Safflower, sunflower, palm, corn, soybean, cottonseed, etc.
I was making sourdough bread before March 2020. Granted, not a long time before—I produced my first loaf just a few months before the pandemic made home baking trendy—but long enough to make me think I came by my love for the process honestly.
I started fermenting my starter not simply because I had some free time on my hands but because, as a lover of the culinary arts, it was the next challenge I wanted to conquer, a step up from instant yeast breads, not quite as involved as croissants (I have yet to aspire to such buttery heights), and the results were, well, delicious. Some people do marathons. The joy of cooking is found in the process, the labor of love, as much as it is in the end product.
So agrees the diligent Mary Harrington in an essay for UnHerd titled “The Curse of Sliced Bread.” Using the example of Chorleywood sourdough, a process of breadmaking developed in 1961 that uses a slurry of chemicals to speed up the cooking process, Harrington suggests the modern diet has been harmed by our obsession with productivity.
Our modern passion for efficiency has damaged our bodies by affecting the food we consume. It is hardly controversial today to suggest that processed food is Big Bad. We know that real food is better, but real food also takes far more individual effort from seed to serving than the industrialized alternatives. Eating grass-fed, grass-finished beef served with organic vegetables roasted in locally sourced butter for dinner would be better, of course, but after an eight hour workday, who is going to take the time?
For my generation, most of us lack the skills necessary to participate in a return to real food. Forget the fact that the breadwinner sex is hardly lusty enough to win anything more than a game of Call of Duty, so far removed are they from hunting wild game for dinner. Many among the breadmaker sex are equally incapable of cooking a meal that involves much more prep than opening packaging and preheating an oven. Slushy magazines and Instagram personalities brag about being “good at ordering takeout.” Perhaps Gen Z will do better, as recipes proliferate on TikTok. Still, the group would first have to graduate to foods without MSG.
This is the gift of capitalism. Rather than having to hunt our own game and slaughter and prepare it every night, we go to the grocery store, where we find that the invisible hand has not only butchered it but packaged it in plastic and kept it fresh for the very moment we decided we were hungry.
In the 70 or so years since processed food was first popularized, we have taken this principle to an extreme, such that it would be impossible to sustain a modern lifestyle without it. Eating in a way that builds our bodies up rather than tearing them down is a choice that involves an increasing amount of commitment. You know this if you’ve tried to avoid certain ingredients at the grocery store. The nebulous forces of supply and demand that Leonard Read worshiped for creating a pencil have similarly adapted to our time-saving preference, one of the highest modern goods, and purged the alternatives. It’s a variation on what my mother always told me about beggars not being choosers: When you delegate the work to another man, or thousands of men, you don’t get to tell them how to do it.
One thing we’ve lost as a result is variety. This sounds counterintuitive, in an era where you can get an avocado every month of the year and za’atar is a few clicks away from your doorstep, if it’s not already at your local grocery, but it is true. Setting aside for a moment the fact that the majority of all meat in all grocery stores is packed by one of only four processing plants, look closer at the ingredients in your food, and inquire after where your meat comes from. Manufacturers and chemists have found ways to produce a thousand new products, flavors, and experiences all from the first crop ever planted in the American colonies, the god maize. Man does not live by bread alone, but in 2022, we’re working hard to discover if he can do so by corn.
This is as true in the field as it is in the market. Massive farms have replaced family ones, crowded and muddy stalls replaced grazing fields, and feed replaced grass, because these are faster and more affordable ways to produce meat at a high volume; they are efficient for the machine of production, and cheaper for the consumer. The typical cow today is “finished”—the process by which bovine are fattened before going to the butcher—on a diet that is 50 to 60 percent corn. Soil is depleted of a plethora of nutrients as farmers neglect crop rotation in response to manufacturers’ demands for corn and soybeans, two crops that accounted for more than 40 percent of U.S. crop cash receipts in 2020. If you’ve ever driven through Indiana, you knew this already. Everywhere there are fields, and every field seems to be producing only soybeans as far as the eye can see. This is certainly a very efficient way to produce food if pure calories are what we desire. But is it good?
Shortcuts always come with costs. Like with Chorleywood sourdough, when we exchange one ingredient for another, we sacrifice something in the exchange. What happens when we try to substitute almost all of the ingredients?