Two types of revaluations in our food tastes: status and health

11 Feb

Two revaluations of taste crop up in Michael Pollan’s excellent book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

  1. High Status: Roasting vs Braising. Formerly roasting was considered extravagant and high-end because only high-quality meat tasted good when simply cooked on the fire, and soups were considered peasant fare because it yielded powerfully flavored food from inexpensive ingredients – in particular, the more flavorful but tougher meats coming from older animals needed a slow cooking in the pot to dissolve their connective tissues into gelatin. Today we view the ingenuity of braising as high-end, and barbecue becomes peasant fare. The reason for this revaluation, Pollan explains, is because of our abundance of cheap meat. So to complete the argument, presumably, high-end food tastes are directed towards dishes that are rare. Rarity can come from ingredients or skill. Since meat is cheap, high-status is directed towards dishes with a skill premium, like those involving braising over roasting.
    1. I would provisionally accept this thesis since I don’t know when exactly the era of cheap meat begins. A possible counterexample is that satay or kor moo yang (indigenous barbecue techniques in Southeast Asia) are very common street foods now but arguably they have been enabled by the cheap meat of industrial agriculture
    2. The condition behind a revaluation of high status of foods is rarity. Whatever is perceived as rare (either ingredients or skill) will be associated with high status. If you have either of the two, then barriers to access becomes an secondary status-increaser (I think of Tokyo’s introduction-only places, like Kyo Aji)
    3. Cooked, p147
  2. Healthiness, Taste, Air: White flour vs Wholegrain flour. Formerly wholegrain flour was simply “coarse flour”, wheat that was ground on a stone and never sifted. Healthiness: It made a coarse dark bread (the French called it “kaka”) that gradually ground down the teeth of those who ate it. Sifted flour was thought to be easier to digest. Taste: Also, bran tends to be bitter, so bread made from white flour is sweeter. Air: Loaves made from wholegrain flour have microscopic shards of milled brand, which “pierces the strands of glutens in dough, impairing its ability to hold air and rise”. Roller milling, with “a sequence of steel or porcelain drums arranged in pairs, each subsequent pair calibrated to have a narrowed space between them than the previous set” was a breakthrough in milling the starch (or “farina”) to a high degree of fineness.
    1. A vicious cycle took hold where plants were better bred for the roller mill – whiter endosperm (less nutrients) and hard kerneled red wheat (easier to separate bran and endosperm) – but this led to less healthy breads (Pollan mentions beriberi, heart disease, and diabetes), while reducing the appeal of the wholegrain alternative. The US Government faced with the evidence that white flour is less healthy, worked with baking companies to fortify their white bread with B vitamins, processing the product even more instead of even less.
    2. What is the evidence linking white flour to disease? Quantitatively? A cursory Google Scholar search turns up a lot of chaff, though reliable sources like WebMD repeat this link between white flour and disease. Pollan is sketchy on this link. He cites Gary Taubes, here is a Fivebooks interview with Taubes, where he recommends the low carbs Atkin’ Diet. Taubes recommends this article Weight Loss with a Low-Carbohydrate, Mediterranean, or Low-Fat Diet as evidence as evidence for avoiding carbohydrates in general
    3. Revaluations for health reflect the Schopenhauerian will-to-live, revaluations for status reflect the Nietzschean will-to-power.
    4. Cooked, p225

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