to fish like cod in order to preserve them for future consumption.

In Salt, Mark Kurlansky evaluates the production of salt in a global context, aiming in the process to offer a history of the world as defined by this one commodity. He is partially successful and offers a portrait of food production around the world with a wealth of details.

Individual episodes of this story were fascinating. For instance, I was struck by the lengths taken to ensure salt production, including elaborate brining pools to encourage evaporation of sea water and exceedingly deep mines in China to extract rock salt. Likewise, the discussion of individual foods like cod and hams, products that were largely made possible by the widespread availability of salt, were right up my gastronomic alley.

And yet, I was often frustrated by Salt. The problem is in Kurlansky’s attempt to weave the history of salt through the history of the world. Sections where he dug into the history of the industry worked exceedingly well, but other sections examined historical events like the French Revolution in such a way that it blew the importance of salt out of proportion. In the chapter on the American Civil War, for instance, he alternated between a fascinating discussion of Avery Island, the birthplace of Tabasco Sauce, and accounts of the US Navy destroying southern saltworks. The former was great, the latter I thought less enlightening in that it offered only a partial portrait of the war while also adding only marginally to the story of the mineral.

However, the biggest problem I had with Salt is that it is a book rich in detail and light in narrative through-line.In a highly technical book this lack of narrative would be less of an issue, but here I found the lack to make sections of the book rather slow going one chapter didn’t neatly lead to the next in any way except that they both explored aspects of the salt industry. Kurlansky’s overarching thesis is that salt was really important in world history, which is hard to deny, but also doesn’t offer a clear way forward to carry out that argument (as I might tell my students). I might go back to Salt to season some of my history classes, but as a commodity history its broad scope and argument were not to my taste.

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In addition to the backlog of books I haven’t written about (yet), I recently finished Robert Massie’s Dreadnought, after which I am now in the market for a book that actually talks about the development of the British Navy from the end of the Napoleonic Wars through at least World War One since my go-to historian on the topic, N.A.M. Rodgers, evidently never published the third volume of his history of the British Navy. I am now reading Maja Novak’s The Feline Plague, a magical-realism novel about Slovenia’s transition from communism to capitalism in the early 1990s.

The Food Explorer

In the second half of the 1800s, at a time when most Americans were farmers, the Department of Agriculture was a tiny outfit mostly charged with discovering ways to make crops more resilient. David Fairchild, the child of an academic in Kansas, joined this small outfit at the same time that the United States was launching itself as an industrial power, with exhibitions such as the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. On the advice of a friend, Fairchild applied for a job at the Smithsonian for a position in Naples, resulting in two fateful encounters. First, on the voyage across the Atlantic, Fairchild met Barbour Lathrop, a wealthy and over-the-top globetrotter. Second, on a trip to Corsica, Fairchild stole cuttings from the citron tree.

These two encounters, according to Daniel Stone’s book, revolutionized the American diet. Fairchild believed that the future of American agriculture was the import of new commodities and Lathrop underwrote the creation of this new program when the US government would not because he decided that Fairchild was his preferred traveling companion. Despite its opponents, the food importation program grew both in the number of explorers scouring the globe and in the bureaucracy to manage the imports, and is responsible for a number of the most recognizable products on the produce shelves, including the navel orange and Meyer lemon.

There are a number of interesting stories at work in The Food Explorer, including about the growth of the American bureaucratic state, about the history of food and food safety, and a unique lens on the US and the world, leave alone Fairchild’s biography, but I found it an immensely frustrating book. Part of my frustration came from quirks of Stone’s writing. Some readers might be interested to learn that the walnut is technically a fruit, but I found the persistence in explaining things were fruits rather than whatever their name or common wisdom suggests about as tiresome as people reminding you that tomatoes are fruit. However, there are also a couple of more substantive complaints.

