Food for Thought: Diet in History

About this Episode

Guests
Chris Otter, Helen Veit, Sam White

How and what we eat defines who we are. Food is both everywhere and nowhere, so normal that we rarely consider how radically the production and consumption of food have shaped not only human culture but the environment as well (and how radically the production of food has changed over time). Sample a little food history with historians Chris OtterHelen Veit, and Sam White, who reveal that what we shove into our mouths has shaped our cultures, our bodies, and our planet.

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Cite this Site

Patrick R. Potyondy, Mark Sokolsky , "Food for Thought: Diet in History" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
December, 2015
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/food-thought-diet-history?language_content_entity=en.
December, 2015

Transcript

Patrick Potyondy 

This is History Talk produced by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective at Ohio State and Miami Universities. I'm Patrick Potyondy.

 

Mark Sokolsky 

And I'm Mark Sokolsky. Perhaps more than any other act, how and what we eat defines who we are. Food is an essential part of our everyday lives, so normal that we rarely consider how radically the production and consumption of food have changed over time to shape not only human culture, but also our environment as well.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Today, we sample a little food history with a round table of historians: Chris Otter, Helen Veit, and Sam White, who reveal that what we shove into our mouths has shaped our cultures, our bodies, and our planet. So stay tuned.

 

Dr. Helen Veit 

I am Helen Zoe Veit, I'm an associate professor of history at Michigan State University.

 

Dr. Sam White 

Hi, I'm Sam White, and I teach global environmental history here at OSU.

 

Dr. Chris Otter 

Hi, I'm Chris Otter, and I teach at OSU and among the many things I teach, I teach World Food history.

 

Mark Sokolsky 

Okay, great. Well, thank you all for joining us. Just to start off,we're going to just ask, you know, in general, why is food an important subject for historians? And what are some of the big questions that food history can tell us that other sorts of history can't? And maybe Helen, we can start with you?

 

Dr. Helen Veit 

Sure, um, food is so incredibly fundamental to everything. And I think it's only, you know, a very recent modern person who might say, "Well, you know, it's kind of a trivial subject." You'd only think that if, if food was, had always been really abundant for you, and you would never had to think about it much. But food and how we get food and how we eat it has always been just so fundamental, you know, especially if you're looking in, you know, a pretty long period of time. So looking at it, you know, in the most basic level is really, really just kind of essential for survival. But there are also all sorts of really fascinating cultural aspects that go into what we think is good for us, how we eat, who prepares it, what we value about food -- of course, there are all sorts of potentially religious taboos or symbolic meaning that we put into food. So it's really just this incredibly rich subject, both in a very material way and in, you know, this very abstract and cultural way too.

 

Mark Sokolsky 

Okay, great, thank you. Sam, or Chris, do you want to jump in here?

 

Dr. Sam White 

I love food as a historical subject, because it's one of those great topics that's both everywhere and nowhere. It's everywhere, in the sense that everybody can relate to it. Everybody deals with food every day, and the way they deal with food has great impact on their own lives and on the environment. But it's also nowhere in the sense that because it's so everyday, because it's so common, historians of the past tend to overlook it in favor of more dramatic and singular events.

 

Dr. Chris Otter 

No, I I'd certainly agree with that. I mean, I think if you take a long durée view of history, and go right back to the Neolithic Revolution when humans actually settled down and started farming, you will find that the origins of pretty much everything historians talk about, boiled down to food and food supply. Human health, we start to get the eruption of major endemic and epidemic diseases when people start living in, in larger settlements. Social stratification, when you get a surplus of food, which means that you can have priests and kings and warriors. Domestication of animals, which is probably far more fateful for animal than it is for us, but ultimately, when you've got a bunch of animals, and you can feed them, you can start riding them into combat. So you start getting wars. So health, war, social stratification, urbanization, the state itself, all of these things you can argue have origins in in farming and human settlement to farm.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Yeah, this is really great. So we were talking about this subject, that's really the basis for all of history, on some level, right, that's everywhere and nowhere. And so, given what historians like you and others have revealed about history of food nutrition, what would you say is unusual or unprecedented about the way we eat today? And maybe, Sam, if you want to start us off here?

 

Dr. Sam White 

So it depends a bit what you mean by today. In the very big sweep of human history, what's really interesting is that we're eating mostly domesticated plants and animals rather than wild plants and hunted animals. If by today, you mean the last couple hundred years, I guess the remarkable thing is that we're eating foods that are coming from long distances, and are often highly processed, and their origins and the way they've been processed are often invisible to us.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Helen do you have something to add?

