13

votes

The fancification of peasant food?

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created November 05, 2010 at 10:02 PM

So, inspired by the ketchup thread, I've been digging through old cookbooks at the library for a few hours, which has led to two things: 1. the conclusion that some of the best paleo cookbooks were written hundreds of years ago (seriously--i might have to start a blog!) and 2. the following question that I still am having trouble phrasing...

How did it come to be that in wide swaths of America, with the exception some regional and ethnic cuisines, that traditional peasant foods (I'm thinking game meat, offal, etc.) are typically available or considered desirable to only a small segment of the population--namely the rural poor (who hunt or have family that do) and rich urbanites? Does anyone have any theories about or could anyone point me to a culinary history book on how these foods went from being peasant foods to, for lack of a better term, fancy foods?

To clarify a bit--when I lived in NYC, my boyfriend at the time's well-off grandparents used to take us to high end restaurants and talk to me about their meals (venison, rabbit, liver) as if I, as a poor person who had grown up in a rural area, had never heard of these delicacies. Coming from a hunting family, I was always "WTF? I grew up eating deer every day!" And now, living in a Maine city, I look at the menus for local restaurants (examples: hugos and evangaline) and I drool--paleo options ripe for the picking--bacon dusted pig ears, sweetbreads, rabbit terrine, duck. But these are restaurants way out of my price range and comfort level. Unfortunately, in my super white city, they are also some of the only that serve offal or interesting paleo friendly meals. How did this happen in the US?

I know colonists have always taken meals from those they colonize, exoticized and then appropriated them. But how/why, in America, have we exoticized our own traditional foodstuffs, especially at the cost of our palate breadth and health? Is it a symptom of the convenience food advertising juggernaut starting in the early-to-mid 20th century convincing us these things were backward? Or is it part of the historical revisionism that erased what traditional American cuisine was in order to bolster the lipid hypothesis, relegating certain foods to French restaurants that are seen as hoity-toity in America? Or something else entirely?

62ed65f3596aa2f62fa1d58a0c09f8c3

(20807)

on November 06, 2010
at 01:38 AM

Could be in some cases, but a lot of this stuff is no more labor intensive than other cheaper foods.

95601768ec9cb75cc3a9cbcd2271ed14

(2206)

on November 06, 2010
at 01:04 AM

don't worry--this whole question was shamelessly off-the-cuff theorizing! i hadn't thought about it from this angle. there is a lot there. the notion of buying authenticity and guilt amelioration and primal urges for simpler times/ancestral tastes. more to explore--thanks!

95601768ec9cb75cc3a9cbcd2271ed14

(2206)

on November 06, 2010
at 01:00 AM

i hadn't heard that story before--wow. it sure is fascinating and i think i will be doing a lot more of it in the near future.

D30ff86ad2c1f3b43b99aed213bcf461

on November 06, 2010
at 12:05 AM

This is a really interesting cultural observation. Why/how, indeed?

95601768ec9cb75cc3a9cbcd2271ed14

(2206)

on November 05, 2010
at 11:28 PM

At least I can take comfort in the fact that Paleo is doing its part to subvert this "everything that's old is new again and also ridiculously expensive" paradigm through encouraging people to relearn forgotten ancestral skills and creating a demand for forgotten or devalued ingredients outside of exclusive restaurants/circles.

95601768ec9cb75cc3a9cbcd2271ed14

(2206)

on November 05, 2010
at 11:23 PM

So true. As a kid I was embarrassed to eat so much venison b/c I thought it showed how much of a "hick" I was. Now that I would love a freezer full of it, I can only get it at serious rare diamond price since most of my family that hunted are dead now.

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4 Answers

7
61852721b5ff3613f56f043fe890a679

(1172)

on November 06, 2010
at 12:07 AM

additional points:

"traditional" foods are labor-intensive. the march of progress in the 20th-century kitchen followed the mandate that saving labor and time were paramount.

remember the story of a former first lady proudly serving canned peas (a newish invention at the time) in the White House because of a desire to appear modern? that sounds absurd now, but it's hard for us to wrap our minds around how much drudgery was associated with food preparation, and how much that was exploited in order to sell mass-produced and processed food. the marketing story was also a class story - upscale people preferred modern food.

how does this get flipped? well, if you can afford to pay someone to acquire, dress and prepare labor-intensive meat for you... you can enjoy it without the stain of needing to eat it to survive. it can be a class marker for you in the same way that many delicacies, on and off the plate, are. craftsmanship and artisanal products are symbols of status.

reading the cultural history/ies of the American kitchen is fascinating stuff...

