Saturday, December 4, 2010

TSS: The good old days?

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 na├»ve.  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?


  1. Anonymous12/05/2010

    I too love history and always used to fantasise about what it would be like to live in the past. Until, that is, I think about hygiene and the fact that you probably need to be rich and a man to enjoy yourself:(

  2. I never glorify the past. I love love love being alive in an era with indoor plumbing, toilet paper, reading glasses, and microwaves!

  3. Anonymous12/05/2010

    I used to volunteer at a museum that had several living history days a year. And that was really fun, I loved doing open-hearth cooking and playing graces and everything. But at the end of the day, it was great to go home and be able to use safety pins and show my ankles. :p

  4. I've never been a believer in the good old days honestly. I hear stories about the way my parents and grandparents and great grandparents lived and am just horrified. Newness is good, but if no one complained of being bored, then 1) it meant they were constantly working or 2) they didn't come from Jane Austen's era where the women did nothing but sit around and sew or walk or play the piano. :D

  5. chasingbawa- Yes, the hygiene would be hard to deal with, too!

    rhapsodyinbooks- I enjoy living in this era, too, but I do wish we had more a sense of wonder sometimes.

    Jenny- Ooh, showing off your ankles?! Scandalous!

    Amanda- I don't think I really believe in the "good old days," either. But I do think having that sense of occasion and amazement at some things would be nice. I do think a lot of people were constantly working then, but also... well, a *LOT* of people are constantly working now, just not at really manual labor intensive jobs.

  6. Count me in as one of those who loves hearing stories about the past yet revels in wonderful technology today!
    Every era had advances of some sort in how things were done and every era celebrated yet wondered if those advances were a good thing.

    Enjoyed your post today! :)


  7. As soon as I began to realize that historical fiction was obscuring what the past would be like for *me*, a lower middle class woman, I stopped longing to live in another era. Too often in previous decades, it wasn't *people* who were in the kitchen for hours creating those meals - it was women. And I wouldn't even have been the sort of woman who could afford servants (or, farther back, slaves) to take over that drudge work - I would have been doing it all, possibly as a servant for someone else.

    I do think every once in awhile we do get a technological advance that is sufficiently wondrous. I remember getting to use the internet at home for the first time: it was awesome. Probably not as awe-inducing as seeing a train for the first time, or Neil Armstrong on the moon, but I knew pretty quickly that my world was changing, even if the internet had actually existed in some form for a decade before I got it at home.

  8. Happy reading!

    I read three books in November. Two of those are Tintin albums and the third carried over from October!

    Right now I am happy to be back in the reading mode, although a bit slower!

    Here is my Sunday Salon post!

  9. I think I know what you mean about that sense of wonder. Technology moves along, but it does feel like nothing really astonishing has happened in a long time. More baby steps. When you read about the World's Fairs and the people who lined up for hours to see technological wonders - I just doubt that would happen now. I think the internet was probably it for me, and since I was so young it's hard to remember if I cared about it or not.

    I've often thought that I wouldn't mind living in the past, if I could be rich and have lots of servants. Otherwise, I'm sure my life would be so full of work I wouldn't have time for anything else - nor would I have been able to afford books among other things. People often think I'd like to live in the Middle Ages because I like to study it so much - they couldn't be more wrong! I'd love to visit, but I'd never stay.

    Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm

  10. It's true, I always think of the past through rose colored glasses bu then get freaked when my internet connection is slow or , god-forbid, down! But you are right, we don't appreciate what wondrous things we have and too many of us are always looking for the next new thing.
    Great post!
    How's school, hope everything is well with you!

  11. Windows Wide Open- Thank you for visiting! I revel in technology as well.

    Angela- That's a very good point. Most historical fiction isn't written about the poor people, perhaps because it's harder to know what their everyday lives would be like. I also remember getting the internet at home, but I was young enough at that time to not think it was super-exciting, I guess.