 

Dr. Helen Veit 

Absolutely, I would add to that, that another really modern innovation is how little cooking is necessary for us; that so much food is available, available, you know, prepackaged, already cooked in a completely edible form right away. And that's really changed people's relationship with food in terms of time, because not only are so few people, farmers anymore as a percentage of the population, even people who are, you know, cooking food or preparing food, are doing so much less preparation and spending so much less of their time doing it. And, of course, that's been a great influence on, you know, women's entry into the workforce, people's ability in general not to spend all that much time in the kitchen. And there have been related health effects too, because a lot of this highly processed, prepared food is not that great for us.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

What have been some of the principal moments of change in American diets? And I think, Helen, you are already kind of hinting at a few of these.

 

Dr. Helen Veit 

I mean, I think that, you know, the number one change has been the industrialization of the food supply. And you can't really talk about that without talking about related changes in transportation, and also in marketing. And in things like technology, it's the fact that we have home refrigerators and home freezers, and these other factory technologies that keep the food good for long periods of time. But this application of science, that so much of our food now contains things that you know, the average person doesn't even know what they are. That's, that's extremely new.

 

Dr. Chris Otter 

Yeah, and also, I've been thinking about American foods, we also need to factor in the Colombian exchange itself. We, you know, when you think about a Thanksgiving meal, you are actually eating things which are actually indigenous to America, which is probably the only meal people eat during the course of the year, where there's even the slightest possibility that being the case, following the, the Colombian exchange, we have the, the transplantation of things like wheat and sugar, and cattle and pigs into, into the Americas, which transformed the American diet tremendously.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And kind of roughly, when are we talking about here with the Columbian exchange?

 

Dr. Chris Otter 

We're talking sort of the very late 15th and 16th 16th centuries.

 

Mark Sokolsky 

Why don't we pick up on something that a couple of you have mentioned, the ways that these changes in diet and food production have affected the human body or health. What are some of the big the big ways in which food, changes in food production have affected health? And in the past, say 200 years? Chris, maybe we could start with you.

 

Dr. Chris Otter 

Right, I mean, if I could take it back again, to the to the Neolithic. It is, it is worth noting that when people settle down, we, if you measure skeletons over this period, you see a dramatic drop in human heights, when people started to farm, they got really quite dramatically shorter. We've only just kind of recovered and exceeded the heights that we believe that the sort of, "hunter gatherer" populations had actually achieved. In terms of relatively recent transformations, I'd say you have to it's a very, very ambivalent in many ways. The increased quantities of food that we that we present, that we consume, the increased amounts of protein and fat, relative to carbohydrates have had a beneficial effect. In many ways we are bigger, we are stronger, we are able to do more work, we're able to produce more energy. And we're also more resistant to certain forms of infectious disease such as tuberculosis, and I think over the past hundred years in the West maternal health and fetal health has genuinely improved as a result of the feeding of, of mothers. That said, this has to be juxtaposed with a whole range of what might be called lifestyle or civilized, civilizational or mismatch diseases, which are associated with our processed diet from, from heart disease, type two diabetes and obesity, down to rather more niggling and irritating things like diverticulitis, constipation, tooth decay, and so forth. So I think that it's a very, very ambivalent thing. We live with a lot of food-based morbidity in our, in our lives, but maybe food has transformed our mortality and in a good way, at the same time.

 

Mark Sokolsky 

When and where do we start seeing food allergies appear?

 

Dr. Chris Otter 

 20th century, I mean, certainly the first text discussing food allergy, would be the first text discussing allergy full stop, and the first food allergy tests date from, I think, around the 1930s, the scratch tests. These texts all discuss a single issue that we, that Sam mentioned before, which is processing, which is when you start having mass produced things like sauces and gravies that have trace elements of egg or flour in, suddenly allergies start popping up all over the place when people are using things, they don't really realize that they're eating it. So it's sort of egg, egg allergies, milk allergies, these sorts of things, wheat allergies, start to become, people start to become conscious of them. It's probable that people did suffer from these things before. But certainly, in terms of its discussion, and its measurement, this is very much a 20th century phenomena.

 

Dr. Helen Veit 

And the explosion of allergies, especially for children, which is what we tend to hear most about when we think about food allergies. That explosion is really a late 20th century phenomenon. Really, since the early 1980s, there's been this dramatic increase that people are really still figuring out the origins of it, because it's it really has been so dramatic.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

So I went to the grocery store the other day, and it's the middle of winter here in Columbus, and I was able to buy avocados from Mexico, right? Apples from Chile. And so today, right, we can easily and often cheaply purchase fresh produce from around the world, world in great variety in almost any season. Right? But how recent is this phenomenon, I'm kind of been wondering, and how has the globalization of food changed relationships between the United States and the rest of the world? And Helen, if maybe you wanted to start us off here?

