I believe it was Julia Child who pointed out that every significant change in society has always been accompanied by a change in how we grow, select, distribute, prepare, serve and consume food. Whether food drove societal change or if societal evolution drove changes in the system surrounding food can be debated forever. The more that I thought about this theory, the more it seemed to hold true – so I thought that I would point out just a few of the significant historical changes in how we act as a people and the way that food impacted everyone at that time.
FIRE: Obviously, there are few things that had a greater overall impact on civilization than the discovery of fire. Richard Wrangham, a noted anthropologist from Harvard University theorized the following:
“Wrangham suggested that by cooking meat, it acted as a form of “pre-digestion”, allowing less food energy intake to be spent on digesting the tougher proteins such as collagen and the tougher carbohydrates. The digestive tract shrank, allowing more energy to be given to the growing brain of H. erectus. Suzana Herculano-Houzel calculated that if they ate only raw, unprocessed food, humans would need to eat for 9.3 hours per day in order to fuel their brains, which use about twice as much resting energy by percentage as other primates. Other scientists disagree with Wrangham’s assumption.”
Although, the impact of cooking food on brain developed is still debated, it is interesting to note that the greatest growth in human intellect and ability to build contemporary societal environments has steadily evolved beginning with mankind’s move from a raw diet to one that included the application of heat.
THE SPICE TRADE: Moving spices from Africa and the Middle East to the developed societies of Europe became so significant that it was the impetus for building ships and encouraging many to explore the rest of the world in search of spices for cooking and medicine. Constantinople became the center of spice trade and a mecca for political and economic tension since the early days of exploration.
MARCO POLO: Was not just a noteworthy explorer, he was an emissary for meshing the cultures of Asia and Europe. Through his travels he introduced the spice of peppers to Chinese cooks (likely instrumental in building some of the regional cuisines of this enormous country) and in turn brought the wonders of noodles back to Italy – pasta is, after all, the most noteworthy staple in regional Italian cooking. With this trade also came the subsequent cross-pollination of cultures and opening society’s eyes to the beauty of “difference”.
THE INVENTION OF THE REAPER AND MECHANIZED FARMING:
Cyrus McCormick, although not a cook by trade, was an inventor who had one of the most significant impacts on what cooks do, the cost and availability of raw materials and the accessibility of farm goods to the American population. America moved from subsistence farming allowing individuals to transition into manufacturing and other service jobs, increasing their disposable income and ability to take part in a free-enterprise system that created numerous entrepreneurial opportunities.
ESCOFFIER, FERDINAND POINT, CAREME, etc.: Affluence driven by opportunities for business and wealth creation drove the need for grand hotels to service a traveling population. These hotels realized the need for exceptional food to support this mobile society. Some of the greatest chefs of all time were instrumental in raising the bar for hotel dining and setting the standards for all cooks and chefs in the future. Freestanding restaurants had yet to follow suit and in most cases were still, at this point, considered inferior to eating at home.
PROHIBITION IN THE STATES: One of the most controversial laws in U.S. history banned the making, distribution, sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages. This lasted for 13 years until it’s repeal in 1933. Contrary to the law, Americans did not stop producing, distributing, selling or consuming alcohol – they simply did this illegally in speakeasy’s. These “illegal bars” dotted the American landscape in nearly every town from coast to coast. As much as the government attempted to shut them down, bust up illegal breweries and distilleries, arrest and imprison violators, the alcoholic beverage industry continued to flourish underground for the duration of prohibition. Once the law was repealed, these “gin mills (as they were called)” became the restaurants that would eventually rise to a level of culinary prominence in the decades that followed.
A COMMITMENT TO THE AUTOMOBILE: President Eisenhower, following World War II, enacted a program that would focus on building a network of highways across America. These connecting links that were built and managed by Federal and State Departments of Transportation created an opportunity and a need for every American family to own an automobile, to shed the need to stay in close proximity to their homes, to travel for business or leisure and to “see the USA in their Chevrolet”. Wherever roads intersected it was common to find a gas station and a diner. These early diners were in support of the American dream to own a business and would typically reflect an unwritten National Cuisine that was a combination of traditional comfort foods and what would later become the fast food industry. Each diner needed a cook who then built a following among patrons who saw restaurants as something beyond necessity – it became fun to “dine out”.
