Pass the Nostalgia, and Nix the Organics

I’ll be blunt: I like my food with a heaping handful of nostalgic romanticism.

Yes, there are those who claim that the present food landscape sparkles with the dreamy hue reminiscent of rose-colored glasses, that the perfume of nostalgia permeates too much of present-day “discourse” on food. And then there’s the flip side of that discourse — I hate that word, so pompous, nay, plump with the moral sensitivities of a Cotton Matheresque preacher — the self-righteous guilt-producers crusading to turn every bottle of milk into a white elixir free of anything but pure “cowness.”* Ditto eggs. Ditto greens. Ditto, ditto, ditto.

Worm in organic peach

In other words, the holy organic, the true path, the way of our ancestors. (Tongue in cheek at this point, but still a kernel of truth.)

Peddling fear of food or yearning for non-existent days of yore, at one point these two actually merge, much like libertarians and right-wingers join together quietly as it all comes full circle.

Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (Manet)

Stepping back from the constant exhortations to “eat organic” or grow my own tomatoes or feel guilty about the plight of chickens and cows (and believe me, I do feel very badly about the factory mentality that allows all of us to buy meat at much reduced prices), I take refuge in my kitchen, my cookbooks, and my “foodie” books by writers like M. F. K. Fisher, Elizabeth David (much maligned in certain circles), and Roy Andries de Groot. In other words, books that extol food memories as portrayed in Éduard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe. (I try not to think of the one flaw — the naked woman and the undeniable insect population that usually attends picnics in swarms … .)

More and more, the shrillness of the pure-food advocates, the Pollan and the Waters groupies, turns me off my feed. Their fear-mongering strips the jubilance found in the act of eating.

You see, I enjoy eating, the blissful enchantment of it.

I learned this — again — the hard way. Recently, a vicious stomach virus laid me flat for a week. I could not eat. In a few delirious moments I dreamed of Africa, where I once suffered from amoebas and lost 15 pounds in two weeks. I couldn’t eat then, either.

Food is indeed a blessing and being able to eat an even greater one. It inserts a bit of magic into the routine of everyday life. Even if it’s the same food at every meal, as is the case in much of the world, food still provides pleasure.

That’s why, from now on, I’ll be writing about cookbooks — primary sources for historical contemplation in spite of what some pundits say — and other food writing, a lot of it international (where people still actually struggle to get enough to eat and don’t have the liberty or the money to be fussy about their food), still focusing on history, ever mindful of the sacrifice of the animals who die so that we may live and of the labor of the people who produce the food sizzling in my pans, but refusing to buy into the current dietary fad (and it IS a fad) based on so much fear.

I prefer M. F. K. Fisher’s tangerines warming on the radiator:

On the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready.

All afternoon you can sit, then, looking down on the corner. Afternoon papers are delivered to the kiosk. Children come home from school just as three lovely whores mince smartly into the pension’s chic tearoom. A basketful of Dutch tulips stations itself by the tram-stop, ready to tempt tired clerks at six o’clock. Finally the soldiers stump back from the Rhine. It is dark.

The sections of the tangerine are gone, and I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell. (From Serve it Forth)

See what I mean?

Nostalgia — yes. Romanticism — yes.

No apologies.

*If they’d ever drunk milk straight from the cow, they’d know just what pure “cowness” would taste and smell like.

CANDIED TANGERINE PEELS

8  tangerines, washed well
2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups water
Superfine granulated sugar for coating

Peel tangerines with a sharp vegetable peeler and cut into 1/8-inch julienne strips. Put strips/zest into a pan with cold water, bring to a boil, and drain.

Place sugar, water, and zest in a pan, bring to boil, then reduce to a simmer, and cook for about 45 minutes until zest is translucent and syrup is thick.

Remove zest from syrup (save syrup for another use if desired) and put zest on well-oiled baking rack over baking sheets covered with foil or wax paper. Let zest cool — when almost dry, sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar. Allow to dry completely. Keeps two days at room temperature in an air-tight container.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

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13 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks, it IS a complicated issue, but you’re absolutely right — there’s that elephant in the room.

