Real Mayonnaise, Real Food? Or Just Sanctimonious Snobbery?

Kroger 5
Shopping for food (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

It’s not REAL mayonnaise. You know the one I mean.

Mayonnaise – made with egg yolks, an acidic liquid, a dash of mustard, salt, and oil, usually olive – feels as smooth and soft as a silk pillow, sliding like thickened cream across the tongue. There’re no startled taste buds in the presence of too much acid or too little salt. That’s the ideal, the benchmark, for the so-called real mayonnaise that you and I could easily whip up in our own kitchens with a bowl, a whisk, and a steady hand. If we wanted to.

Does that make mayonnaise in a jar a bad thing?

No, not at all.

Lately, the food world seems to be rocking on to the tune of “Fresh, Natural, Authentic, Delicious, Real Food.” And it’s becoming rather cringe-worthy to watch food writers extolling real food versus …  what? “Fake” food?

Keep in mind what The Fat Nutritionist once said about real food: “All foods, like all women, are real.”  She goes on to say, “It is not a coincidence that the foods popularly imbued with ‘realness’ map so cleanly onto class-related ideas of healthy, high-status food. Yes, they may be nourishing and wonderful, but these foods also tend to require more resources to acquire or prepare.” To support her point, she refers to The Philosophy of Food, by David M. Kaplan.

In other words, regardless of its nature, all food, even that called “fake” by some, provides energy (calories), which, as all nutritionists know, is ultimately the number one nutritional requirement of the body.

A recent conversation among some food writers inspired me to look at the question of what is considered to be real/authentic food these days.  One respondent, Wendy Tien, commented, “ I don’t like the word authentic as it’s used so often in the context of food. What do you mean by the words authentic and real, as you use them?” And so the following are just random thoughts of mine, open to more conversation and reflection.

People are fighting over real food these days. In so many ways. It’s becoming a religion. Among certain factions, the consensus  about what real food seems to be this, from the 100 Days of Real Food camp: “Real food is wholesome and nourishing. It is simple, unprocessed, whole food. Real food is pure and unadulterated, sustained yet unchanged by man. Real food is in its natural state, whole and unrefined.” What? Unless you’re a raw foodist, eating pretty much only fruits and some vegetables, the food you put in your mouth will be processed, because cooking changes everything.

So, let’s first examine the dictionary definition of “real” – thank you, Merriam-Webster, for stepping in here:

  1. real, not false or copied

2. accurate or based in fact

3. traditional or original or very similar to this

4. INFORMAL complete: used for emphasizing that a description of someone or something is very accurate

5. used for emphasizing that someone or something has the true qualities of a particular type of person or thing

Real, as the word’s being bandied about these days in regard to food, encompasses all five of these definitions. But the truth of the matter is this: Cuisines rose up because of available ingredients, time of year, geography, labor supply, all of which affect authenticity and real food. Real food, to some, is as Silvana Vukadin-Hoitt says,” For a long time I didn’t even know why until I realized it was just the simplicity and authenticity that was missing. A simple plate of pasta al pomodoro or a fresh fish, grilled with a squeeze of lemon.”

The problem with eating this way is that truly fresh tomatoes and fish, lemons, and handmade pasta are not always there for the taking. And that is why preservation, a form of processing, is so vital. Many people today don’t realize that fresh food, at least in the northern hemisphere, was limited to a very short period of time, due to seasonal changes. True of the southern hemisphere as well, the further one gets from the tropics. Otherwise, why do you suppose so many of the old cookbooks devote so much ink to preservation methods? We’re so used to global transportation bringing us strawberries in winter, etc., aren’t we? I must add too that many wealthy people in the past did indeed enjoy fresh produce, thanks to their greenhouses and armies of gardeners.

No matter where you live and how determined you are, you probably are using processed foods. The thing is, unless you are living in a cabin somewhere on the prairie or the forest, you cannot raise all of your food. And truth be told, people didn’t in the past. At least not all of it. Why do you suppose there was a grist mill in most towns? Or at least nearby.

It’s very likely that if you take a look at your pantry shelf, you see the following, as I do when I walk into my kitchen:

Canned tomatoes

Stock (chicken, beef, vegetable)

Mayonnaise

Mustard/Catsup

Olive and other oils

Flour

Canned tuna/anchovies

Canned pumpkin

Canned pears

Canned peppers

Vinegars

Canned beans

Dried beans

Pasta/noodles

Pickles (cucumber)

Fruit jams

Dried herbs

Looking into your refrigerator, you’ll see milk, butter, cheese, cottage, cheese, yogurt, bacon, nuts, and assorted salsas. And your freezer probably holds some frozen peas, corn, lima beans, and spinach.

Notice two things about these foods: 1) they’re processed in some way and 2) aside from a few –like canned tomatoes, pickles, jams – you’re unlikely to make them or even be able to make them if you wanted to. Unless … you have the time, the land, the labor, the facilities, and the strength to do it all by yourself, day in and day out. But most of these foods are also relatively natural, close to their natural state.

One must have time to do all that canning, etc. That is one reason why so many people – mostly women who’d been in the kitchen all their lives and felt the work to be drudgery – welcomed the onslaught of convenience foods. The act of preserving food was lifted off of their shoulders.

It took me 8 hours to make 2 half pints of apple butter the other day, from 8 pounds of apples, not something I want to do every day.

