The history of food over the last 100 years or so is undoubtedly the story of the industrialisation of food production and of the democratisation of eating. Up until the beginning of the last century most people lived on the land and fed themselves and the cities. Now the situation is very different with a very small rural population able to feed millions of city dwellers. This has been possible because of some technological innovations that have increased agricultural productivity. This has also made cheap food available for everyone. The Green Revolution has required the massive use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, making each acre of land far more productive. I tend to think that this has been positive. We hear so much about organic farming but I am sceptical about its ability to feed millions.
Halfway through the last century women began to feel that being in the kitchen was a form of social slavery. The microwave, actually invented in the 1940s, is one example of the revolution that has taken place in the kitchen. Perhaps inventions like this have done more to liberate women than all those feminists burning their bras in the 1960s. Convenience foods have also played a vital role in the liberation of women. From the ARM (Ambient Ready Meal) in the 50s to today’s Instant baked beans on toast, a frozen, fused sandwich that goes directly into the toaster, they have an ever-increasing market share. Are all these developments good or bad? I suppose we need to see them in terms of a trade off.
The growth of restaurants is something we take for granted but it is a relatively new phenomenon and surely McDonald’s is the ultimate example of the industrialised eatery. They are present in more than 111 countries (Thomas Friedman has a famous theory known as The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention in which he stated in a tongue-in-cheek way: “No two countries that both had McDonald’s had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald’s”. Unfortunately, though I think trade is a good way of increasing cooperation, putting a McDonald’s in every country in the world will not be a solution as shown by counterexamples examples such as the NATO’s bombing of Serbia or the 2008 South Ossetia war between Russia and Georgia.) They serve more than 50 million customers every day with a limited range of food that owes much to the original McDonald brothers, a family atmosphere and a free toy with each Happy Meal – McDonald’s is the biggest manufacturer of toys in the world.
The man who really made McDonald’s what it is today has to be Ray Kroc. Now Kroc was not exactly what you would describe as normal. You only have to hear his description of when he first went to the McDonald brothers restaurant in San Bernardino to realize that this man had some psychological issues: It was not her sex appeal but the obvious relish with which she devoured the hamburger that made my pulse begin to hammer with excitement. His descriptions of the buns and patties border on food pornography: It requires a certain kind of mind to see beauty in a hamburger bun. Yet, is it any more unusual to find grace in the texture and softly curved silhouette of a bun than to reflect lovingly on the hackles of a favourite fishing fly?” This man had an obsessive attention to detail. According to Kroc the hamburgers had to be 3.875 inches across, weigh 1.6 ounces and contain 19% of fat. And those buns had to have an average of 178 sesame seeds.
People tend to get very uppity about the lack of nutritional value of a Big Mac. Morgan Spurlock went a whole month eating only there in his documentary Super Size Me. I think this is a pretty stupid idea. My problem with McDonald’s is that I don’t think it isn’t very appetising. There are so many different tastes and gastronomic experiences out there to be had, that is crime to confine yourself to fast food
Haute cuisine has also undergone immense changes. For example, there is sous-vide cooking, where meat or fish is cooked for a long time, sometimes for over 24 hours, using airtight plastic bags placed in a Thermal Immersion Circulator, which heats the water to around 60°C. Sometimes you can take this technology too far. In the late 80s top chef Albert Roux opened a sous vide restaurant in London called Rouxl Britannia. He wanted to create a restaurant without skilled chefs. It sounded too much like ‘boil-in-a- bag’ and proved to be a failure and the chefless restaurant has not yet become a feature of contemporary life. More recently molecular gastronomy has come to the fore. Although he dislikes the term, it is associated with Spanish chef Ferran Adriá. The world’s greatest chef, “the Salvador Dali of the kitchen” is certainly very creative. He is famous for his Kellogg’s paella made from Rice Krispies, shrimp heads and vanilla-flavoured mashed potatoes. If that doesn’t get you drooling, you can try quail eggs in a cage of gold-tinted caramel, frozen foie gras dust and white garlic and almond sorbet. For those who can’t wait 4,024 years to get a table at his restaurant, El Bulli have their Texturas line of products that can turn potatoes and oysters into foams and help you create such culinary delights as melon caviar or spherical ravioli. I think I’d prefer a Big Mac.