You can learn a lot about a culture by its attitude toward food: What people consider a wholesome meal, the timing of consumption (second breakfasts, anyone?), even the appliances used to prepare food. I’m reminded of when a globe-trotting friend of mine said that you could learn more about a culture by shopping in a local supermarket than by perusing tourist traps.
Only about a half-century ago, people had a strong enthusiasm for manufactured meals. Think of The Jetsons and food pills, small pellets containing all your daily nutritional needs in an unperishable form. Or consider how early microwave dinners resembled ersatz Star Trek dinners, different parts of a meal separated into tidy compartments.
Today, popular opinion has somewhat shifted on what is good, wholesome food. Food pills have lost out to homecooked dinners. Farmer’s markets have replaced Star Trek-type food replicators. Whether it’s unpasteurized, unbleached, pesticide-free or organic, we prefer nature’s bounty to man’s science experiments.
Why such a shift? It could speak of a growing distrust of technology. People were promised a lot by early food science. Not only would enhanced eats be cheaper and longer-lasting, but they would be healthier, too. But the initial euphoria looks to have gradually worn off as synthetic food became linked (or so we think?) to health problems. Pesticide-ridden, genetically-modified, lab-generated foods are not necessarily healthier.
And as I write this in between bites of a homegrown tomato, I wonder if another problem was that synthetic food just isn’t as much fun. Food pills and Nutraloafs ignore thousands of years of cultural history. Eating around a dinner table with family, snacking in between meals or preparing a simple Fluffernutter at home – these are activities that the synthetic future hasn’t adequately replaced.
I remain optimistic about the future of food, particularly the future of synthetic food. We may not have the formula yet, but Rome was not built in a day. In the meantime, I plan to enjoy my homegrown tomato and leave the test-tube hamburgers to more adventurous souls.