Food Habits in the Pre-Industrialised Era – A Look Back in Time.
Food waste reduction is currently high not only on our environmental, but also on our social agendas. In its 2018 Culinary Forecast, the National Restaurant Association lists food waste reduction in its TOP 10 FOOD CONCEPT TRENDS. A lot of effort goes into changing our behaviour as consumers and entities to waste less food. Yet we don’t always realise that our prodigal behaviour is a function of our mindset and our attitude to food.
Although most of us would agree that wasting food is bad, we approach the personal challenge of wasting less, framed by our modern mindset that food is cheap, accessible and abundant. We are unable to resolve the subconscious paradox: why should we be mindful of our food when it is widely affordable and easily available?
So our attitude to food is at best ambiguous.
How can we force ourselves to be careful with our food, when we have such a low regard for it?
Before we can expect drastic shifts in our behaviour, we might first need to reconsider the way we have come to think about our nourishment and try to change our attitude to food. We need to understand why we have stopped attaching intrinsic value to food and how this has occurred. We do this in a two-part series, briefly looking at the major factors that have shaped our current attitudes to food.
Since the early days of Homo sapiens and for thousands of years since, people have been very mindful about their food and careful not to waste it, as accessing food was difficult and often hazardous, and when money was invented, expensive. Seen from the perspective of the history of humankind, food waste is a very recent phenomenon. It started less than 200 years ago, with the Industrial Revolution.
Most food in the pre-industrialised era was homegrown and home bread. This was a lengthy and labour-intensive process, which often lasted for well over half a year, yet was totally insecure. Famine was a common occurrence as food abundance was strongly dependant on favourable climate conditions and the absence of crop and stock epidemics. Thus, most people could not count on regular food availability.
There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.
– Mahatma Gandhi
Consequentially, all religions across the globe had a large section of their practices and rituals devoted to fertile harvesting and to appeasement of the Gods. Food security is a major theme in all faiths know to mankind. Practices range from animal sacrifices to meal prayers and graces. All polytheistic religions had a special god in charge of agriculture and stock farming. Later, in Christianity for example, these functions were assigned to the various regional saints. It may be that there is an interesting correlation between the decline of religion in Western societies and the growing food security in those parts of the world.
A lot of effort went into perfecting pre-refrigeration preservation techniques, such as canning, marinating, pickling and fermentation.
Today, many staple dishes in various ethnic cuisines are a showcase of these methods from kimchi in Asia, through yoghurt and marinated peppers on the Balkans and in the Middle East to sauerkraut in the Germanic countries.
Seen on a broader level, food storage is a mark of our civilization. As Dana Gunders, writes in her inspiring book “Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money by Wasting Less Food,”
“Food Storage is really an ancient art. Cave dwellers buried their hunted game in snow, and Inuits preserved seabirds in the hollowed-out belly of a seal. Storing food was a survival skill and also the inspiration behind all sorts of delicious traditional foods we still enjoy today.”
Yet, the art of non-refrigerated preservation is gradually dying, as less and less, people these days take the time and energy to inherit preservation skills from their grandparents.
Why for God’s sake, do we need to can food when it is a hand throw away at the supermarket and without all the hassle?
Supermarket food has no emotional value attached to it. Even though it comes with a brand name, the packaged food is still an item of generic mass production. As hard as we try, it is difficult to see an item as being precious, when it is -part of an endless supply of identical products.
Today, we are prone to eat just the fine cuts of meat and only the tender parts of vegetables. Between 20-30 percent of our waste is a result of food we label as inedible. Yet, our ancestors had a very different concept of what constitutes inedible waste. Practically nothing, everything was put to good use. Wasting food and letting it spoil was close to a crime and certainly an act that deserved severe punishment, especially for children. Fruits and vegetables were utilised root to stem for soups and bouillons.
Slaughtered animals were consumed nose to tail, with bones used for stock and the by-products for various speciality dishes. Today, such dishes are found in a lot of indigenous cuisines across the globe that still preserve a traditional food culture. Those dishes tend to have such graphical descriptions that their mere mention is likely to bring a reflux of disgust in many of us. For example, deep fried or steamed Shirako is a staple in Japan, which is basically the animal’s reproductive organs. The famous Chinese roasted Dragon in the Flame of Desire, in plain words, means yak’s penis. The stomach lining of livestock animals, commonly known as tripe, is turned into versatile delicious dishes all over the world.
Liver, lungs, heads, tails, kidneys, testicles, all of these things which are traditional, delicious and nutritious parts of our gastronomy go to waste.
– Tristram Stuart
Nowadays, we hardly know where our food comes from, apart from the store signs reading “Greek Tomatoes”. We buy it packaged, portioned and ready to cook, and that is all we care. We conveniently choose to think no further on this matter. We don’t expect to ever have to grow our food ourselves. Food is something totally removed from nature and commodified. There is no love, care, labour and ambiguity associated with food growing and raising. Since food is easy to get, we feel no subconscious pressure not to waste it.
“Along with our attitude to food, our knowledge of food has changed over the years,” says Dana Gunders, referring to this phenomenon as “lack of kitchen know-how”. In her above-mentioned handbook, she explains, that “your great-grandma probably knew how to can tomatoes. Do you? She also knew how to tell that the yoghurt was bad without looking at the date because back then there were no dates. She probably bought whole chickens and used up all the parts, even making her own chicken broth with the bones.”
But the path to wasting less doesn’t have to take us back in time.
“We don’t all have to become jam producers or kimchi makers to cut back on the food we waste. We just have to take some simple steps, like making strategic grocery lists or putting leftovers in plain sight in the fridge,” says Dana Gunders, For those of you who want to make a personal shift in their attitude to food, this book is a great starting point. You can enhance it with our tips and hacks on reducing food waste at home and saving money.
If we are determined to waste less as a society, we need to change the way we think of the food in the grocery store, in our fridge and on our table. It takes thousands of farmers and workers long hours to grow and prepare our food, and an enormous amount of resources and energy, just so we don’t have to worry about the steady supply of incoming food. Yet, we need to realise, that we are those first historically lucky generations. We are food-wise extremely privileged, by no particular merit of ours, other than living in those parts of the world, where food insecurity is not an issue. Meanwhile, we can learn a lot from the French and other Mediterranean cultures on how to preserve a high regard for food, despite our changing modern times.
When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.