Rachel Laudan is a food historian, and she has a bone to pick with (in her phrase) the culinary Luddism of the Slow Food Movement. I first read Laudan when she tackled the question of authenticity in Mexican cookbooks (link via the website for the highly recommended newsletter Simple Cooking) and came up with the answer that authenticity is a sham. Her central points seem to break down into two concerns: first, that food wasn’t so great back in the day; second, that the very notion of authentic cuisine is problematic. Both points have something to them. Spices were valuable in Columbus’ Europe not simply because they tasted good but also because they covered the taste of rot. Preserving meat, canning vegetables, refrigeration, and better processing have clearly lead to less spoilage and healthier eating — the last known mass outbreak of ergotism, the hallucinations, convulsions, and gangrene caused by grain infected with Claviceps purpurea and which some blame for the Salem witch trials, occured in 1951. And thanks to modern processing techniques (even scorned ones like the Birdseye method of flash-freezing foods, invented by Clarence Birdseye after he observed Inuit in cooking with fresh-caught fish that had been almost flash-frozen by the harsh Labrador winds), we have a wider selection of foods to choose from than our grandparents did; look at an older cookbook like Fannie Farmer and check out the ingredients represented.
Fanny Farmer’s recipes represent an authentic American cuisine, as authentic as hog and hominy, hopping John, baked beans, or vaguely terrifying concoctions like taters and possum. But while fried dough and sugar is present in a lot of European cuisines, I’d argue that its oh-so-tasty debased form is part of American (and Canadian) culture. So is turn of the century American invention chop suey. So are spaghetti (with or without meatballs), enchiladas and other Tex-Mex fare, pastrami on rye, and the deep dish pizza. Laudan is completely right to chastise those obsessed with authentic ethnic cuisine for ignoring the fact that cultures change what they eat over time. (Even the Amish, those American icons of old-fashioned life, use packaged food.)
Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s, freely admits that the changes he helped bring about altered the eating habits (for good or ill) of millions of people in the Third World. However, the Green Revolution also helped prevent millions from starving. The slow spread of American culture and rising affluence in many countries have also changed diets: Mexicans eat less lard and more oil, largely a healthy change; Samoans eat less yucca and more Spam, largely an unhealthy one. It certainly does seem condescending to say that Samoans or Mexicans or Chinese aren’t allowed to eat McDonald’s food and remain "authentic".
But foodies don’t just think that McDonald’s is bad for Samoans, Mexicans, or Chinese; they think that McDonald’s food is bad for everyone. The advantages of American convenience food largely have to do with convenience. Women are no longer forced to spend all day in the kitchen and I can go out right now to my local grocery and get food from all corners of the globe. But I think Laudan is fooling herself if she doesn’t think that food lovers, from Alice Waters on down, don’t realize loving attention to locally-grown ingredients and preparation that highlights their qualities comes at a tradeoff of time and money. But there’s a reason people are willing to drop $200 on a meal at Chez Panisse: the food is damn good. I think most people also recognize that oldie-timey food can’t be translated directly into the modern world.
I don’t have an army of servants, so dining as though I lived in the Gilded Age is right out; I don’t know how to run my own farm, so dining like a farmer boy isn’t going to happen (I don’t even have a smokehouse out behind my apartment building). I’m happy to eat mac and cheese from a box or a veggieburger or pierogies from a bag when I’m running low on time, but V. and I enjoy cooking and eating, and we are blessed enough to be able to indulge ourselves by making something special and tasty. America is a rich nation, where cooking can be not just about sustenance but about pleasure, an act of love. If Laudan wants to tell me that the buttermilk waffles made from scratch I had this morning are no better than Eggos, that’s fine, but she can have my waffle when she pries it from my cold dead hand.