First, The Food Explorer is a book that can’t decide what it wants to be. The main arc of the book is Fairchild’s biography, which means that by the second half of the book he is no longer an explorer, but a bureaucrat overseeing the work of other explorers, including Frank Meyer, who I found more compelling than Fairchild himself. But this section also becomes mired in accounts of his courtship of and marriage to Marian Bell, the daughter of the inventor Alexander Graham, as well as Bell’s aeronautical competition with the Wright Brothers.

Such stories give a fuller picture of Fairchild’s life, but they sit awkwardly beside the frame of this as a story about the massive changes going on in American society or about the fascinating institutions that Fairchild helped create. In fact, the most iconic plants Fairchild had a hand in bringing to the US were either inedible (Washington DC’s flowering cherry trees) or not his finds (the Meyer lemon). Similarly, I was struck by the vast number of imported plants that were almost immediately supplanted or simply discarded. Fairchild and his program did change the way Americans eat in significant ways, but behind the glitz and glam of Fairchild’s life is a more compelling story about the growth of the commercial agriculture industry and the role of the federal government in both facilitating and inhibiting the import of new crops.

Second, this is a particularly American book. Stone frames the story against the backdrop of American industrial power and the story is built around the privilege of American interlopers cavalierly begging, stealing, or buying whatever they want to populate their new garden of Eden. I don’t want to pass any aspersions on Stone since he periodically offers light critiques of American ignorance, such as during a potential row between US and Japanese officials after the first batch of cherry trees had to be burned. Nevertheless, his sources are swept up in the potential of the US and the backwardness of most of the rest of the world and he is generally happy to echo their sentiments, and makes a few truly egregious gaffes along the way, such as in identifying Egypt as both “Mesopotamia” and “the birthplace of civilization.”

As noted above, there is a compelling story here and I can understand why so many people and at least one podcast I listened to raved about the book. The decision to follow Fairchild’s charmed life keeps it from getting too heavy with either discussions of institutions and business or war and death, but I closed it more more frustrated than enlightened.

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A short discussion of Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z, since I am likely not going to do a full summary: The first half of the book consists of non-stop action of a fateful night when a socialist politician is assassinated after a gathering in Thessaloniki by ruffians hired by the police, who simply stand by and watch. Much stronger, in my opinion, was the second half, which explored the inquests that followed and is highly critical of political officials who seek to sweep their complicity under the rug. My failure to write this up earlier has dimmed the individual characters in my memory, but I was repeatedly struck by the resonance with contemporary political agendas.

I have also finished Bilge Karasu’s The Garden of Departed Cats and am now reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, a strange and sensual novel about a group of young poets who call themselves “the visceral realists.”

Hippie Food: How Back-to-the-landers, Longhairs, and Revolutionaries Changed the Way We Eat

My favorite random food trivia question asks which restaurant was the biggest consumer of kale until about 2013.

The answer is Pizza Hut, which used the leaves to garnish its salad bars. The idea of using a popular superfood for decoration now is unthinkable, but this small change is exemplary of a broader revolution in the American food scene. In Columbia, Missouri, my favorite bakery and cafe is around the corner from the Korean taco place and down the street from the brown-rice vegetarian restaurant. My favorite pizza shop offers the option of vegan cheese, and the local biscuit food truck offers the option of replacing bacon or sausage with tempeh. Tofu, nutritional yeast, and kale are all available in the grocery store alongside brands like Stonyfield Farm and Garden of Eatin’. In Hippie Food, Jonathan Kauffman makes the argument that many of these changes can be traced back to the counter culture of the 1960s and 1970s.

The seven chapters of Hippie Food take the reader from the communal origins of the food movement in Southern California following World War Two through the emergence of industrial food systems epitomized by, for instance, Whole Foods. Kauffman takes a lively, journalistic approach to the story, focusing in on a couple of characters that exemplify the theme of that chapter while also making nods at the wider changes taking place. The first chapter, for instance, follows Robert Bootzin (aka Gypsy Boots) , the proprietor of the Back to Nature Health Hut, and Jim Baker, whose food career began with the Aware Inn, though the latter became better known as Father Yod of the Source Family.

