Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Bread and Milk Politics


This week I read White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf by Aaron Bobrow-Strain and Milk: A Local and Global History by Deborah Valenze.  While both books have a vast amount of important and interesting history and cultural information, I found White Bread by far the more enjoyable reading.

I had to force myself to finish Milk. Normally I like histories of foods that begin in ancient times and go into lots of detail about the Middle Ages etc. But this one seemed to choose rather tedious aspects of the development of milk-drinking, the constant tension about the best foods for newborns and infants, and the dangers of poorly handled milk and how, often adulterated or spoiled, milk even could kill consumers, especially children.

I could hardly put down White Bread. So I think I'll mainly talk about this, the book I liked. The focus on the politics of bread, which in the past provided a substantial percent of people's daily nutrition, energizes the book, and motivates the historical material. Although bread is no longer the crucial dietary element it once was, the author makes clear how it still plays an enormous symbolic role, including in the recent fad of eliminating it from the diet on the basis that it has either carbohydrate or gluten which faddish theories have determined are dangerous despite a lack of scientific evidence.

You would have to be culturally tone-deaf to be unaware of the use of the term "white bread" as an accusation casually thrown at groups of people one doesn't like or approve of. The context in which this insult emerged is carefully described, bringing out the ironies of the fact that many people of color in fact are fond of white bread, while the advocates of artisanal bread tend to be upper class and mainly white.

Bobrow-Strain explores the historical emergence of white bread and its promise in various eras, mainly in 20th century America. He shows that the development of industrial -- and thus admired -- baking began with scientific diet advocates who deplored the unsanitary conditions and unreliable products of artisan bakers in urban areas. (He explicitly expands on the topics in the book Perfection Salad, which I also read recently.)

A hundred years or so ago, well-meaning nutrition advocates frequently characterized bakers and small-bakery owners as dark-skinned immigrants lacking knowledge of hygiene; the neighborhood bakeries where they worked were usually in cellars, contrasting to the emerging factories where tens of thousands of loaves a day were baked with virtually no contamination from human hands. Advertising of the newer and more modern bread stressed how sterile it was; many such bakeries had windows opening on the production lines and invited the public, including school children on field trips, to come watch. (I distinctly remember going on such a trip in around 4th grade to see packaged white bread being baked.)

A major extension to the propaganda that white bread was purer and more healthful than dark breads was the requirement to use vitamin-fortified flour in all bread. The requirement was a response to the unfit physical state of military recruits at the beginning of World War II -- the damage done by food insecurity during the Great Depression had produced skinny, weak youth. Merk pharmaceuticals and the baking industry found the recent discovery of fortifying vitamins, especially thiamine to be a great money-making opportunity, and allied with the FDA to create enriched bread.

Further chapters explore the introduction of industrial white bread to various third-world countries (such as Bimbo bread in Mexico). The book becomes really fascinating as it describes the backlash against industrial white bread that became part of the 60s counterculture. Bobrow-Strain doesn't just tell this story as a myth, as often happens. Rather, he gets into a variety of issues and questions about the people who advocate for home baking, revolt against industrialized food, and self-sufficiency. Most interestingly, he points out how both left and right wing ideologies have become advocates for some of the same issues of self-sufficiency, living off the grid, and revolt against certain types of conformity and government regulation.

My favorite question, as he expresses it, asks who has "the power to declare things 'natural' or 'unnatural.' If we honestly and passionately love the taste of store-bought white bread, why isn't that a natural craving? ... what -- and who -- gets left out of this picture?" (p. 87)

Five seductive dreams about food, the author says in his conclusion, are the repeating themes of the book: "dreams of purity, naturalness, scientific control, perfect health, and national security and vitality. Each of these dreams rose to prominence because it crystallized deep currents of longing and anxiety -- and thus galvanized action." Seemingly innocent dreams, yet they "framed the problems of society and the food system in dubious ways."  (p. 190)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Aroma News

I have been reading about the sense of smell, which I've written about on my other blog. I just read a summary of new research about sensitivity to odors here. The summarizing quote from one of the cited articles:
Our team recently discovered that blood cells — not only cells in the nose — have odorant receptors. In the nose, these so-called receptors sense substances called odorants and translate them into an aroma that we interpret as pleasing or not pleasing in the brain. But surprisingly, there is growing evidence that also the heart, the lungs and many other non-olfactory organs have these receptors.

It seems startling that blood cells can also react to aromatic chemicals, though I don't quite understand why their sensitivity would be categorized as either taste or smell. My reading project so far deals with a lot of cultural issues surrounding odors, not just with the role of smell in tasting food, with physiology, and with mechanisms of detecting odors. I've only read a bit about the intricate relationship between aroma sensors in the nose and other sensors like taste buds that are on the tongue or in the mouth. It's fascinating how the science of taste and smell is advancing so rapidly that even the science in 20 year old books is often out of date.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Quiche Questions

New pie weights about to be used
 After years and years of using dry beans or rice to weight a pie shell, I finally bought myself some ceramic pie weights. Wheee!

My culinary reading group is about to discuss The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat: Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance by Thomas McNamee so I decided to use the pie weights to prebake a pie shell for a quiche Lorraine according to Claiborne's New York Times Cookbook. There's quite a bit of information and admiration for this book in the biography I just read, in fact.

So I sort of followed what Claiborne says to do. His NYT cookbook recipe differs in a couple of ways from the Julia Child recipe, particularly as she says there should be only bacon, not cheese, in quiche Lorraine. Further, Claiborne calls for onion cooked in a small bit of the bacon fat -- she doesn't even mention onion. I think I have always in the past made it her way.

