Contrary to the myth of the happy, apple-cheeked great-great-grandmother, cooking has rarely been seen as a source of fulfillment, historically speaking. In Colonial America, kitchen work was viewed as a lowly chore, often farmed out to servants (who, needless to say, did not spend a lot of time exulting in the visceral pleasures of pea shucking). In the 1800s, middle-class women supervised immigrant kitchen maids (or slaves), while pioneer women and rural housewives sweated over wood fires and heavy iron pots. (Fun fact: until the mid-1800s, many large households employed a small dog called a “turnspit dog” for the unpleasant task of turning the roast over the fire.)
“People were happy to work in factories and get off the farm!” groans Chris Bobel, a women’s studies professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. “The factory girls from Lowell [Massachusetts, one of the earliest textile mill towns], it was esteemed work, to be able to put on shoes and go sit at a sewing machine all day.”
And while there are genuine problems with today’s industrialized food system, the idea that food was purer and more wholesome in the past is also pure fiction.
“The media has done a good job of convincing people that their food isn’t safe, when almost certainly the opposite is true,” says Rachel Laudan, a food historian. Laudan points out that eating has always been an inherently dangerous enterprise, but one that has gotten progressively safer over the years with the rise of better sanitation and government standards.
Prepasteurization, children frequently died from cholera, listeria, or bovine tuberculosis after drinking tainted milk. Butter was often rancid or adulterated with anything from gypsum to gelatin fat to mashed potatoes. Until the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, penny candy might be colored with lead or arsenic, pickles with copper compounds. Malnutrition was endemic well into the twentieth century, especially in the parts of rural America we like to imagine as pastoral paradises.
Yet, due to the pervasive romanticization of the preindustrial family farm, today only 60 percent of Americans say they believe they’ve benefited from modern food technologies (including pasteurizing, fermenting, drying, freezing, fortification, and canning). Of the 60 percent who believe there are benefits to modern food technology, only 30 percent say modern technologies have increased food safety. In reality, we’ve all benefited vastly from these technologies, and many of us would actually be dead without them.