This is so cool: salad grown in space! Slightly more complicated than the hydroponic greens I’ve seen in fictional space shuttles, since we haven’t figured out how to simulate Earth-like gravity in space. The Plate celebrates with a little lettuce history, tracing the genealogy of space lettuce back to an era when Ancient Egyptians considered the plant an aphrodisiac (a little lettuce trivia which we already knew).
Remember when we talked about how much watermelons have been changed by selective breeding? At Aeon Magazine, Jill Neimark looks at some South Carolina growers who are planting a Civil War-era watermelon, the Bradford. For the author, this heirloom fruit success story is an occasion to wonder whether there should be a culinary canon, in the same way we elevate and anthologize other cultural specimens in music and art. The article is well-written and worth reading, but its central question seems odd to me. For one thing, there already is a bit of a culinary canon: The Ark of Taste, which she mentions toward the end, is a Slow Food Movement project to preserve certain food traditions. But I suppose the question strikes me as a little tone-deaf; if you study humanities from a feminist or postcolonial perspective, then you understand how much baggage goes along with the idea of a canon. In literature, for example, the literary accomplishments that have been elevated to Great Books tend to be limited in point of view, reflecting the lives and obsessions of society’s most privileged members. When literary scholars unearth lost works or elevate underappreciated authors, it is usually a challenge to a system that has historically undervalued women or minority authors. Fruit varietals may vanish for very different reasons; they are, as anything, subject to the whims of taste and public opinion, but also to the practical concerns of durability. The food market favors produce that keeps long and travels well. As improved technologies for storage and transport develop, it makes sense for certain heirloom varieties to be brought back; they often taste better than produce bred for a long shelf life. I benefit from this and I will always want to read about it! But I also think it’s interesting to think about what motivates a desire to rescue certain breeds or to elevate them in the name of “distilling a civilization’s high points.” Particularly in an article that lingers so lovingly over descriptions of peaches grown in walled gardens and expensive, exclusive dinners.
On a related note: the indomitable Rachel Laudan chats with the Library of Economics and Liberty about food history and culture. You can listen to audio or read the transcript of the talk, which is as wide-ranging as Laudan’s book–but among other topics, they discuss how many of the dishes we now perceive as quintessentially and authentically belonging to a certain culture–French, for example–actually originated with the elite and aristocratic divisions of those cultures. Along the same lines, many of the foods we associate with less financial and cultural capital — particularly fried foods and fast food burgers — would have been unimaginably luxurious to the lower income classes merely a century ago. Laudan’s frequent theme is that food history takes a trajectory of making more nourishing foods obtainable for greater numbers of people, which makes a compelling counterpoint to the idea of canonizing foods of the past.
If you’re intimidated by the hour-long audio or lengthy transcript, this blogger pulls out some juicy quotes and adds some thoughtful commentary.
I first heard of Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres years and years ago, at a graduate conference for food studies, but I never got around to reading it until I found a copy for $1 at a used bookstore this summer. As it turns out, this novel is an incredible read. It’s inspired by King Lear, but instead of a old monarch dividing his kingdom amongst his daughters, an old patriarch incorporates his thousand-acre farm and divide up the shares, and the story is told from the perspective of the eldest daughter. It is beautifully written, lush with detailed descriptions of midwest farmlife in the 70s. It is also occasionally horrifying, with scenes of domestic abuse that have stayed with me for days.
But the other images that stayed with me are largely of the narrator’s domestic labor. On any given day, Ginny gardens, bakes, pickles, tends animals, tends children, makes breakfast for her father and her husband and her ailing sister in three separate houses, and always puts a pot of coffee on for visitors. Reading her interminable litany of chores filled me with nervous energy; the next time I had a free evening, I mended two dresses and pickled the rind of my CSA watermelon. The day after that, I spent six hours pickling carrots, green beans, and cauliflower with two friends. It took three of us all that the whole afternoon to put up a couple dozen jars, even though we do this annually. It is a humbling reminder that the domestic labor I do for the sake of thrift or enjoyment is not comparable to the domestic labor women have done to survive, even just a few decades ago.
While I was mulling over this book: The Butter posted a reflection on canning tomatoes and making sausage, homely chores that are both sensuously appealing and fascinatingly gross for the author.
At the Wall Street Journal: The Rise of Female Sommeliers.
Via Creative Munchies (a fun Tumblr if you enjoy whimsical food compositions): Dina Belenko creates playful still lifes with improbably balanced coffee cups and donuts or seriously scientific charts of cookies and ice cream.