I do like my choices when it comes to food, even if it’s not local. I shudder to think what we’d be eating here in southwest Virginia in the middle of January if we relied only on fresh and local. I digress here, but I believe that one of the reasons that Lent worked so well, and became a part of the European winter routine, is that the food restrictions indirectly caused what food people did have to last longer, until early spring when some foods became available.

Making a big deal out of just plain cooking is the norm these days, it seems. So is a degree of snobbism that  sneaks into many conversations about food, provoking comments like that of Kathy Kiper, who lives in the American South, “We like our beans and cornbread, fried bologna and sweet tea, just fine.”

This debate about real food will be perceived as elitist as long as the average person doesn’t have access to the fresh food and cannot pay for it even if it were available … . I agree with another comment from The Fat Nutritionist:

“The problem is that I’ve met very few people who make personal choices of the ‘real food’ persuasion without also pressuring those around them…without also proclaiming that the foods most people rely on to survive are inherently inferior…without also implying that the reason the rest of us are fat, or poor, or don’t have shiny hair, or don’t walk around perpetually bathed in magical sunbeams of happiness, is entirely because we eat the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad food — the food that is not Real.”

The New Yorker published a cartoon by Emily Flake, in which a man and a woman are seated at a table eating, and the man says to the woman, “Is this from the community garden? It tastes sanctimonious.”

In my opinion, this cartoon sums up current attitudes in food, pointing out this almost religious fervor with which people yearn for perfection in food. Yes, sanctimonious is a word I would use to describe it, too.

Me, I like that jar of Real Mayonnaise.

Authentic food merits its own discussion. Stay tuned.

Butternut squash rs
Butternut Squash, Farmers Market (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2014 C. Bertelsen

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14 comments

  • The French would not agree. The Vietnamese neither. Le Roi Henri IV was quite a Marxist in his own way. “A chicken in every pot.”

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  • Thanks for commenting. I agree, the issue is complex. Choice plays a big role, but if you have no choices, what good is that? It IS a class-related issue, as I said and you imply. Money is the great divide here, because of lack of educational opportunities and the existence of food deserts, etc. yes, it’s complicated, but I stand my belief that sanctimonious snobbery plays a huge role.

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  • There is enormous complexity in this issue. For me it boils down to the choices available to us, and those we make for ourselves. Sadly society has failed many people. They have not learned about health, nutrition and frugal home economics nor have they acquired the skills to prepare fresh food. They unwittingly consume more salt, sugar, fat, chemicals and calories than are optimum. While sanctimonious snobbery may enter the equation when discussing “real” food today hopefully time will modify the message and more people will mindfulldy prepare healthy meals from fresh ingredients at home.

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  • When I finish the current stage of kitchen renovation, I’ll have time to make all the edits the publisher wants (there’s about a 4 week hiatus while countertops are being fabricated — & that can’t start until all lower cabinets are installed). While Hannah Glass *might* have begun her recipe with, “first you catch your hare,” around here it starts with “first you gut your kitchen.”

    The process gives new and bitter meaning to the term “slow cooking.”

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  • Thanks, Gary! I guess I could have made that much, but I didn’t have that many apples, unfortunately. But I was happy last night when I ate hot biscuits with some of the apple butter.

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  • All absolutely true, Cynthia (& is in line with my latest book — in press — to which you’ve contributed photos).

    I should point out, however, that in approximately the same amount of time you spent making “2 half pints of apple butter,” you could have made 20. Assuming, of course that you would WANT to have made 20 half pints of apple butter.

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  • Salt, Sugar, and Fat (the book) presents an impressive case for reforming the US food industry not by yelling and screeching “EEK! Man-Made Chemicals!” and so forth about every item on the store shelves, but by drawing measured distinctions and making careful, logical, non-sensational arguments. Big contrast to a lot of well-meant rhetoric about how all the right-minded people should simply return to some Edenic state of natural goodness by buying a list of approved products. Cynthia is right, there’s an awful lot of cloud-cuckoo-land thinking popularized by people who expect to make the world free from error without paying attention to the lives of neighbors counting dollars and minutes and personal energy
    at the supermarket.

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  • Another wonderful post, Cindy. You’ve said so eloquently exactly what I think. (And don’t get me started on “clean eating!”)

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  • Sorry, sugar and fat HAVE been used for a long time – think duck confit. Think jams, brines for meat, compotes, fruits in honey, candied fruit/peels, etc.

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  • Cynthia, have you read the Book, Salt, Sugar & Fat? It is highly informative and delves into the heart of the food industry.
    Yes I agree man has used salt as a preservation method, but not sugar or fat. Now all three are in all of our food.

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  • Thanks for the comment, but I think your statement “only in the last century have we added chemicals, fat, salt and sugar to the mix” is wrong, because all of those things have always been the ways people preserved food. I agree the other preservatives have been problematical. Yes, moderation always!

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  • Loved your post and completely get your point, however, when we eat something that contains more man made chemicals than it does actual food stuff, I can’t call it real food. Yes, man has on some level always processed the food we eat, but it is only in the last century have we added chemicals, fat, salt and sugar to the mix and results are showing up on our waist belts.
    I try to pick my poison so to speak. Like you I will take the the mayo in a jar, but won’t eat fast food or frozen meals. Balance and moderation in all things, right?

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