Kauffman emphasizes how the food of the counter culture had twin motivations: matching the larger philosophical principles of the movement and health. The prophets of the health movement took their inspiration from eastern philosophy, including pioneers of macrobiotics like George Ohsawa, who claimed his diets would cure disease by bringing balance to the body and whose advice ranged from the beneficial (whole grains, alternatives to meat like Seitan) to the potentially deadly (consume no vitamin C). Other movements, like the Tessajara Bread Book espoused the latent zen potential of baking bread.

Following these principles was not easy. At numerous points, Kauffman notes that it was easier to start a farm, a co-op or counter-culture cafe than to sustain one. Most of these initiatives were the province of the young and energetic, and even when they could attract a following, selling goods at cost––or even giving it away––had a way of interfering with paying rent, let alone employees. And yet, healthy food and organic farming matched the broader cultural concerns, particularly over chemicals, opening the door to big business.

Hippie Food is the food of my upbringing. My kitchen is stocked with rice, beans, whole grain flour, and tofu and we eat Seitan at least every couple weeks. I grew up working inventory at the local co-op. Kauffman name-checks a bakery my parents were involved in in Ann Arbor, Michigan and one of the Vermont communes he talks about was in the town where I went to high school. Beyond the personal connection, though, Kauffman spins a lively story filled with colorful characters as he supplemented the recent surge in academic interest in this history with interviews with more than a hundred people.

For as much as I loved Hippie Food, I kept coming back to one issue. Kauffman acknowledges in the introduction that his is a largely white story, offering a few explanations, including the demographic makeup of the United States at the time, the segregation and racism in areas where the back -to-the-land movements took root, and the “pervasive nostalgia” and romanticism that did not appeal to particularly African American audiences (14). I don’t dispute any of this, particularly in terms of the racial issues with regard to African Americans and found Kauffman’s explanation of how this movement went ended up going commercial compelling, but nevertheless couldn’t help but note the absence of immigrants other than the pseudo-spiritual guides of the movement. This meant that Kauffman’s central thesis about how the counter culture shaped how millions of Americans eat is undeniable, it nevertheless fell short of capturing the full extent of the diversity of the current American food scene.

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The normal course of the semester caused a slowdown in my reading, so I’m still working my way through David Gooblar’s The Missing Course, and started reading Z, Vassilis Vassilikos’ formerly-banned novel about a conspiracy to kill a left-leaning Greek politician.

Brunch: A History – Farha Ternikar

You don’t eat brunch. You do brunch.

I took a break from reading War and Peace to breeze through Ternikar’s slim history of Brunch from its origins in Great Britain in the late 1800s to its global phenomenon.

Although it began in Great Britain, Ternikar shows that Brunch took root in the United States. One vector, epitomized by french toast, entered through New Orleans, while another, with Eggs Benedict, came through New York. In both cases, brunch began as am meal enjoyed only by the elite because it required leisure time that few could afford. From these beginnings, though, brunch became a middle class and even working class meal, one that still went hand-in-hand with relaxation, but also that offered freedom for women because it combined two meals into one, thereby limiting the number of dishes that were used and freeing time for families. The combination of leisure and pomp associated brunch with church and weddings, as a time for people to mingle and eat, and culture manuals described how it was the perfect opportunity for single women to socialize with married friends. And, of course, day drinking features prominently.

Brunch consists of five short chapters: history, cultural importance, brunch at home, away from home, and in popular culture. Ternikar draws extensively on and quotes think pieces, culture manuals and magazines that both support and oppose the phenomenon, which frequently makes it a lively read. Themes such as luxury, relaxation, female activity, all appear clearly in these chapters. I enjoyed reading Brunch, but had some questions about the choices in putting the book together. For instance, I found the black and white images that are drawn from internet sources rather than, say, from field research to take away from overall product. I also found that the author did well to show the breadth of brunch in popular culture and around the world, but it also makes the book repetitious.