Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Fast History of "Slow Food" and Other Diversions

A few years ago, my husband gave me a book from my Amazon wish list as a birthday present.  This was the book:
Gartenstein, Devra.  Cavemen, Monks, & Slow Food:  A History of Eating Well.  (Quirky Gourmet Productions 2011). 227 pages.
I had put this book on my wish list because I hoped the book would include some archaeological information, and educated speculation, about prehistoric food, as well as information tying in some of those speculations to what we know about food in the Middle Ages.

Sadly for me, that's not what this book really is about.  This book is simply a general history of the food of Western civilization, written clearly and elegantly, but with information taken almost entirely from secondary sources.  Moreover, the few sources that specifically relate to prehistoric food are books I already own and have read.  

I don't normally object to a book of popular history (of anything) for lacking footnotes, but the omission is annoying to me in this book because it makes it impossible for me to track down the sources for the few interesting facts cited by Ms. Gartenstein.

Curious about some of the odder characteristics of the book, I did a little bit of on line research about the author, and learned that Ms. Gartenstein is a chef and owner of a Seattle "food business" called the Patty Pan Grill, which, in her words "is a thoughtful, progressive food business committed to exploring creative approaches to eating well and living well. We're proud to be Seattle's oldest farmers' market concession, having provided hot, ready-to-eat food at outdoor events since 1997, when there were only two neighborhood markets in the city. Patty Pan sources most of our staples from the farmers who are our friends and neighbors at the markets."

In short, this is an interesting little book for someone with no background information about food history and no concern about whether the author cites information from strongly biased sources (which she does when discussing genetically modified foods and other modern food issues).  It is not, unfortunately, the sort of book I enjoy when I'm looking to expand my knowledge of food history.

Here's an example of the type of food history I do find worth reading. A little while ago, a friend and reader of this blog pointed me at a scholarly article called "Homegrown Cuisines or Naturalized Cuisines?  The History of Food in Hawaii and Hawaii's Place in Food History," by Rachel Laudan. The article is available on the publisher's website, but except during special promotions, it may only be downloaded for a fee.  Well-heeled and curious readers may find the relevant page here.

Ms. Laudan's work does include a fair amount of information describing the personal experiences that led her to research the subject, but she still gives an interesting presentation of the different sets of foodways that shaped the foods enjoyed in Hawaii today:
I would divide [Hawaiian cuisine] into four periods: the sacrificial cuisine of the Hawaiian Chiefdoms; the aristocratic cuisine of the Hawaiian monarchy; the republican cuisine of the plantation oligarchy; and modern cuisine, Local Food, of an American state.
The full citation of the Hawaiian food article is:
Laudan, Rachel.  Homegrown Cuisines or Naturalized Cuisines? The History of Food in Hawaii and Hawaii's Place in Food History, Food, Culture & Society:  An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, vol. 19, Issue 3, pp. 437-459 (2016).
Ms. Laudan's major point is that Hawaiian cuisine did not simply "evolve" on the basis of the foods available in the ancestral environment, but accreted partly based on locally available foodstuffs and partly on the basis of foods brought in and consumed by several different conquerors/ruling classes. It's a fascinating read, which I commend to my readers.

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