Got a short, terse email from a reader over the weekend saying she was glad I was “happy that the rest of the world is now poisoning itself with Western junk food”. This in reference to the Pass the Empanadas post I wrote Friday. That of course is nowhere near the point I was trying to make. Granted I tend not to look at modern packaged food as “poison” in the same way a lot of other foodies do. To me it’s more like a fall-back position, there for the times when for whatever reason, we don’t have the time, money or the energy to cook exactly as we’d like. In the best of all possible worlds we don’t use it, but then how many days out of the year do we live in the best of all possible worlds?
The answer to that question for most Westerners is: a lot more often than most of the rest of the world, which has to make do with whatever is handy on any given day. Not so long ago quite a bit of the West was like that. Italy is a great example. People have starved there for millennia. It’s only been since World War II, thanks to modern farming techniques and industrial food production, that it’s become the land of abondanza. Even after the war, what we consider “Italian food” was by no means what ordinary Italians ate Monday through Saturday. Traditionally pastas, rich sauces, meat courses and desserts were Sunday dinner fare. Monday through Saturday, people contented themselves with staples like bread, soup, eggs, beans and corn meal mush (polenta). In most of China it’s still like that. There, your average person eats rice and vegetables, maybe a little meat if they’re lucky. Only on holidays can they indulge in banquets like we find in our Chinese restaurants, where it’s Chinese New Year every day of the week.
All of which is not to glorify packaged foods, only to say we shouldn’t find it surprising that they’re so omnipresent nowadays, being inexpensive, basically nutritious, and resistant to spoilage. No wonder they’ve found their way into pretty much every culture on Earth. And in a way I suppose it does make me glad, since packaged foods keep millions of people from starving every year. Yes I suppose in the best of all possible worlds it would be great if everybody on the globe had access the best, most wholesome and delicious foods produced by their native cuisines whenever they felt like eating them. But then again, that’s the best of all possible worlds, which we don’t live in, nor have we ever.