62ed65f3596aa2f62fa1d58a0c09f8c3

(20807)

on November 06, 2010
at 01:38 AM

Could be in some cases, but a lot of this stuff is no more labor intensive than other cheaper foods.

95601768ec9cb75cc3a9cbcd2271ed14

(2206)

on November 06, 2010
at 01:00 AM

i hadn't heard that story before--wow. it sure is fascinating and i think i will be doing a lot more of it in the near future.

7
62ed65f3596aa2f62fa1d58a0c09f8c3

(20807)

on November 05, 2010
at 10:58 PM

THat which is harder to get and thus more rare is often considered more exotic and becomes more expensive. Diamonds are now easy to grow in the lab and lab grown diamonds are perfect. But they are not valuable. Only naturally dug diamonds are valuable because they are more rare. It has nothing to do with the traits of the diamond itself. It's the rarity. If something is easy and cheap and everyone has it, then it is not likely to be considered exotic and special. In ancient times, getting fat was hard to do, and so many men treasured pudgy women. But today, the more pudgy people are out there, the more the prefered look tends towards skinny and almost boylike for women. Because more often now, being skinny is rare and hard to accomplish.

Humans value things that are rare, scarce, and hard to obtain or are just less usual. In absense of true rarity, if an advertiser can generate a mystique of a thing being rare and exotic and can convince the customers, then that will also be enough to allow the seller to charge more. Many vendors have multiple price ranges and packagings for items that are, underneath the packaging, exactly the same thing. THey do this to appeal to multiple different mindsets of people. Some people would not buy things at walmart, but another store could take something from walmart, charge 5 times more, and then sell it to that same customer that would not buy it from walmart. Because a huge part of marketing is all about perception and spin and has nothing to do with substance underneath the hood.

Most of America did not grow up eating sweat breads and so a smart vendor can easily make this kind of food out as something special and exotic. There is an old technique among vendors. If something will not sell, try tripling the price. It sounds counterintuitive, but for some segments of the population, this is often a successful tactic.

95601768ec9cb75cc3a9cbcd2271ed14

(2206)

on November 05, 2010
at 11:23 PM

So true. As a kid I was embarrassed to eat so much venison b/c I thought it showed how much of a "hick" I was. Now that I would love a freezer full of it, I can only get it at serious rare diamond price since most of my family that hunted are dead now.

95601768ec9cb75cc3a9cbcd2271ed14

(2206)

on November 05, 2010
at 11:28 PM

At least I can take comfort in the fact that Paleo is doing its part to subvert this "everything that's old is new again and also ridiculously expensive" paradigm through encouraging people to relearn forgotten ancestral skills and creating a demand for forgotten or devalued ingredients outside of exclusive restaurants/circles.

4
02736efa3fda31740e8890eed0cb663d

(1813)

on November 06, 2010
at 04:56 AM

Riffing off familygrokumentarian: I think a lot of it has to do with how the rich signal their high status. Eating loads of caviar or the like is now considered gauche. Instead we signal our "authenticity" and conscientiousness by seeking "authentic" local, "sustainable" foods. David Brooks makes this kind of argument in "Bobos in Paradise" as I recall. I think there's something to it. It sounds cynical, but we all signal in some way, and if it results in better foods becoming more widespread, than great, right?

3
D30ff86ad2c1f3b43b99aed213bcf461

on November 06, 2010
at 12:16 AM

Shamelessly off-the-cuff theorizing here: there could also sometimes be an element of the more economically privileged wanting to show (or feel for themselves) that despite their wealth, they are still down to earth in terms of their preferences - whether it reflects a yearning to return to more humble roots (childhood or geneological) or them wanting to try traditional-sounding foods and delicacies that are associated with American frontier subsistence hunting.

Someone who pays $100 for his own dinner could possibly feel a little less sheepish if the menu includes "down home" broadly American sounding entrees like venison stew, crawdad/crayfish creole, bison burgers, roasted quail with dressing, etc. instead of more rarified foreign/fancier-sounding items like paella infused with white truffle oil, Russian caviar, escargots, etc.

Though I am a foodie and if I am paying any kind of money I usually like going with something more exotic sounding (that I wouldn't risk preparing/ruining myself), so...who knows...

95601768ec9cb75cc3a9cbcd2271ed14

(2206)

on November 06, 2010
at 01:04 AM

don't worry--this whole question was shamelessly off-the-cuff theorizing! i hadn't thought about it from this angle. there is a lot there. the notion of buying authenticity and guilt amelioration and primal urges for simpler times/ancestral tastes. more to explore--thanks!

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