History shapes food choices

Many weeks ago I wrote about geography and cultures shaping the evolution of ethnic cuisines. I referenced the need to read about a part of the world before drawing conclusions about what foods are influencing diet. I used that pondering to introduce the fact that I’d be talking about my collection of cookbooks that tell a story about how food trends emerge.

Maybe I’m making too much of food history, but I’ll blame it on my appreciation for one reference, Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.

This classic came on the scene in 1984. It unravels the mystery of where food came from, what exactly it’s made of and how cooking transforms foods, making them into something new and delicious. The text is accurate, clear and thorough in its explanations. If you enjoy food chemistry, you’ll cherish this classic.

I decide I’d throw a dart on the calendar and pick a year of “Best Recipes” to see what was on the minds of food trendsetters. I landed on 1996 – the year Bill Clinton was re-elected to the White House. It was the year the summer Olympics were hosted in Atlanta. A loaf of bread cost $1.15 and a gallon of gas cost $1.22.

I picked this year because it was a scare for most beef eaters. It was when the British government announced the presence of bovine spongiform encephalitis in the U.K.

We called it “mad cow disease.” For years scientists assured the public there was no connection between it and Creutzfeldt-Jakob, the neurological disease nightmare that affected humans, leaving them with a crippling Alzheimer’s-like dementia and similar brain destruction, diagnosable upon autopsy.

Cows are herbivores. The disease was traced to cows eating a diet of other cattle and bone meal sterilized at too low a temperature for a manufactured protein meal. Something that was supposed to be killed in the transmission of the disease was not. That’s how it spread, resulting in the slaughter of thousands of cows and the fear that we’d see it in this country.

I was thankful for the meat inspectors the USDA back then. Still am. Last week the USDA “confirmed that a carcass transported for rendering has a rare form of the disease, not generally associated with an animal consuming infected feed.” The cow was from Hanford, Calif.

At the peak of mad cow disease in the 1990s, tens of thousands of cows were infected. In recent years, 29 cases of mad cow disease have been confirmed worldwide. The investigation of this most recent case continues.

I’m guessing the popularity of grass-fed beef started back in 1996, possibly as a result of this scare. Mad cow disease certainly put bovine diets on our radar screen. I recall my first awareness, when I stopped to really think what antibiotics and hormones might do to milk. It was about that long ago that I measured the pros and cons of my dairy-heavy diet.

I picked up one of my hundreds of cookbooks and thumbed through it last night: The Flavors of Bon Appétit: The Best Recipes of the Year, 1996.

I can’t recall what I was cooking back then, but nearly 15 years later, the ingredients and the recipes within this cookbook feel like old favorites. So many references to arugula and pesto, sorbets, chilled soups and curries. Nut-crusted everything and butters and aiolis that are rich with herbs.

I think it takes about that long – at least a decade – for food trends to get firmly entrenched in the kitchens of small communities like ours. In part, there first needs to be a demand for ingredients and a wide acceptance of greens, not commonly seen in the grocery store before we embrace food change.

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