Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tea is fast food

As much as I admire the slow food movement and the farmer's market missionaries, I can't help wonder sometimes if they're all craving a pastoral innocence that never really existed. This hunger for uber-fresh foods and produce absolutely untouched by the hand of man, certainly machine, strikes me as a psychological response to urban living more than any real nutritional or health benefit.

A new story in Utne Reader, "In Praise of Fast Food," builds on that perspective, pointing out that processed foods were often the only kind earlier humans would or could eat. Rachel Laudan writes:

For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad. Fresh meat was rank and tough, fresh fruits inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Natural was unreliable. Fresh milk soured; eggs went rotten. Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger. Natural was also usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied 50 to 90 percent of the calories in most societies, have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible.

So to make food tasty, safe, digestible, and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission. They created sweet oranges and juicy apples and non-bitter legumes, happily abandoning their more natural but less tasty ancestors. They built granaries, dried their meat and their fruit, salted and smoked their fish, curdled and fermented their dairy products, and cheerfully used additives and preservatives—sugar, salt, oil, vinegar, lye—to make edible foodstuffs.

Eating fresh, natural food was regarded with suspicion verging on horror; only the uncivilized, the poor, and the starving resorted to it. When the ancient Greeks took it as a sign of bad times if people were driven to eat greens and root vegetables, they were rehearsing common wisdom. Happiness was not a verdant Garden of Eden abounding in fresh fruits, but a securely locked storehouse jammed with preserved, processed foods.

I think about this in relation to tea quite often. It is one of the most processed products on the planet, and it wouldn't be that tasty or enjoyable if it weren't. People used to (and still do) chew fresh tea leaves. I tried this once. You think your overbrewed cup is bitter? Our human know-how tames the bad parts and brings out the good parts. Yay, science!

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