The Persistence of the Primitive Food Movement

Americans are currently embracing a strange sort of primitivism. Bicycles are losing gears, runners are afoot in shoes designed to create a barefoot sensation (some are even running barefoot), and men are growing bushy Will Oldham-like beards. It’s all very curious and entertaining.

But nowhere has our love for the supposed simplicity of the past been more evident than in food trends.? Guided largely by Michael Pollan‘s seductive mantra-“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”-millions of earnest consumers are declaring loyalty to the stripped-down essence of a pre-industrial diet. We eat local, buy organic, and support small farms. Some of us even forage and hunt, going so far as to consume meat raw (ill-advised) to honor our cavemen brethren.

This trend appears to be a unique response to a declension narrative that goes something like this: Americans once lived on small farms, ate locally-produced food, did not poison the soil with chemicals, and always knew from whence their food came. Then industrialization and urbanization hit, bringing us mass production, factory farming, chemical dependence, culinary uniformity, global trade, and, eventually, the Twinkie.? Eaters became separated from the means of production.? We lost our culinary innocence, fell from grace, and got fat.

I’m simplifying, of course. But not by much. Like so many other stories America tells itself, the narrative of modern food is a classic jeremiad, a linear tale of success and virtue brought to a halt by modernity and greed. The Puritans, who perfected the genre, would understand it well.

For all their moral impact, our linear jeremiads fail to capture the circularity of history. This is especially true with our back-to-the past reaction to “industrial food.” Current calls for dietary simplicity might have a revolutionary ring to them. But what’s overlooked in all the enthusiasm is this: Americans have always idealized, or at least harkened back to, an agricultural era when production was supposedly simpler, closer to the land, and unadulterated by the complexities of modernization. What we’re seeing right now with the food movement is, for all its supposed novelty, a stock (even banal) reaction to broad historical changes.

Consider Great Grandma’s era.? World War I was an era of voluntary rationing and, as a result, national discussions about food were common and heated.? Herbert Hoover, as head of the Food Administration, beat Michelle Obama to the publicity punch when he exhorted Americans to “Go back to the simple life, be content with simple food.” The Food Administration itself urged Americans to make Christmas dinner “according to ancient custom.” An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer evoked the importance of returning to “simple food” and “wholesome pleasures.”? Many commentators at the time highlighted the Civil War as a time when Americans ate in a way that reflected a more ascetic ideal, one that Americans were evidently losing by the time of WWI. (Hat tip: Helen Veit‘s wonderful Yale dissertation, “Victory over Ourselves: American Food and Progressivism in the Era of the Great War.”)

But did people living in the 1860s really see themselves as eating a simple diet?? Not so much. This was an era of frequent food adulteration, with consumer goods being leavened by sawdust, engine grease, plaster of Paris, pipe clay and God knows what else. Responding to the increasing complexity of food in 1870, John Cowan, author of What to Eat; And How to Cook It, lambasted Americans for eating “conglomerate mixtures”-ingredients “mixed in all shapes, in all measures, and under all conditions.” He insisted that these overly processed foods not only led to “a clogged brain” but also a “sickly and unenjoyable life.”

His solution could be mistaken for a line from the muckraking film Food, Inc. Cowan wrote: “To live a sweet, healthy life implies the use of simple, nutritious food, cooked in a plain, simple manner, and as nearly in its natural relations as possible.”? It was in the spirit of Cowan’s advice that mid-century Americans evoked early Americans for their simpler, more natural, and thus more virtuous eating habits.

And those rugged early Americans?? Yet again we find evidence suggesting that the idealized group-in this case early Americans-saw matters quite differently. The American Revolution drove Americans to define who they were as a culture. After years of approximating the increasingly luxuriant habits of Empire, early Americans reacted to independence by playing up their status as rough-hewn frontiersmen and self-sufficient survivalists. In terms of food, this self-identification meant rejecting luxury for-you got it-the primitive simplicity of the first European settlers.

James Madison got caught up in the trend, so much so that his food became rustic enough for European to comment on it. One noted that dinner “was more like a harvest home supper than the entertainment of the Secretary of State.” Patrick Henry mocked Jefferson‘s taste for fancy French food by declaring that he’d forgotten “his Native victuals.” By 1840, when elite Americans were becoming gourmands, William Henry Harrison scorned his presidential opponent, Martin Van Buren, for enjoying soupe a la reine. Harrison, by contrast, took a strategic page from the colonial past, portraying himself as a humble farmer sharing homemade cider after a hard day’s work.

Granted, every case described above has a very different context.? But still, the persistence of the primitive is hard to overlook. Faced with the inevitable-and often threatening-complexity of historical change, Americans have always reacted by idealizing a mythical golden age, a time when life was understood to be simpler, people less greedy, and values more virtuous.? So it has been with food.