Quiche after baking for almost an hour instead of 25 minutes
After the amount of time specified in the recipe (which I later verified is the same as Child's baking time), the filling was still absolutely liquid. I ended up baking the quiche for at least twice as long as the recipe says. The oven temperatures were definitely correct.

Question 1: Does substituting skim milk for milk + cream make the filling take longer to set? The last time I made quiche, I did the same substitution so I'm not sure. I don't know how long I baked it.

Question 2: Am I totally out of my mind if I made this with skim milk instead of cream? It seems to have worked before. What's the problem?

Anyway, it wasn't terrible. It definitely wasn't burned or over cooked, either. Next time I'll use cream or make something else.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Who's Rational?

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss provides an overwhelming insight: big food companies know much more about how humans choose food than anyone else (including academics). If any people still think that humans "intuitively" or "instinctively" choose to eat the foods that their bodies actually "need" -- they should read Salt Sugar Fat! Potato chips and soda aren't nature's most perfect foods, but they are carefully designed with the purpose of meeting a human's strongest cravings for (yes) salt, fat, and sugar. So are lots of other processed foods. Broccoli, we just aren't that into you. Our instincts stink. It's a good read with lots of data.

I was thinking about several other books with coordinating insights about the issue of how humans choose what to eat, and how unlikely it is that our instinctive choices can help us achieve healthy lives, desirable body weight, and avoidance of nutritional maladies like diabetes. Also how hard it is to achieve these ends through rational self-control. Or government intervention. Or medical treatment.

First, I thought about a book that's really not about food at all: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Decision making in the many humans the author has observed is far from the calm rational process that many people believe in -- especially diet prescribers! The last thing you heard, a major event that impressed you, or someone who was manipulating you have a much higher impact on your conclusions than you would prefer to believe. Overlay this with the evidence of direct manipulation of your love of certain flavors in Salt Sugar Fat. OOPS.

Next, a very frequently quoted book: Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink PhD. As I read it a few years ago, I constantly thought about how the food industry had already learned what Wansink's research revealed. They kept their insights mainly secret and used their knowledge to make people eat more. In contrast Wansink presented his research studies as a set of insights that could help one create a strategy to eat less. Yes, we suck up more calories if there's a huge bowl of M&Ms than if there's a smaller one. We'll eat much more from a self-refilling bowl of soup because our eyes are fooling us. If someone takes away the piles of bones, people will eat more chicken wings because they lose track of what they are doing. Wansink's experiments are cited (often out of context) frequently, but reading the book really shows you how little control you have even when you think you're paying attention.

The book Why Some Like it Hot by Gary Paul Nabhan is about evolution (though not going all the way back to our prehistoric ancestors and not particularly applicable to most urban westerners). He discusses traditional foods in some relatively isolated areas where the native people over time adapted to the available food supplies, and he describes how a change, usually a forced change, to a western and modern diet has harmed them, especially by causing obesity and diabetes. Among others, he explores the foods of the eastern Mediterranean island of Crete, Native American foods in parts of the southwestern US, and native foods of Hawaii. He describes some efforts where people have reintroduced foods of their recent ancestors. His research theme: "how food reflects the interaction between biological and cultural diversity." (p. 2)

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan tackles similar themes from a different angle. His exploration of what the term "organic" has meant at various times offers an alternative view of what people think they are doing when they think they are rational.

Science applied to nutrition is not new. Perfection Salad by Laura Shapiro describes the well-meaning but often misguided efforts of the late 19th and early 20th century women to create the new discipline that they titled "home economics." Shapiro illustrates how their efforts paved the way for mass-produced and highly processed foods to be accepted into the American diet, and how the longest-lasting achievement was pathetic "home-ec" classes that may recently have at last disappeared from junior high schools. (I sure remember Miss Gordon, our home-ec teacher!) These well-meaning advocates of scientific nutrition 100 years ago or so also tried to change lower class eating habits in American cities, especially among the very poor and immigrant communities, but people preferred to eat what they liked, not what someone told them was good for them. One amusing thing: how the same type of reasoning is going on now, and probably has never stopped since the era covered by the book.

When I read libertarian arguments about the freedom to choose whether to drink a 32 ounce soda or not, I wonder about the rationality of the writer. When I read about people who think they are on a "paleolithic" diet because their food choices become so rational and evolutionarily sensible, I suspect that they don't know about actual food history. Same for the fad for "intuitive eating" and a number of other claims about how our bodies can guide us to health. (Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism by Sarah Conly as reviewed here sounds as if it has a lot of relevant material, but I haven't read it yet.)

Saturday, April 06, 2013

No to Dish Drainers

I have recently been informed that my aversion to dish drainers is even stranger than my dislike of bananas. Dish drainers, in my view, take up too much room and enable clutter to stay around. Without a dish drainer I am much more likely to put away little stuff instead of leaving it out. But I am open to suggestion so I bought a totally flat dish drainer made of silicone that can be rolled up when not in use. I'll see how it goes.

Are dish drainers a fit subject for a food blog? I hope so. Cleaning up in any case is a consequence of cooking and eating, if not the real deal.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Art/Food Food/Art

I love painters who make images of food, and often write about their works here. The L.A.Times food section just reviewed a book about making cakes and desserts with themes taken from many modern artists -- WOW!

The author, Caitlin Freeman, must be incredibly patient -- just looking at the "inside the book" page makes me think I'd never try one. The great thing is that the table of contents shown by amazon gives a little picture of each of her creations.