JULIA CHILD: What was most significant about Julia was not just her desire to bring French cooking to America; it was her ability to teach people, once again – how to cook at home while at the same time demonstrating her love of professional cooks and chefs. While paying homage to the great professional chefs who built the early foundations of American hospitality, she made cooking accessible and interesting to those who had a desire to improve what was found on the typical home table and did so using the most powerful medium at the time: television.
QUICK SERVICE RESTAURANTS: There is no question that there are numerous negatives associated with the quick service restaurant menu and the impact it continues to have on the American diet and health of our population, however, there is also little question that there have been positive cultural changes as a result that built a restaurant industry and opportunities for cooks at all levels. The advent of quick service from the early days when Ray Kroc savored the opportunity to sell his milk shake machines to the McDonald Brothers in California has allowed restaurants to move from the category of “luxury” to an integral part of our way of living. Nearly 50% of the current American family food dollar is spent in some type of restaurant. This has created immense opportunities for cooks and chefs, for restaurateurs, service staff, managers, advertisers, varied cuisine and service concepts, and a constant spark of energy in the U.S. economy.
TV DINNERS AND MICROWAVES – A step backward: TV dinners in the 1950’s brought the dinner table into the living room, broke down the concept of the family dining tradition and with it’s contemporary partner – the microwave oven, successfully broke down the “family table”. This societal change (not for the better in my opinion) took away the opportunity for families to converse and share, to listen and support, to build ideals and pass on traditions. An era of independence from the family model was and continues to be a result that we seem to be paying dearly for.
BIG BUSINESS RESTAURANTS: With a growing population use to dining in restaurants and a faltering family experience around food, there was an apparent need for chain concepts beyond quick service. Corporate food service changed the American societal landscape by making flavorful, not exceptional but affordable, thematic or ethnic foods in every metro area from coast to coast. Their buying power and driven standards took away the surprises associated with dining out, minimized the inconsistencies and allowed the American family an opportunity to afford to break bread together without microwave ovens that drove a wedge between generations. Each property may not need the expertise of a serious chef, but cook and service positions grew exponentially.
1976 AND CHEF LOUIS SZTHMARY: This jovial Chicago chef and restaurateur lobbied the U.S. Department of Labor to change the categorization chef from “domestic” to “professional”. This may not seem significant to some, but it set the stage for cooks and chefs to come into their own, hold their heads high and view being a cook or chef as a noble career. This designation built opportunities for serious cooks to aspire to positions that afforded salary and benefit packages previously unheard of before 1976.
THE FOOD NETWORK: Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, we can watch amateurs and professionals attempt to talk with us about food, demonstrate preparations, define what we should eat or could eat, reveal some of the ethnic cultural differences in the world that lead to uniquely interesting foods, and even watch unrealistic renditions of what it is like to work in a professional kitchen. What this has done for the industry is both positive and puzzling at the same time. The unrealistic “show” of working in a restaurant has attracted thousands of young people every year to culinary schools from New York to California. As a result, there are many hundreds of schools that have been created to service this need and a growing population of chefs to serve as faculty. Restaurants have become sources of entertainment and a coveted reservation at a restaurant with a chef personality is as treasured as a ticket to see a favorite rock band. Chefs are now paid more than ever before (although it still doesn’t match the commitment of hours and incredibly hard work), art food has a market, the average diner is now familiar with good olive oil, aged balsamic, grass fed beef, how to make pasta, the most sophisticated kitchen gadgets on the market and the French, Italian and Asian names for ingredients and cooking processes that were unknown just a decade or so ago. We no longer talk about going out to dinner – now it is seeking a dining experience.
So, here we are in 2014. Cooking has never experienced such a high. Chefs and cooks are respected positions and many are envious of those who choose to make cooking their career and passion. The work is incredibly hard, sometimes back breaking, the hours are excessive and the pay is better but not spectacular. We often times concentrate on these realities and ask: “why am I doing this”? Yes, there are challenges, but as this brief synopsis of food history points out, to be a cook is important. There have been societal mistakes and missteps along the way, but those in the field should never lose sight of how much society depends on us to set the course for cultural evolution.
Let this be an opportunity to be thankful for what we are able to do and how we are able to influence those around us through cooking. Where we have made mistakes – remember that we can also correct them. Cooking for others and breaking bread is one of the most enjoyable and important acts that humans can take part in. Be proud of the role that we all play in supporting and building a business that can make a positive difference each and every day. Cooks are important.
PLAN BETTER – TRAINING HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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