The Essence of Culinary Travel: Q&A with Food Historian Betty Fussell - Page 3

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As a food historian, you trace how food staples like corn or apples first appeared in diets that go back centuries, even millennia. What are some of your most interesting discoveries about the stuff we eat?
We’re now picking up evidence that humanoids were taller and stronger before they became dependent on cereal grain, while they were still hunters and gatherers. There are those who say that agriculture and the plow have been the enemies of healthy sustainable ecologies. I like the idea of it anyway because it counters the banner waving of technological “progress" and “improvement."

Does today’s fast-food culture disturb you?
It’s not the speed of fast food that’s disturbing, or its uniformity, or its inadequate nutrition, not even the megalopic maw of monsters like McDonald’s. It’s the headlong speed of an industrial machine that is out of control and can’t stop even if it wanted to because the engineer fell off long ago. Industrialized food is just one engine on this runaway train and it’s bound to crash sometime, but as an anarchist in an over-controlled world, I feel that not all crashes are bad. Let nature take its course.

The food industry juggernaut these days seems to point to dark days ahead with everything from global warming to animal cruelty to social injustice. Think we should feel guilty about what we eat?
Ah, guilt. America’s favorite pastime, a result perhaps of its ethnic mix where Calvinists sit down with Israelites and double the ante. We’ve gotten over some of our inherited guilt as Hebraic-Hellenists and have removed the fig leaves from Adam and Eve, but we’re still problematic about the apple. Were it not for that apple we’d be immortal; it’s food that kills us, rather than gives us life. Every bite brings us closer to death. We haven’t figured this one out because as a culture we feel we ought to be able to live forever—as our young, vibrant, healthy selves.

Eat out or cook at home? Do you have a preference?
Because I live as a single, I cook at home all the time and love it—love the cooking alone, love the eating alone. Why? Because I don’t have to please anybody but me. I can look in the fridge and see what’s there and wonder what would happen if I threw that leftover adobo paste into yesterday’s pasta and added a little chopped cilantro (the bunch is wilted but I can pick out a few unyellowed leaves) and maybe just a spoon of green mayonnaise made a few days ago from a too large batch of pesto and wrap the whole thing in foil and bake it very slowly until it sort of melts together. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t matter, but it usually does and then each dish is one of a kind, never to be repeated. That’s because A) that would be boring, and B) I’ll never have that exact combination of leftover blobs to work with.

What would be in your basket for that perfect on-the-road traveler’s picnic?
The perfect traveler’s picnic? A fresh baguette, a creamy pâté de foie gras, small pink radishes with salt, fresh in-season strawberries with powdered sugar for dipping, and a very cold white wine, like an Auslese Riesling or Gewurztraminer. As for survival on airplane travel? A red wine smuggled into a water bottle (before the no-liquid crisis), a sandwich of smoked salmon and arugula or watercress on buttered rye because nothing can go wrong with it, cherry tomatoes because their skins are impermeable, a transportable and peelable fruit like a mandarin, and a cookie for morale.

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