I wonder if 100 years from now-when our meat will be engineered in laboratories, our crops will be grown hydroponically or on vertical farms, and cloning and biotechnology will determine yields- we’ll look back on the second half of the twentieth century and glorify the primitive simplicity of growing plants in soil, spreading crops across vast acreages, and relying on slaughterhouses to provide our meat. If the past is any clue, it seems likely.


The requirements to eat only food that my great grandmother would recognize and to eat only local foods are mutually incompatible. My great grandmother lived in rural South India. If I ate only what she would recognize, where in Washington DC would I find that? And how would I know where it was grown?

This movement is fine if your great grandmother lived in America and you want to eat meat and potatoes. Otherwise it's bunk.

Community member

Yeah, I don't see the current food movements to be typical nostalgia. Mostly, I see
* What we're eating is hurting our health
* The way we make it is hurting the environment
The link back to Michael Pollan has to do more with how complicated the issue is for a non-professional. He pretty much calls it a rule-of-thumb, not the most important thing in the universe.

It is, demonstrably, easy to fit to the historical narrative, but that's really an obvious oversimplification.


It reminds me of the conservative's yearning for 'simpler times' when "America" was true to itself. However, I would like to think that the current movement is not motivated so much by a yearning of a brighter past, but by the main criticisms to the current industrial food production system;

the unethical treatment of animals (chickens that can't move or never see the sun, manic-depressive pigs that allow their tails to be chewed off, cows that live on top of manure mountains, etc)

the environmental cost (brought about by pesticides, fertilizers, transportation, cooling, etc and reflected in climate change, soil erosion, pollution of water reservoirs, etc),

the health cost to human consumers (both in terms of unhealthy diets that bring about long-term side effects such as cardiovascular disease and more immediate situations such deaths from pathogens introduced into the food chain).

And this list is very far from being exhaustive. Thus, I'm unsure whether this Freakonomics post makes a valid criticism or trivializes an important reaction to a very important problem we face...



It seems that you focus your argument on the fallacy of relying on historical ideals, while failing to address the more relevant merits of eating locally grown, organic food.

Walter J Machann

What a diversion on nostalgia! Little relation to rational analysis of facts and the present situation. More a rationalization of the present status quo and fantasy of the future. Personal responsibility shifting while heart disease and cancer thrive. Anyone can revise history to suit their convenience. What is he author's area of expertise. I wonder?


Hey James -- you're not going to get too many takers with this argument: trust me, I'm finishing my first book on just this topic. Localism is the sacred cow of the current food movement, and no movement washes its ideas, and cows for that matter, in transcendent virtue more than localism.

Really, critiquing these food movements is about recognizing this: are they awash in ideas that they refuse to look at critically? Yes. Were all of the earlier food reformers awash in unexamined ideologies? Yes. (For instance Graham, Kellogg and Alcott, all of whose preoccupation with sexuality embarasses historians so much they never really look at their food programs clearly)

Does that mean that their programs were wrong? Not at all. It just means that the thinking is interesting, complex, and situated in an important and problematic intellectual tradition.


This is all somewhat interesting, but what does the author actually think about the food we eat today?

He's proven to me that, in general, additives in food have been attacked for over a century, but does that mean people who attack the presence of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in so many of our foods are just anti-modernists? Is it just so much rehashed Herbert Hoover or Puritanism to suggest that a food additive that's been linked with type 2 diabetes, elevated blood cholesterol levels, and blood clots should not be in so many different foods we eat? Shouldn't we look critically at the food we eat and ask relevant questions, like is this food making us sicker? If it is, could we make it healthier?

This piece really seems to be a clever way to say "let's just change the subject..."


I enjoyed the commentary and the historical perspective, but I agree with RAd. We do have very serious problems with the way food is currently produced and how it is marketed. There's no denying that the bulk of promotional dollars go to get us to eat highly processed food with little nutritional value. And adding some "fiber" or a vitamin to an otherwise nutrition-free processed food doesn't make things better. And I agree with RAd that we have a real moral problem in treating food animals the way we do -- you don't have to go vegetarian to understand that humane treatment is a desirable thing. Food choices are actually something we can control in our personal lives that makes a difference on the bigger picture.

sender @ wordpress

There's a streak of Puritanism in today's progressive, back-to-basics culture. It need not have anything to do with the valid pragmatic reasons for changing agricultural practice, but you have to expect it to happen, all the same.

A certain subset of the populace will always aestheticize any popular movement or change, and other subsets of the populace are attracted to puritanisms in themselves. When these groups come into alignment, you get moral fervors like the ones surrounding the contemporary food movement; giving rise to seductive feelings of establishing new values and contributing, one suspects, to the air of the folk devil now surrounding obese people.