    Meghan- Yes, especially with the World's Fairs! I wonder if people who saw the zipper realized how much it would change the world ;-)
    I think that's a good balance, taking a visit to the past but always being able to come back home to now.

    Bookmagic- Haha, that's a good point! I HATE slow internet, too! School is going pretty well, though I am very much ready for winter break!

  12. The past only exists in our dreams and so we manipulate it to suit our purposes - not that there is anything wrong with this; I'm a big fan of dreaming myself into different time periods. But it is definitely a good idea to remember that our romancing the past does leave out the more nasty stuff. :)

    Love this post!

  13. I thought about this very thing in relation to a book I was reading about cooking in the 50's. It seems that although the food was amazing and decadent, the women who were preparing it had to start very early in the morning and work all day until the meal was served, in addition to the clean-up. I think it's just human to romanticize certain things about the past, especially dining, but it is probably fair to say that it the actual day to day living in it might have taken us by surprise with all the things that were required to get to the finished product. Very astute and thought provoking post, Aarti!

  14. I sometimes miss the sense of occasion that dressing up gave people in the past. Hats, in particular. That's one reason I annually spend days preparing an elaborate afternoon tea and inviting people to come and read a poem and wear a hat.

  15. I LOVE this post! I too have idealised the past - it seems very romantic to be able to experience medieval times, until you think of how basic everyday life was and how people died really young. :-)

    Your point about modern inventions making people's lives easier is really interesting. There was recently an article in the International Herald Tribune on technological change and how it used to come out of necessity, whereas now it just IS. As in, how many of us actually NEED an ipad?

  16. I want to go to Jeanne's tea party and poetry reading so I can wear a hat!
    Sometimes I wonder (and I do think I am good at finding the world wonderful) but I am sometimes amazed that our govts were able to get fresh water systems created. Then again, we still need such in many parts of the world.

  17. Trisha- You're so right! Nothing makes a dream a nightmare more than reality ;-)

    Zibilee- You're right. Lots of work, and I'm sure modern conveniences were raved over, even if now we're trying in some ways to move backwards. Convenience is great, but I still love the feeling of serving a meal that takes a lot of preparation.

    Jeanne- Ooh, that sounds like a GREAT event!

    joanna- That sounds like a great article, I will look it up. I haven't thought about it like that, I guess. I mean, we do have more leisure time now, so not all technology has to be necessity. I guess I also am not sure what necessity would be. Is a dishwasher a necessity? Hmmm, will look into that!

    Care- I want to go to that party, too ;-)

  18. There's tons of things we can easily do without - but why? I will never give up my microwave or dishwasher willingly again.

    My aunt has recipes handed down from - great grandmother? Not sure. For spoiled meat. Call me spoiled but I like my meat fresh (and preferably chicken so I don't feel badly about eating it).

    Fun topic! I've always wanted to time travel - still do - but not live in the past. (Oh, and my Dad made me watch the moon landing - so did not care at that age. But I do remember it).

  19. The older I get the more often I find myself idealizing the past. My teenage son rolls his eyes when I start into one of my story about the way things used to be (of course always with the suggestion by me that they were better). I am starting to sound more and more like my parents! But I think you are right that in most cases when we really study things we are much better off today with all of our modern conveniences even with all of the tradeoffs that exists as a result. I can't imagine life without my refrigerator, gas stove, and microwave. I think I would starve to death without them!

  20. My big thing was always trains. I thought it'd be like in Agatha Christie, with velvet seats and dark wood paneling, brass fixtures and frosted glass. (But no murders, please).

    And maybe it is, if you can afford to go on one of those fancy heritage trains, but things are far less swank for the rest of us. My first wake-up call came during that Sex and the City episode where Carrie and Samantha take the train to San Francisco. I really hoped the show had just played up squalor for comedy's sake, but then I met a girl who used to work as a train stewardess. She said it was even worse. Eek!


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