I’ve always loved history and often daydream about what it might be like to live in a different era. People put more effort into their appearance, there was a sense of occasion for almost everything, the food was fresher. People never claimed to be bored. Any technological advance was greeted with awe. It isn’t so much that I wanted to live in the past because I thought people had better manners or because life was grander- I’m not that naïve. But I feel people these days are so inured to things. There is no sense of astonishment or wonder. When technology advances, we greet it with equanimity- we expect it. But what must it have been like to see a train for the first time? To first use a phone and talk to a loved one? How did it feel to hear news of the first successful manned flight? Or to hear Neil Armstrong talk from the moon? I just wish sometimes that people today had that amazement factor.
And as I’ve become more and more into cooking and food, I really just want to go back in time a bit to see what it was like to eat. I’ve been reading the book Fannie’s Last Supper (review coming soon), which is about a modern chef who tries to recreate a 12-course Victorian dinner from a cookbook written in 1896. Glorious! I thought. Now I can see what real cooking is like.
But as I read the book, I must revise my thoughts on cooking in the past. Often, we think of technology in very black and white terms. It makes life convenient, yes, but it takes away some humanity. We decry the modernization of our favorite old towns or exotic locales we want to visit, often ignoring the fact that modernization makes life vastly more convenient for the people who live in those areas, even as it makes them less picturesque for those of us who visit. And I think I have that same experience when I consider modernization in a historical context as well. “If only we never had McDonald’s!” I say with a great sigh. “Then we wouldn’t have this fast food culture!” When really, McDonald’s was by no means the first fast food joint in the world and it’s not as thought people would go to McDonald’s if it didn’t meet a very specific need. And while I love microwaves and the very positive impact they’ve had on my life, I sometimes wish they weren’t around so that we didn’t have frozen meals full of preservatives to eat.
But what am I forgetting? That prior to about a hundred years ago, people spent a lot of time in the kitchen, and most of that time was probably not enjoyable. They made their own gelatin from calf’s feet. So when Jell-o was invented, it saved tons of time. They preserved their own fruit and vegetables, so when canned food was introduced, people were thrilled. So much effort was spent just cleaning the kitchen, so when gas stoves came around, life improved considerably. And food wasn’t all that local 100 years ago, either. People were already shipping in olive oil from Italy, spices from India, fruit from South America and all the rest. In fact, my professor told me some time ago that the economy was more global in the Victorian era than it is today. So we have a more localized economy now than we did in the past. Thus, my whole dream of living in the past, sitting in a bucolic setting and eating all sorts of heritage foods is fairly inaccurate. I would probably be eating a more international diet if I lived on the East Coast in 1900 than I am eating today in Midwestern America. Food for thought, huh? (Yes, pun totally intended).
So perhaps you want me to get to the point. I don’t know that I have one, really. I just wanted to put some thoughts down and get them straight in my head. Often when we decry a modern convenience that has perhaps gone wrong, we ignore that it probably had a very positive impact in the past. Or we consider the past from a modern timeframe instead of from its own context. For example, I glorify a 12-course Victorian dinner because I think it would look pretty and be decadent and involve a lot of pretty china and silverware and take days to prepare. But did you know that food in the Victorian era was either way sweeter or way saltier than it is today due to the preservative natures of sugar and salt? As a true lover of all things super-spicy, I now realize that I would probably hate to attend a 12-course meal in the Victorian era and would dread each successive course. On another note, my squeamish modern tummy would cringe at the thought of eating “mock” turtle soup made from cow brains.
In which case, I’m quite happy spending one hour in my kitchen making a one-course meal that meets my spice requirements, even if I don’t eat it on fine china or with fifteen different types of forks, while wearing a handmade silk dress.
What about you? Have you ever idealized an experience (or a person, maybe!), only to learn more about it and realize that it just isn’t at all what you’d hoped it would be?