Vital Signs

A Brief History of Food

In 1960, novelist John Steinbeck circled the country in a pickup truck with a standard-bred poodle named Charley in a sort of cultural vision quest.  What he found was not always a pretty sight.

His observations, published as Travels With Charley: In Search of America, included the prediction that his fellow Californians would lose the local flavor of their speech: “Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.”  Steinbeck qualified his nostalgia, pointing out that:

it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days.  Mother’s cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good un-pasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes and that sweet local speech I mourn was a child of illiteracy and ignorance.

Four decades after his prediction, U.S. census figures for 2000 showed a distinct drop in cultural identity, even though the population had grown by 13 million since 1990, largely through immigration.

 Cuisine and culture, indeed cuisine and humanity itself, are inextricably linked.  Among the earliest known human discoveries was soup, which (as Carson I.A. Ritchie speculated...

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