Particularly today, popular culture is besotted with a vision of wholesomeness, purity and goodness that smacks of a revival. But this isn't the first time it's has happened (nor even the first time this feeling has come from the left), and honestly, it could have happened with or without the food issue to fixate on. The food issue is convenient, but in a way, the beards precede it.



I think it's much simpler than that. Every time you see something in the news about a carcinogen, or birth defects, or a crazy recall in the food area, there's always something artificial happening.

For example, you should most definitely try to reduce your sugar intake, but the health detriments of sugar are much smaller than those of High Fructose Corn Syrup. Fat vs. Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil or any of the trans-fats.

Today, our meat has half as much protein as it did 60 years ago. How is that progress?


this "declension narrative" idea is flaccid and contrived... aside from a tiny handful of groups ideologically bent on raw food diets, there is no "primitive food movement" afoot, as you say.

did you even read michael pollan? how about paul pitchford? any magazines or cookbooks with recipes focusing on food quality, as opposed to convenience and thrift?

your wholesale dismissal of the global (at least in industrialized countries) trend towards eating fresh, local, unadultered, and unprocessed foods smacks of indignanation and offers no insight into any "hidden side" of people choosing to avoid high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, hydrogenated soybean oil, sucralose, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and genetic modification of their foods.

ironically, there is a "hidden side" to industrialized food production; but you missed it this time...


You're right on. I've been studying this issue of the supposedly virtuous rural past, and it's quite clear that you're correct.

I urge you, however, not to be so quick to vilify eating raw meat. While poultry is certainly dangerous, raw beef can easily be consumed without great danger of harm. Anecdotally, I do it often (steak tartare, primarily), and I'm fine. Raw tuna, too, has never steered me wrong.

Wendy Altenhof

Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" actually qualified the statement as " someone's great-grandmother would recognize as food".

As I remember the context is that someone's great-grandmother would have recognized tofu, but the processed soy meat substitutes aren't a traditional food.

In my case, if I was limited to my own great-grandmothers' personal experiences, I would be forced to live a life without black pepper. . . which would make me very sad.

David L

I expected a comment thread full of caustic vitriol, but I'm pleasantly surprised... I have to say I agree with everyone's comments and can't add anything of my own. Which essentially means I'm writing this just to hear myself talk.

Tree Smith

I find this piece to be missing the point entirely.

Wonks Anonymous

The problem with industrial food is that you do not really know what is in it or who grew it and under what conditions.

If you are concerned about your intake of salt, sugars and fats, if you do not really think that chemicals made to kill insects and other life forms are a great thing to consume in mass quantities and if you derive some satisfaction from the thought that the people who raised your food and packed it might just be making a decent living then primitive food is for you.

On the other hand, if you want to stuff yourself with the cheapest possible fodder and it makes you feel good to pay others as little as you can get away with then go industrial.

This is really about value judgements. You are asserting your own values as if they were an economic and technical norm. Sorry, I do not buy it.


Now expand your view to the whole world, where half of humanity still lives in rural areas, without work, eating bad cheap food forced on it by the WTO and "liberalization" that has destroyed their own foodways. Oh, did I mention that they live in tiny, marginal communities beside bazillions of acres of UNUSED land? Then let's talk about 'primitive' some more.

This is why 200 million peasants in the Via Campesina are saying knock down the fences, end monocrop farming for profit, and let's feed ourselves. Yup, pretty primitive. Except for the fact that those gleaming modern cities are, in fact, teeming exurban slums.

This column is a pretty good illustration of why "economism"--dressed up as freaky, but bloodless in the extreme- doesn't work, esp. not in the current crisis (readL food riots in 15 countrees last year), and esp. for the 99% of humanity that lives outside the US. . . two steps from the same situation but blind, blind, blind. The "reductivism" is all yours.



Would I have to accept the accompanying life expectancy, infant mortality, deaths during childbirth, intestinal parasites, potentially fatal gastric infections, and horrific dental health that were the accepted norm during the Victorian Era as well?

This is romanticised, naive claptrap, espoused mostly by comfortably middle-class, self-indulgent simpletons. The vast majority of the world's population have few choices about their diet and struggle most days to merely get enough to eat.

Those who waste their time purveying this kind of nonsense should be ashamed of themselves.


have to agree with Tree Smith.

Derek Hammonds

This article completely and utterly fails to address the true reason behind the movement. The diseases of civilization--heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, type-2 diabetes are the things we are talking about here. Can we improve our diet and our health by being critical or skeptical of the practices of modern agriculture? It seems obvious to myself and many others that we can do much better.