· Illustration by Paul Hostetler
Are unfamiliar ingredients really an elitist construct, or are they just a reminder of the way people used to eat?
I have a food show on a local radio station, and as I yak away into the microphone, a big screen nearby displays texts from listeners. I was busy talking one day about the joy of slicing young turnips into discs for a salad when an angry text appeared: “Why are you always talking about stuff for elitists? Just talk about simple things that anyone can do!”
It was one of those random comments that caught me off-guard. It’s not that hard to slice a turnip, I thought, defensively. Still, the charge of “elite” versus “simple” rattled through my mind all day, and I realized it deserved a more thorough examination.
Consider the year 800. Location: the Mississippi River Valley, where Native Americans could be found tending their crops and hunting wildlife. Maize, beans, squash, wild foraged greens, organic fruits, and antibiotic-free duck — foods that we pay dearly for today — made up every meal. Why? Well, it wasn’t because they were elitists.
Consider the year 1900. Location: a farmhouse in the Mississippi River Valley. Farm wives could be found planting an array of turnips — the sugary ones that overwinter in the ground to be harvested in early spring and the starchy ones that could be stored in the root cellar. Those farm folk also filled barrels with lacto-fermented pickles that would delight any modern-day foodie; they smoked the meat from an antibiotic-free, pastured hog; made head cheese with the leftover hog’s feet; and rolled out pie crusts made with the lard. No one called them elitists.
The first frozen pie crust, patented by a Tennessee lady named Billie Hamilton Armstrong, didn’t arrive in grocery stores until the mid-’50s. There are still millions of people alive today who grew up in a world where handmade pie crust was the only option.
But the industrialization of food after World War II gradually pushed the homemade fare we once took for granted into the realm of elite cuisine. Why bother learning how to make pie crust or pesto with the basil from your backyard garden when you can just buy them at the grocery store?
In a lot of ways, we’ve become slaves to convenience. As a result, we no longer know what to do with real food; preparing and eating it has become almost foreign or exotic — something reserved for connoisseurs. People like Evan Mallett.
Mallett is a chef whose trendy restaurant on the New Hampshire coast, Black Trumpet, churns out plates of scarlet turnips, Gilfeather turnips, and Macomber turnips — varieties that many people would not consider everyday American food. But Mallett is no food elitist. He grew up eating the same two dozen ingredients most Americans eat these days. Now he’s all about honoring a culinary tradition few of us even remember anymore.
“I was not born into the world of foodie-ism,” he told me when I reached him by phone. “My mother did not like to cook. I lived with my mother, and occasionally my father would take me out for a special occasion to a restaurant in Boston we couldn’t afford. I mainly remember the pageantry. I envy people who have that rich culinary heritage; I wish I had it.”
What he did have at a young age was a desire to know what the world around him actually held and an appreciation for common plants that were pantry staples for people from an earlier era. “Wild thyme, dandelion greens, all these things that, if you grew up poor in Europe, would be ingrained in you as great foods — it was all new to me,” he said. “I’ll never forget the first time I spotted a chanterelle and confirmed it was a chanterelle — it took my breath away.”
Still, the real reward doesn’t come from finding the chanterelle or the dandelion greens — or serving them up in exotic dishes to diners with discriminating palates. For Mallett, it’s about gradually cultivating a more satisfying relationship with all that nature has to offer. When we avoid processed fare, we’re not only healthier, but we feel more connected to the real food of our ancestors.
It’s a connection he’d like more people to experience. “We never talk, as a culture, about the complete transformation of the human food supply in a few generations, and all the knowledge that was lost. I wish I could go to every American and say, ‘What are we eating here? Should we branch out a little?’”
If he did, some of those Americans would probably accuse him of elitism. But what these critics are missing is that Mallett’s turnips are available for everyone to enjoy. All it takes is a willingness to reconsider what “simple” really means and to acknowledge that our forebears probably knew a thing or two about how to feed themselves well.