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  2. kingbiscuitpants says:

    I like to eat well and healthy sustainable etc… but I also take the organic thing with a grain of salt because the elephant in the room is that if the WORLD only grew organically many more sould starve or recieve inadequate nutrition. That being said when I can I buy local & hope for the best. I’m glad you laid it on the line honestly and great blog as always

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  3. One of the definitions of nostalgia is “homesickness.” That implies, to me anyway, a sense of a longing for something missing. And in our society we certainly are often missing a profound sense of community and belonging. Food helps to bridge that gap. Eating together, cooking together, and, yes, growing food together.

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  4. Mae, I didn’t take it as criticism, but just wanted to clarify what I meant, I guess. I agree, nostalgia can take many turns. What I find disturbing is exactly what you say in regard to political (and culinary) demagoguery — in regard to the culinary side of things, look at what’s happening it Italy in some places where “traditional” foods are being enshrined. I guess my nostalgic take is on the side of human connections, as Laura mentioned, where each person had a very vital role to fill in the survival of everyone in the family and the group. I am afraid a lot of people today feel things were better in the past and forget how hard life could be. There are things we can take from our understanding of the past and apply them to the present, but it’s really like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube to think that by raising food organically or in backyard plots that we will suddenly be transported into a bucolic existence. I choose to celebrate the insights and the knowledge of the people of the past as found in cookbooks and other such material.

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  5. mae says:

    Cynthia,
    I didn’t mean my earlier comments as criticism. In a general sense, nostalgia includes appreciation of old times and old books. In a narrower sense, it can refer to a less careful feeling that everything was better in the past and can lead to not very sensible actions. At worst, it is used as a cover for dangerous political demagogues.

    It is obvious that you are using the word in its more general and positive form, and obvious that your love of old cookbooks is a positive — and very intereting — thing.

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  6. Louise says:

    Another refreshing post Cynthia. Once again it just had to be said. I totally agree with you and then some…Quite frankly, if I get started, I may not stop. I think its best to leave the words in your more than capable hands or in this case your blog:)

    Thanks for the thoughts…

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  7. Hi Delia, good to hear from you. Absolutely true your comment about eating better when one truly enjoys food, at least I think so. Maybe there’s no academic study on that one yet, but there should be.

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  8. Laura, you’ve hit the nail on the head — yes, it’s all about connections between people.

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  9. I agree there is sometimes no real difference between the two sides, hence my comments about libertarians and right-wing theorists. But like Laura I think there’s a place for nostalgia because of the human connections.

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  10. delianeal says:

    WHOLEHEARTEDLY agree with you!!! The current fad to portray food as our enemy serves to crush any love of culinary wonders under its tyrannical stiletto-heel. I adore reading de Groot’s battle plans for the perfect dinner party menu (including the one about how best to gustatorily seduce a young woman who has accepted an invitation to your lair for the evening – talk about nostalgia!).
    I truly believe that when one embraces the joy of food and completely enjoys what they are eating, they tend to eat more healthily and don’t tend to stuff themselves with crap. Meal time is way too important for that.
    No apologies indeed! I’m with you all the way!!! :-)

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  11. Cynthia, this is a beautiful post. Nostalgia can be dangerous, and so can mass agriculture produced foods.

    But I got into the food history and food writing business because of the aesthetics and stories, and because I am a connector. Food creates connections between people and history and it helps take away the fear of life’s randomness by making us less alone. Yes, we must be mindful of stupidity and dishonesty that comes from nostalgia peddlers who write false history. And the fear mongers who turn eating into a moralistic act.

    There is power and beauty to be found in food. Human beings need beauty and connection. And MFK’s moment with tangerine peels are the kind that make life worth living, at least for me.

    I do have compassion for people’s fears and vulnerability to fear. And also forthe deep human need for connection that leads to all sorts of false information and false history. I am interested in understanding what this yearning is about.

    Again, thanks for your thoughtful and beautiful posts.

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  12. mae says:

    I’m not sure that there’s always a real dichotomy between some of the organic proponents and some of the nostalgia writers, but I take your point and agree with you. Some of the local and organic food claims are based in a kind of nostalgia for what never was. I remember the complaints of tainted and adulterated — unnatural — food in Tristram Shandy. Not recent.

    Also, a trend worse than the virtue-mongers is molecular gastronomy or whatever you want to call the distortion of food into something that’s not even really food. I dread when restaurants around me get those machines for making food artificial.

    Thanks for linking to your old post about deGroot — I enjoyed it enormously. I have read his book and I’ve also been to that area of the Alps.

    best…maefood.blogspot.com

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