Better Living Through Chemistry?

Reader Contribution by Sue Van Slooten
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We’re going to take a break from recipes right now, and delve into some of the reasons we eat the way we do. Some of this will involve history, anthropology, cuisine, even archaeology. Just think (hopefully): The Indiana Jones of food archaeology.  Historically and culturally of course, food, with it’s growing and acquisition, is so thoroughly intertwined in the human condition, that it goes back to the very beginning of humanity. We were always different in our “foodways” than other animals. I could expound on how it took millions of years of adaptation to our environment, and the environment to us, to reach the highest levels of cuisine, then to have the industrial revolution, the Green Revolution, Big Ag, only to see it all go down the tubes in the last 60 years (but I don’t have that kind of space).

Is this being too harsh? Haute cuisine is still there and probably always will be, but what have we humans wrought? If you took either Caterina di Medici or Escoffier into a modern supermarket, they’d cringe. Not that everything was perfect in their day, but you get the point. And it isn’t just haute cuisine in trouble, but every “old-fashioned” foodway, from country cooking to artisanal foods. And all the plants and animals that go with that. Humans have always tried, and I consider this a positive genetic “trait,” to make their food taste better. Man is not meant to eat the same gruel day in, day out, their entire lives. Hence early cooking with fire, the scavenging of herbs, berries, tubers, plants, seeds, spices, and yes, insects. There isn’t a thing humans won’t eat, even themselves at times. You’re hearing the anthropologist talking now. We’ve retained most of these traits, barbecue being a time honored, (some would say, male oriented activity), but for the most part, sans stewed human. 

In the last 60 or so years, a different “foodway” has emerged, that I would call the chemical or industrial version. Humans have always tried to store or improve the shelf life of their foods with drying, pickling, salting, curing. The wonders of 20th century industrial and chemical agriculture and science has led to an ever increasing level of unnatural foods, the least of which are the unholy trinity of sugar, salt, and fat. I could easily make the connection between the early 20th century chemical warfare (we’re talking poison gas here, as in mustard and chlorine) to the chemical weapons of World War II, and then ultimately to our food. How? The industrial production of nitrogen, first developed during WW I. Artificial fertilizers. Also used in bombs. It is these very industrially made fertilizers that gave the Green Revolution and Big Ag it’s unnatural boost onto the world scene. We’ve almost never looked back. It has made some companies extremely wealthy, but almost always impoverished the farmers, farms, land, diet and nutrition, the farm economy, and our health. A lot of us are now at the mercy of the Big Ag system, whether we like it or not. 

How do we combat this? I always say, grow your own. Even if it’s just the pots of herbs on your windowsill, a few planters with tomatoes on a balcony, or a full fledged veggie garden. It all gives us a sense of freedom, if not outright defiance. The same goes for baking your own, cooking your own, as long as you’re using all natural ingredients, no chemicals, nothing artificial, it has to be better than the store. 

If you’re feeling particularly militant, perhaps contact your congressman, senator, or whatever political entity that supposedly governs you and your food. Get busy. We’ve all seen what people power can do on the web, for example with the pink slime, or even with brains, voices, hands, and feet, the very things that make us human.

You can read more of Sue Van Slooten’s food adventures at    

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