What’s so good about the old days? Matt Pre­ston takes off the

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - On Sunday - Head to de­li­ for more ev­i­dence there’s never been a bet­ter time to be alive.

@mattscra­vat FOOD WAS FUEL @Mattscra­vat

THESE DAYS it seems ev­ery­one bangs on about the old days be­ing so much bet­ter – every­thing was ‘ar­ti­san’, ev­ery­one cooked over wood just like at ach­ingly on-trend Ek­st­edt in Stock­holm and Etxe­barri near Bil­bao, and you didn’t need a man bun or a vin­tage dress to prac­tise skills such as nonna’s pre­serv­ing or nan’s bread­mak­ing. That was just what we did to put food on the ta­ble rather than an In­sta­grammable mo­ment that de­mands a spe­cial fil­ter and an al­most ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal rev­er­ence.

Back in those glory days be­fore the mass-mar­ket com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of the ’50s, there were no drive-thru joints, no Kid Fat­ten­ing Cen­tres and no one had a prob­lem get­ting raw milk. Heir­loom veg­eta­bles and rare-breed live­stock were just ‘veg­eta­bles’ and ‘pigs’.

Now, there’s noth­ing wrong with ro­man­ti­cis­ing the life­style of your great-grand­mother. The trou­ble with look­ing at the past through these milk-bot­tle-bot­tom, rose-coloured lenses is that every­thing gets dis­torted. Look more closely and you re­alise those were ac­tu­ally the bad ol’ days. Here’s why.

The plea­sures of the ta­ble were fleet­ing for most peo­ple a hun­dred years ago. The democrati­sa­tion of our cur­rent oral ob­ses­sions is a much more re­cent thing. Back then, the chal­lenge was just get­ting enough to eat.


Killing and pluck­ing that chicken for din­ner or grow­ing the veg are both be­set with prob­lems. Sure, I can grow sil­ver­beet and pars­ley like it’s go­ing out of fashion, but the or­anges from my trees are never as sweet as those in the su­per­mar­ket (my lo­cal cli­mate’s fault) and my Brus­sels sprouts and let­tuces ei­ther bolt or get de­voured by plagues of pests. The mod­ern food land­scape brings us bet­ter pro­duce, more eas­ily and in far more va­ri­ety.


We can now del­e­gate things to pro­fes­sion­als who do it bet­ter – like dis­patch­ing and pluck­ing that chicken. The one-time al­ter­na­tive was hav­ing ‘staff’, but I’d rather live in our rel­a­tively egal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety than one where 98 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion waits on the other two per cent.


I love making my own salami and get a lit­tle misty about pick­ing pro­duce from the gar­den, but the speed and qual­ity of the sup­ply chain mean I can quickly and eas­ily get my hands on the best from around the coun­try, or the world.


We spend a tiny pro­por­tion of our wages on food com­pared with a cen­tury ago. This means we now have more funds for that over­seas trip/health in­sur­ance/new car/den­tal work (which was bru­tally rough a hun­dred years ago). Like­wise, go­ing out for a fancy meal was not on the agenda for most back then.


In the shops of the good ol’ days there wasn’t nearly the choice of to­day. You’d have been lucky to find olive oil, soy sauce or green cap­sicums, let alone mirin, fish sauce, curry pastes or ex­otic pro­duce like chill­ies and lemon­grass.


Chop­ping wood for the fire, no hot run­ning wa­ter on de­mand and, lord for­bid, the ab­sence of un­der­floor heat­ing are just three of the ‘glo­ries’ you’d have to face if the good ol’ days re­turned.


Surely this is the deal breaker. The choice of restau­rants was dra­mat­i­cally lim­ited back then, so wave good­bye to your favourite yum cha, sushi bar or Pun­jabi dhaba. And say hello to heavy French sauces and fish un­der blan­kets of as­pic.


We’ve be­come smarter about how we cook. Our food is, by and large, lighter, health­ier and less re­liant on de­monised re­fined prod­ucts. Heavy sauces have be­come lighter jus and to thicken some­thing you cook it a lit­tle longer rather than dump­ing flour in it. We also avoid boil­ing the be­je­sus out of our veg.


Once we started to pro­duce food on an in­dus­trial scale to feed the bur­geon­ing pop­u­la­tion, the wel­fare of an­i­mals went out the win­dow. While we’re still by no means per­fect when it comes to the eth­i­cal rear­ing of our din­ner, at least now there’s con­cern about what we eat and how it has been raised. Wit­ness the growth of free-range pork and eggs and an­tibi­otic-free beef. Damn, I sound like Cur­tis Stone but with­out the looks.


Ever won­dered why old recipes tell you to sift the flour for your cakes? It’s not really to avoid lumps or make an airier bat­ter, but to sift out the rat drop­pings and bits of stone left from the ar­chaic milling process. Slice of Madeira, m’ dear? Not so ap­peal­ing now is it?


So­cial me­dia has its crit­ics and they of­ten have a point, but I love the way it fos­ters com­mu­ni­ties of like-minded souls. An In­sta­gram snap may even be worth a thou­sand words, though I pre­fer 280 characters or a 10-word Face­book re­ply, es­pe­cially if it’s a hot tip on where to eat. So­cial me­dia has her­alded democrati­sa­tion to our food worlds.

NOWA­DAYS we can still get the best of the good old days, whether it’s tasty rare-breed pork, sour­dough bread made by a real baker, or the nut­ti­est of her­itage pump­kin. All is avail­able, at a price.

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