 

Dr. Helen Veit 

Sure. So as you note, this availability of fresh produce from all over the world is quite new. And there's, you know, been a lot of focus on that with the locavore movement, people trying to point out the especially the environmental downsides of transportation involved. But, you know, as I like to tell my students a lot of the locavore movement is, is fairly romantic and fairly nostalgic, although, you know, you could not get avocados, in December in Ohio, 100 years ago, actually 150 years ago, a hundred years ago, it might have been possible. But one of the big changes is that there was so much food available globally, that wasn't fresh things like chocolate, or coffee, or sugar or cinnamon or tapioca or salt. You know, all sorts of things that people in the 19th and 18th centuries at least were eating, were definitely global as well, you know, they weren't fresh, it wasn't fast. But that that has been a big change the, the freshness of it. It's one part of it, you know, a broader, you know, globalization of the marketplace in general. Food is one thing that's available globally. But there are, of course, as anyone knows who checks labels on clothing, or electronics or anything else, many, many other things available that have come from all over the place.

 

Dr. Sam White 

Right, we could probably say that there have been two globalizations: one that might date back  hundreds of thousands of years, the globalization of relatively imperishable and precious food stuffs such as spices, versus the modern globalization of fresh food, and food on a large scale, commoditized food, which has only really occurred since the mid-19th century when you get first industrial power applied to transportation technology.

 

So railroads and steamships, and then refrigeration, which only followed a couple decades later, by the, by the 1870s and 1980s.

 

Dr. Chris Otter 

Yeah, there is a brief intervening period when live animals are, I mean, live animals are obviously transported all over the world today in horrible conditions, but before refrigeration, but when steamships and sort of long distance shipping was, was feasible, you find, you find animals being shipped across the Atlantic, from Argentina, to the, to the UK, live animals were shipped, and often the conditions that make slave ships seem relatively appealing.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Are there other major events or processes? You know, we asked about specifically about, you know, the US in the world are there other kind of processes that we haven't asked about here that where food, this thing that’s everywhere, and nowhere that you highlight how food has played a key role in in kind of global history?

 

Dr. Chris Otter 

Some nutritionists and historians of nutrition, write about something called the "nutrition transition," which is, which refers to a shift in which is first seen in Western Europe, in France and the Netherlands, in Britain, to a diet that is rich in animal proteins, certainly a higher consumption of meat, higher consumption of dairy, higher consumption of wheat relative to other grains and a higher consumption of sugar. This is something you see developing from the 18th century. And in the case that, certainly the British case, it involved in involves something we might call the great outsourcing where the British decided to, you know, under the influence of free trade policies from around 1850 onwards, allow their domestic agriculture to effectively go into decline because they could get food more cheaply from other parts of the world. And certainly, they could use their labor, and their land better for industrialization. And this is very closely linked to the development of several parts of the world, Australasia to a lesser extent South Africa, Argentina, certainly, even Denmark, and Canada. And all these places became heavily involved in the British economy, so much so that in the 1930s, when the global economy crashes, and European countries throughout protection, places like Argentina go into spiraling and stapling depression as a consequence.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

So they're kind of, really food has a crucial role here and in these interlinked economies?

 

Dr. Chris Otter 

Without question, without question.

 

Dr. Helen Veit 

That's right. And in periods, for example, during World Wars, or, you know, the great depression or at other times of economic stress, that linkages, those linkages become points of vulnerability. And so if you have an import economy, for example, and suddenly you're blockaded during war, that becomes a tremendous liability for you and an emergency situation.

 

Dr. Sam White 

And my research focuses mainly on reconstructing past climate and understanding its impact with the hope that it might help us prepare for contemporary climate change. So I put a lot of emphasis in my course on trying to understand past invulnerabilities and famines, hopefully, will not be directly relevant to our coming experience of global warming. But I think it helps highlight at least the times when food is scarce, and what our vulnerabilities are in terms of food production and food supply, especially in a changing environment.

 

Mark Sokolsky 

And what would be some of the ways that we could mitigate the risks associated with food production and the changing climate? But what comes out of this research, would you say?

 

Dr. Sam White 

That's a good question, because I think there are no hard and fast rules. There are trade offs really to each type of policy that we could have. If we focus more, for instance, on ensuring a global food supply, then we reduce the risks that a total food availability will disappear. On the other hand, we need more people at the mercy of the market and market prices, which can also be very difficult for the poor. And I think there are other examples where we could see possible tradeoffs in policy. So I guess I wouldn't say in the space for short interview that there's one clear take a message from that kind of research.

 

Mark Sokolsky 

Okay. Okay. I guess, in general, and this is a question to everyone, based on what you know, about the past about food history, what are some things that people could do, you know, to mitigate the environmental impact to the way that we eat or to make positive changes in this respect?

 

Dr. Helen Veit 

I mean, I think one of the things that everyone is going to be thinking more about in the coming decades is trying to produce food in ways that are more efficient for land use and for energy use. And one of the biggest things that individuals can do is to eat less meat, which is meat as animal production, it tends to be, you know, is almost always very, very intensive, both in terms of land use, and in terms of energy use. So I think that's going to be a major trend. You're already hearing more about it in very mainstream media outlets.

