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Hard to Swallow

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

When it comes to food, local, natural, and slow are in. That's the message of books and articles I've read recently, proclaiming the virtues of fresh-from-the-earth carrots from a small nearby farm and cheese from goats you can visit. One book urges buying a farm, growing, harvesting, killing, eating, and freezing your own food. The idea is to live in harmony with nature and raise children without preservatives, junk food, or a social life. This new turn is away from mass-market fast food, but it is in opposition to a prior food fad that embraced the globalization of cuisines; relished being able to buy lemon grass in Baltimore; and produced TV shows, books, and magazines telling us what to do with it. If global goes and local wins, we'll need a whole new set of TV shows, books, and magazines, just like the ones I'm reading.

Sure, fresh and local does taste better, but advocating it poses a practical problem and provides a major opportunity. The practical problem is that many of us live where buying local would mean several months of a potato and micro-brew diet. For some that's not much of a stretch, but it isn't what the authors I've been reading have in mind as a natural, healthy, eco-friendly alternative. That's the problem.

Here's the opportunity. We know that the food pendulum will swing again, as it has from fast to slow and global to local. But in what direction? I suggest guiding it toward the food that fueled our ancestors and made us the obese and artery-clogged consumers we are today. For every New Big Thing there is a Next Big Thing, and I want to point the pendulum in the all-American direction, mostly from fear it might swing back to sprouts and brown rice.

Here's my alternative: Reprint long-forgotten cookbooks self-published as fundraisers by local church and civic groups. Heartland, not heart-healthy.

To test the idea, I went to the oldest community cookbook we have on our bookshelf, assembled in 1933 by church members in a Nevada town, a place where fresh and local is not appetizing. The book is fascinating but requires editing by an amply compensated scholar. For example, the section on the town's "Nationally Famous Mess Hall" for a public works project contains intriguing details — "25,000 cases of canned fruits and vegetables are consumed in a year" — but won't grab an audience captivated by accounts of freshly picked raspberries. That requires deleting the mess hall and getting to the recipes.

A few are inadvertently healthy. One is for a "Bran Honey Bread" containing enough fiber to transform your day, if not your life. The book also introduces readers to unfamiliar ingredients. Come on smarty-pants foodies, how many of you really know how to use suet or canned tomato aspic? How many recipes do you have for pimento and canned asparagus? OK lettuce-lovers, have you made a salad with ginger ale? You need this cookbook.

If that doesn't convince you, there's more. Smug readers, if you think multicultural cooking began recently, think again. Here are consecutive recipes assembled by the Nevada church women: "Goulash," "Corn-Hamburger en Casserole" (with "1 can Del Maiz niblets"), "Chili Hamburger Steak," "One Dish Meal" (my ethnicity), "Tamale Loaf," "Chili," "Chili Con Carne" (like the previous recipe, substituting bacon for suet), "Italian Delight" (the title conjures delectable possibilities, most not including canned corn and Worcestershire sauce), "Wop Joy" (more Italian), and "Lamb and Cabbage" ("a Norwegian Dish" containing the title ingredients, salt, and a "few whole cloves"). In addition to being multicultural before it was fashionable, recipes like the latter make Mark Bittman, the "minimalist" food writer, look like a maximalist.

The genius of Heartland Food is that it doesn't require fresh local vegetables, just meat, sugar, flour, eggs, grease, canned goods, and gelatin. And, sorry Williams-Sonoma, with Heartland Food, the ultimate kitchen gadget is a can opener.

Reprints of such cookbooks, properly edited, would sell millions of copies by evoking baby boomer memories of dinners at Gramma's house — and explaining why McDonald's seemed a better option.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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