The modern demise of the family dinner is much bemoaned these days. But how long has this really been a tradition? When did it start? Why did it happen? These and other questions are answered in fascinating detail in Three Squares.
Caroll takes a historical view of thr American meal, beginning with pilgrim pottages and moving thru Victorian dinner parties and factory lunch pails to TV dinners and our current dinner habits. She draws on first-hand accounts of recipes and menus for a glimpse into what was considered acceptable dining across centuries of American gastronomic history.
This book gives a broad view of dinner’s development, illustrated with many interesting details. For example, did you know most pilgrims would’ve subsisted largely on one-pot meals of grain, suet and greens all boiled together (sounds awful!) Or that Thomas Jefferson was considered a bit odd for the variety of fruits and vegetables he grew at Monticello? Victorians threw elaborate dinner parties as measures of class and wealth but believed enjoying food too much was a moral weakness. Up until 100 years ago, steak was a popular breakfast food. All of these facts and more fit into an informative big picture story.
Along the way, Caroll also writes about the roles of women/housewives towards food preparation. Our ideal of Mom making dinner for Dad when he comes home from work and the kids when they come home from school is actually a relatively recent concept, albeit a logical conclusion of the past 300 years of eating habits in America.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes food or books about food- or is just curious and wanting to learn something new. I certainly learned a lot, and enjoyed myself in the process. Now let me make myself a snack….
You might like: Omnivores Dilemma, Michael Pollan. At Home, Bill Bryson.
Salt, Sugar, Fat
According to urban legend, Doritos are made with crack cocaine. The truth is, they don’t have to be, because they are made with a frightening combination of salt, sugar and fat that is specifically designed to trigger pleasure responses in the brain and keep you coming back for more.
This book is an expose of the industrialized American processed food industry, with biology, history and nutrition information thrown in. It is divided into three sections, one each for sugar, salt, and fat. In each section, the author explores the human body’s response to that taste as well as ways that processed food companies capitalize on it to sell more product.
One of the more interesting concepts in this book was the idea of “bliss points:” that (through biology as well as acquired taste) we all reach a point where we max out on our enjoyment of a certain taste – that up to that point, more is better, but after that point, more is not better and maybe even worse. When you start combining the salt, sugar and fat tastes together, the bliss point is much higher than for each taste alone. In fact, when the researchers combined fat and sugar, they literally could not get people to max out on the taste – they never reached a bliss point. Which I guess explains why we all love ice cream so much.
The other thing that was most eye-opening to me was the discussion of cheese. I know milk can be a controversial issue, but I love it. I grew up drinking 2 glasses of milk a day and still crave it if I don’t have it on a regular basis. I love cheese of all kinds. But this book revealed a concerted effort on the part of food manufacturers (aided by the industrial dairy complex and government subsidies) to increase our dairy and cheese consumption. Very little of it is in the form of glasses of lowfat milk or even pieces of cheese on crackers, and more like double cheese frozen pizza (with cheese stuffed crust and cheese dipping sauce) and chocolate cream cheese dipping spread.
The biology in the book is interesting; what’s frightening is how manufacturers of processed food use that to push more sugar, salt and fat into their products – thus creating more of a demand for foods artificially loaded with those tastes. Even seemingly harmless foods like breakfast cereals, bread and soup are loaded with sugar and salt.
Apparent efforts by food manufactures to adapt to health trends don’t necessarily make foods better, either. Most of the time when one thing (sugar, salt or fat) is lowered in a food, the other things are actually increased to make it continue to taste good.
When I got done with this book, I literally took stock of the processed foods in my house. Thanks to Michael Pollan and his writings on “real food” (see previous post) it was thankfully a short list: mostly basics like bread, pasta and cereal; dressings and sauces, and canned soup bases. And I think I might start making my own spaghetti sauce now.
You might like: Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser. Food, Inc (movie.) Food Rules, Michael Pollan
I have been a Pollan devotee for a few years now. His philosophy is best summed up in his book Food Rules: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables.” The first rule is the most important one for me. By “eat food” he means real food- food close to its natural state, without too many ingredients and without non-food additives. For example, eat 120 calories of Greek yogurt with fruit and, yes, sugar – not 100 calorie processed dairy product with artificial sweeteners, emulsifiers, texturizers, etc. If you can’t understand the ingredients (with a basic understanding of food labels) don’t eat it. If the ingredients are not actually food, don’t eat it.
In Cooked, Pollan writes about his realization over the years that the best way to get real food is to cook it yourself (or buy it from a person who cooked it, but not to buy processed food.) He explores the 4 basic elements and ties each one to a type of cooking: Fire/Grilling, Water/Boiling, Air/Yeast Rising, and Earth/Fermenting. Each section contains an interesting combination of history, practical instruction, science, and health information.
To be honest, Cooked is a weighty tome compared to Pollan’s other, more concise books, and it lasted longer than my attention span. Fire was an excellent chapter, with an exploration of BBQ history and race relations in America, not to mention mouth-watering food descriptions. Water was very practical. Air got into competing theories of bread by hipsters in California (why not more on bread around the world?!) By the time I got to Earth, I didn’t care very much how sauerkraut is made (also, it’s a little gross.)
That said, I still think its an excellent book for anyone interested in food, cooking, and healthful eating (in a reasonable way that still allows for BBQ, bread and cheese.) There are even recipes! Maybe just read each section as a book and then give it a rest before going on.
You may like: Food Rules and Omnivore’s Dilemma, both by Michael Pollan. (also extensive bibliography in the book.) Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day, Jeff Hertzberg.