 

Mark Sokolsky 

Chris, do you have anything you wanted?

 

Dr. Chris Otter 

Yeah. I mean, I think that's, that's certainly probably something that will all agree on here. I mean, I don't think if, if the developing world develops dietary proclivities that are the same as the United States, then we're in astonishingly deep trouble. So okay.

 

Dr. Sam White 

Yes, absolutely. Agree. Yeah. meat production consumption has really been that the, you know, the elephant in the room, when it comes to discussions of food availability, and food supply. There is a lot of editorializing, a lot of research going into, "how will we feed the world?" But really, what that research means is, "how will we feed the world more meat?" which is what's increasingly demanded.

 

Dr. Chris Otter 

And often it's, it's how we'll feed the world more beef, which is particularly, a particularly inefficient type of meat. Although the fastest growing sectors I guess of the meat economy, are poultry and, and pork, which are arguably the most, the most barbaric.

 

Mark Sokolsky 

Really? The most barbaric, can you expand on that a bit?

 

Dr. Chris Otter 

Yeah. I mean, if you, if one was to enter a poultry complex, one would see poultry living in, in astonishingly small spaces. The average chicken lives what 42 days I think is now it's, it was 60 days in the ‘50s. And, and similarly, pork production has retreated into these kinds of factory environments, and so factory farming is something you see far more, it's far more widespread with chicken and with pork than it is with beef. Cattle do get some chance to at least run about outside.

 

Dr. Sam White 

It was an unfortunate trade off in so far as the least environmentally unfriendly, I guess I could say, types of meat production tend also to be the most concentrated and create the most welfare issues that relate to that kind of confinement and that, you know, large concentrations of animals.

 

Mark Sokolsky 

So eating insects is probably the best option. Is that what you're saying?

 

Dr. Chris Otter 

Eating sardines.

 

Mark Sokolsky 

Sardines. Okay. Well, it doesn't seem super likely that everyone's going to start eating insects, but what changes do you think are likely? Say, you know, in the next 20, 50 years in diets -- American diets or around the world?

 

Dr. Sam White 

I think it will depend in part on whether market prices are allowed to take into account total costs. There is a market solution, obviously, to the resource demands of beef in particular, which would be to reflect them in the price of beef that consumers pay. And if that were to happen, then we'll see the market rationing beef by price more and more. What I think we'll find, though, is that might be very difficult, because food is about more than just an issue of taste. It's going to be about an issue of identity of politics, of feelings of class, and in identity. And that makes it very hard, I think, to let those market forces take their way, and, and help hopefully, you know, ration resources accordingly.

 

Dr. Helen Veit 

I think that, you know, as I said earlier, meat consumption will probably go down, whether it's because it has to, because it's actually not sustainable and it just becomes less feasible, or whether there are market solutions. I think, not just meat, but also dairy, cheese, products like that are going to have to go down in some way. It will be interesting to see what happens with the fisheries. A lot of fish populations are on the verge of collapse because of unsustainable fishing methods. So, you know, we might see a world in the future with very little fish. And, you know, I also think that some of these things we talked about, like eating insects, that, you know, I could see that getting popular because of necessity, but also potentially just because older taboos are breaking down. We're already seeing culturally, a lot of the taboos that really defined American culture in the 20th century, really disappearing, spearheaded by sort of adventurous foodies, but a lot of things that seemed adventurous and taboo 20 years ago, like sushi, in this country, have become so mainstream that I think there are going to be a lot more examples of things like that, things that seemed, you know, inedible in previous generations that become newly edible again.

 

Dr. Chris Otter 

I'd like to think that's the case. I think of food taboos. I think they're, they're harder to break than we might think. If you think about the example of say horse meat. I mean again, the horse meat taboo was broken in France and in Germany and in Belgium and in Italy, in the 19th century. It wasn't broken in the Anglophone world, partly because it was broken in other parts of Europe, and it was associated with being sort of uncivilized to consume horse. That said, horse meat is still not widely consumed in Europe. It's maybe Italy that probably has the highest consumption of horse meat, maybe Mexico and Brazil have a higher level. So I'd like to think that's the case. But I worry that we're going to keep going like this for the foreseeable future.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

We'll have to wrap it up there though. We want to thank our three guests Helen Veit, who joined us from Michigan State by phone, and Chris Otter and Sam White, both from Ohio State, for being here on History Talk. Thanks, everybody.

 

Dr. Sam White 

Thank you very much.

 

Dr. Chris Otter 

Thank you.

 

Dr. Helen Veit 

Thank you.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

This edition of the Origins podcast History Talk was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center in the History Department at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer, our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Mark Sokolsky. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more at origins.osu.edu, on iTunes, and on SoundCloud. And as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening!

 

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