In 1964, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss published “The Raw and the Cooked” (“Le Cru et le Cruit”), in which he argued that turning raw food into cooked food traced a symbolic passage from nature to culture. Cooking, in other words, was a kind of bildungsroman for civilization itself. Lévi-Strauss’ essay theorized what Julia Child’s popular television series, The French Chef, had begun to demonstrate a year earlier with respect to American society; for we were evolving, under her tutelage, from the “raw” to the “cooked”— from meat loaf and mashed potatoes to coq au vin and pommes de terres lyonnaises. The recent film, Julie & Julia, is an index to how far we have come, not only in our culinary evolution but in our cinematic one.

It is hard to think of an American movie before the… More…

IncrEdibles thankfully didn’t last long, but their blip of an existence makes a point: if a food product as extremely stupid as this can make it to market, that says a lot about our, well, stomach for convenience foods. Basically, we eat a lot of them. And while one might hope that the belt-tightening from the recession steered us away from them, it might be pushing us to eat more: In mid-2009, Mark Bittman and Kerri Conan wrote on the Bitten blog about how, while people are eating out less, Kellogg’s CEO David Mackay has claimed that people are actually turning more to packaged foods instead of cooking.

I’ve had both Kellogg’s and convenience foods on my mind recently because of the new year. See, it’s resolution time, which means all across America, people have promised that they’ll eat better in 2010.  For many, part of that promise is that… More…

That’s right, together: I have flour-fear issues, too.

My issue has traditionally been a fear of refined carbs. I love baking and eating baked goods, but I’m a whole grain girl. It’s not a bad thing to be. When companies make white flour, they remove the fiber-filled wheat bran and high-nutrient wheat germ from the kernel, leaving the low-nutrient endosperm. When you eat white flour, not only are you getting fewer nutrients, but white flour also takes less time for your body to process. Thus, as the women’s magazines at my gym scream in perky pink fonts, “Whole grains make you feel fuller longer!”

I’m also a frequent baker, and, like an egomaniac who always inserts his personal experiences into the most impersonal conversations, I put whole wheat flour in places where nobody ever asked it to be. Tucking it inside my breads is reasonable, but I also put it… More…

In these days of 200-mile locavore meals and freshness trumping shelf life so much of the time, why does canned pumpkin remain so firmly entrenched in our lives? It’s not like we’re just talking about some starchy tuber like the potato. This is the pumpkin, the friendly fruit that makes a dessert arguably more American than apple pie. But when it comes time to put pumpkin in the oven, recipe hockers from Sandra Lee to Saveur open the can.

Obviously, it wasn’t always this way. The pumpkin was used in uncanned form by the Native Americans, who not only ate it, but also wove dry pumpkin strips into mats. When the colonists showed up on the scene, hungry and sick of boats, they incorporated the pumpkin into their cuisine. According to the Cooperative Extension at the University of Illinois, “The origin of pumpkin pie occurred when the colonists sliced off… More…

We all begin as butter people; nobody erupts from the womb ready to move from mother’s milk to margarine. Kids happily spread their school-lunch rolls with individual pats of butter, top their pancakes with generous globs of the stuff, and will even take bites of butter sticks when a caregiver isn’t looking. But slowly, margarine creeps in. Maybe we eat margarine because our parents do; others among us switch when we’re old enough to start paying attention to our waistlines or hearts. After all, the American Heart Association and the Mayo Clinic both recommend using margarine. So eventually, we stand in the dairy aisle, look at our options, and put the margarine in our carts.

If you’re interested in food enough to be reading a food column, you shouldn’t need me to tell you that the sensible way to approach butter — or any other high-calorie, high-fat food — is… More…

The now-defunct Gourmet magazine had an ambitious goal: tap into America’s pioneering nature and refine this adventurousness into a thirst for good living. By January 1941, the Great Depression had worn everyone down. Americans were ready for a magazine that reminded them of happier, more prosperous times. They wanted travel, adventure, luxury. Earle R. MacAusland, creator of the magazine, was banking on it.

There was no inherent reason Americans couldn’t appreciate the finer things, posed MacAusland. “The art of being a gourmet has nothing to do with age, money, fame, or country,” Gourmet stated in its first introduction. But appreciating good living is not exactly the same as living well. Americans had a land of plenty but centuries of uncouthness working against them. They would need to model their tastes after those with more experience — Europeans, namely, which really meant the French, who were considered the arbiters of global… More…

Likewise, I would happily rub out any of the new-fangled Hershey’s products that wear the wrappers and take the shapes of chocolate, but are in actuality the terrible bastard children of chocolate and corporate frugality. Yup, that’s right: If you weren’t already aware, there’s a good chance that the “chocolate” you’re buying from Hershey’s isn’t chocolate at all. See, back in 2008, Hershey’s started replacing some of the cocoa butter in its products with a combination of cocoa butter and other vegetable oils. Using other vegetable oils is cheaper for companies, which explains why a bag of the aforementioned Palmer’s always costs a dollar or two less than actual chocolate. But those “chocolate” products taste cheaper, too, as do most foods when unnecessary ingredients complicate their simple recipes. See, the process of making a good chocolate only requires a few steps: Cacao pods are roasted, ground, and made into chocolate… More…

I’m serious. Don’t even bother.

I wholeheartedly encourage you to whip up your own crab seasoning or make your own Cajun spice. Sprinkle these mixes liberally everywhere you would use Old Bay — seafood, corn on the cob, french fries, wherever. But when you do this, start with the intention of making something different from Old Bay. Trying to beat Old Bay is a losing proposition. There are many reasons why. Here are the top three:

1)  Old Bay is pretty good already.

2)  If you don’t already own them, buying all of the spices that go into Old Bay will cost you $50 or so, just to create a product that you can buy, ready-made, for under $5.

3)  If you try to call anything that doesn’t come in that classic, primary-colored tin “Old Bay,” a roving gang of ardent Old Bay supporters (most likely from the Chesapeake Bay… More…

Vegetarians have grown to relish — or at least tolerate — fake chicken, mock turkey, soy hot dogs, and flame-grilled tofu burgers. But the noble tradition of fake foods dates back to antiquity. Roman cooks loved to disguise the flavors of their dishes. The ancients relished food games at their banquets, and cooks took great pride in concealing flavors so that one type of meat might taste like another — or like nothing at all. One of the more peculiar recipes that survives from the first extant cookbook, dating to the fourth century A.D., is called, bluntly enough, Anchovy Casserole Without the Anchovies. The author, Apicius, proudly boasted, “No one at the table will know what he is eating.” Artists were employed at banquets to make realistic sculptures of lions out of chicken meat, bulls of fish flesh, camels of venison — anything to tickle the jaded diners.

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Kellogg’s is also known for another food first: in 1984, it became the first company to include a health claim on its packaging. At the time, the practice was forbidden by the FDA. But instead of telling Kellogg’s to remove the claim — which suggested that eating All-Bran could possibly reduce the occurrence of some cancers — the Regan Administration’s FDA reconsidered their stance. In 1986, Marian Burros wrote about the change in The New York Times:

Why did the F.D.A. rethink this approach? According to Bruce Brown, an agency press officer: ”A byproduct of the Administration’s interest in deregulation is an interest in cutting medical costs. Broadly construed, the use of health claims on labels would help people maintain their own health.”

I get tickled reading this now, 23 years later, when health care is at the fore of American thought and we’re more obese than ever, and a… More…