The Appeal of the Primitive and the Food Movement: A Brief History

Americans are currently embracing a strange sort of primitivism. Bicycles are losing gears, runners are afoot in shoes designed to create a barefoot sensation (some are even running barefoot), and men are growing bushy Will Oldham-like beards. It’s all very curious and entertaining.

But nowhere has our love for the supposed simplicity of the past been more evident than in food trends. Guided largely by Michael Pollan‘s seductive mantra-”Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”-millions of earnest consumers are declaring loyalty to the stripped-down essence of a pre-industrial diet. We eat local, buy organic, and support small animal farms. Some of us even forage and hunt, going so far as to consume meat raw (ill-advised) to honor our cavemen brethren.

This trend appears to be a unique response to a declension narrative that goes something like this: Americans once lived on small farms, ate locally-produced food, did not poison the soil with chemicals, and always knew from whence their food came. Then industrialization and urbanization hit, bringing us mass production, factory farming, chemical dependence, culinary uniformity, global trade, and, eventually, the Twinkie. Eaters became separated from the means of production. We lost our culinary innocence, fell from grace, got fat.

I’m simplifying, of course. But not by much. Like so many other stories America tells itself, the narrative of modern food is a classic jeremiad, a linear tale of success and virtue brought to a halt by modernity and greed. The Puritans, who perfected the genre, would understand it well.

For all their moral impact, our linear jeremiads fail to capture the circularity of history. This is especially true with our back-to-the past reaction to “industrial food.” Current calls for dietary simplicity might have a revolutionary ring to them. But what’s overlooked in all the enthusiasm is this: Americans have always idealized, or at least harkened back to, an agricultural era when production was supposedly simpler, closer to the land, and unadulterated by the complexities of modernization. What we’re seeing right now with the food movement is, for all its supposed novelty, a stock (even banal) reaction to broad historical changes.

Consider Great Grandma’s era. World War I was an era of voluntary rationing and, as a result, national discussions about food were common and heated. Herbert Hoover, as head of the Food Administration, beat Michelle Obama to the publicity punch when he exhorted Americans to “Go back to the simple life, be content with simple food.” The Food Administration itself urged Americans to make Christmas dinner “according to ancient custom.” An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer evoked the importance of returning to “simple food” and “wholesome pleasures.” Many commentators at the time highlighted the Civil War as a time when Americans ate in a way that reflected a more ascetic ideal, one that Americans were evidently losing by the time of WWI.

But did people living in the 1860s really see themselves as eating a simple diet? Not so much. This was an era of frequent food adulteration, with consumer goods being leavened by sawdust, engine grease, plaster of Paris, pipe clay and God knows what else. Responding to the increasing complexity of food in 1870, John Cowan, author of What to Eat; And How to Cook It, lambasted Americans for eating “conglomerate mixtures”-ingredients “mixed in all shapes, in all measures, and under all conditions.” He insisted that these overly processed foods not only led to “a clogged brain” but also a “sickly and unenjoyable life.”

His solution could be mistaken for a line from the muckraking film Food, Inc. Cowan wrote: “To live a sweet, healthy life implies the use of simple, nutritious food, cooked in a plain, simple manner, and as nearly in its natural relations as possible.” It was in the spirit of Cowan’s advice that mid-century Americans evoked early Americans for their simpler, more natural, and thus more virtuous eating habits.

And those rugged early Americans? Yet again we find evidence suggesting that the idealized group-in this case early Americans-saw matters quite differently. The American Revolution drove Americans to define who they were as a culture. After years of approximating the increasingly luxuriant habits of Empire, early Americans reacted to independence by playing up their status as rough-hewn frontiersmen and self-sufficient survivalists. In terms of food, this self-identification meant rejecting luxury for-you got it-the primitive simplicity of the first European settlers.

James Madison got caught up in the trend, so much so that his food became rustic enough for European to comment on it. One noted that dinner “was more like a harvest home supper than the entertainment of the Secretary of State.” Patrick Henry mocked Jefferson‘s taste for fancy French food by declaring that he’d forgotten “his Native victuals.” By 1840, when elite Americans were becoming gourmands, William Henry Harrison scorned his presidential opponent,Martin Van Buren, for enjoying soupe a la reine. Harrison, by contrast, took a strategic page from the colonial past, portraying himself as a humble farmer sharing homemade cider after a hard day’s work.

The persistence of the primitive is hard to overlook. Faced with the inevitable-and often threatening-complexity of historical change, Americans have always reacted by idealizing a mythical golden age, a time when life was understood to be simpler, people less greedy, and values more virtuous. So it’s been with food.

The problem with this mythology–in its glorification of the past–is that it forestalls progress toward a future, a future that purges carnivorous practices that are no longer necessary–and are even detrimental to–a healthy life.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

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