Future Food Needs Some Historical Context

A new book considers how past innovations transformed our food systems.

Readers who are both connoisseurs of fine nosh and consumers of nonfiction may be already aware of MIT Press’s Food, Health, and the Environment series, which deals with the future of modern food systems from the local to the global scale. It addresses issues like food access and undernutrition, social justice and food scarcity, and the environmental impacts of our world’s food supply chain. Over the past fifteen years, the Boston-based publisher has put out a book about meat, a book about coffee, one on GMOs, one on food justice in San Francisco, and books on farmers, immigrants, pesticides, seeds, and food trucks. 

Image of Acquired Tastes book cover.

The latest title in this collection, Acquired Tastes: Stories about the Origins of Modern Food, confronts “modern” food—not only what we eat today, but more importantly, where it came from and when.

The book is organized as a collection of essays. Each chapter relates a story of key individuals who contributed to create our modern food system: One where uniformly packaged foods are manufactured from ingredients taken from sources that span the globe; are promoted by celebrities; are heavily marketed for their adherence to the latest, trendiest nutrition research; and are produced and transported by unsustainable supply chains that oppress already downtrodden populations and denude the Earth. Sometimes both. 

The common academic style of having a smorgasbord of discrete authors tackle each chapter makes the reading uneven at times. But what the book lacks in continuity of voice, it makes up for in integrity of author choice. The contributors are all primarily historians, and they take great pains to consider whose stories they are telling, how these stories are told, and whose voices are heard. There is an implicit hyper-awareness that all those things can shape policy—and thereby reality. 

The collected stories argue that modern food arose not after World War II, as is commonly supposed, but almost a century before that, when modern art and modern war arose. As industrial forces were reshaping society and the early impressionist painters were challenging how people saw art and the world around them, a new era of industrial food production was quietly emerging as well. Processed white bread, corn syrup, refined white sugar, sodas like Pepsi and Coke, strained canned vegetables, and inexpensive tropical fruits all held a permanent place on the American dinner table by the beginning of the 20th century.

“By the mid-20th century, food in much of the United States and Europe bore the collective imprint of global trade, colonization, mass distribution, racist science, celebrity culture, and factory processing. In the mid-nineteenth century, it did not,” the introduction contends. 

The multiple vignette approach to telling this history really works. Each chapter highlights a single story demonstrating how we got to here from there and reminding us that our present circumstance was not inevitable. Our modern tastes were acquired, whether by design or not, and things didn’t have to be this way. Without colonization, imperialism, industrialization, and the wide-ranging effects of all three, which culminated in the late nineteenth century, our world would be very different indeed. And thus so would our diets. Had America not been so invested in denying Filipino independence after purchasing the Philippines from Spain in 1898, to take just one example, Filipino cuisine might enjoy the same popularity in the United States today as Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine do instead of remaining largely unknown. 

“We are not only what we eat, but what we consume… our consumption of images becomes our constitution and deserves our thoughtful attention.”

We first learn about Isaac Friedlander, who in the 1850s and 60s had the grand idea to drain the Tulare Lake basin in California that had sustained the Yokuts people for millennia, with the idea to plant wheat there to ship to the laborers flocking to Manchester, England. They were starving for white bread as they powered the Industrial Revolution. Nowadays, the dairy, fruit, and cotton grown in the Tulare Lake basin ends up in supermarkets across the United States and Asia, and Yokuts people still live in the area—many now working at the Tachi Palace Casino and Hotel near Lemoore, California.

We learn about the immigrant street peddlers who hawked a literal boatload of watermelons before they rotted in the summer heat of New York harbor in 1895, drawing our attention to how much weight is borne by that tiny little ignored preposition “to” carrying the “farm to table” trend. We learn about Ida B. Wells and Lucy Parsons, who in the 1880s were inspired to fight for food justice and found mutual aid societies for Black people when they witnessed the injustices at the People’s Grocery and Haymarket Square in Memphis and Chicago, respectively. And we learn about Marion Harland, the late 19th century’s favorite writer on homemaking and housewifery, who derided canned foods in 1895 but then touted their benefits in 1910 after the National Canners Association brought her on board. All of the chapters reference each other, as if they are in conversation. The effect of this device for the reader is profound. The cross-referencing gives a greater intimacy of the sweeping subject, as if we have already read, and are already intimately familiar with, all the stories except the one we are currently reading. It’s sweet.

In her chapter entitled “Blackness and Bananas: The Josephine Baker Effect,” Tashima Thomas notes, “We are not only what we eat, but what we consume… our consumption of images becomes our constitution and deserves our thoughtful attention.” The Josephine Baker Effect refers to the way Baker’s erotic dance in a skirt made of bananas conflated sexuality, food, Blackness, and celebrity in consumers’ minds—something that affected how food is perceived and marketed for decades to come.
This book will certainly help interested readers give their consumptive habits the thoughtful attention they deserve and highlight for them that just as our current food ways and woes came from particular decisions made by particular people reacting to their particular circumstances in the past, so too the choices we make today will shape the diets of our descendants.

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