In 1960, novelist John Steinbeck circled the country in a pickup truck with a standard-bred poodle named Charley in a sort of cultural vision quest. What he found was not always a pretty sight.
His observations, published as Travels With Charley: In Search of America, included the prediction that his fellow Californians would lose the local flavor of their speech: “Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.” Steinbeck qualified his nostalgia, pointing out that:
it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days. Mother’s cooking was with rare exceptions poor, that good un-pasteurized milk touched only by flies and bits of manure crawled with bacteria, the healthy old-time life was riddled with aches, sudden death from unknown causes and that sweet local speech I mourn was a child of illiteracy and ignorance.
Four decades after his prediction, U.S. census figures for 2000 showed a distinct drop in cultural identity, even though the population had grown by 13 million since 1990, largely through immigration.
Cuisine and culture, indeed cuisine and humanity itself, are inextricably linked. Among the earliest known human discoveries was soup, which (as Carson I.A. Ritchie speculated in Food in Civilization) may have been created to nurse invalids. The world’s oldest profession may not have been what everybody says it was, although it does have to do with the flesh.
A recent study that traced the origins of languages around the world determined that language began in the Balkans and that the first words likely had to do with the internal organs of animals, the most digestible raw animal protein of hunter/gatherer societies. Perhaps, then, the first profession was that of the friendly neighborhood butcher. Unlike practitioners of the other profession, who have been prosecuted for centuries, independent meat merchants have flourished for tens of thousands of years, not always with respect but certainly with a measure of job security . . . until now.
Neighborhood meat markets and independent abattoirs may soon be extinct, many fear, like some of the animal species that provided the first flesh for human consumption. Small meat markets and slaughterhouses are going out of business in America at an alarming rate.
In a recent article, Albert Schupp of the Louisiana State University Department of Economics said that there are only 26 meat retailers in Louisiana that are small enough (under ten employees) to be exempt from inspection by the USDA and only 40 slaughterhouses in all 64 parishes of the state. Until recently, hundreds of these small slaughterhouses flourished within the state.
Behind the trend, Schupp argues, are the “tremendous economics of scale.” In other words, bigger is cheaper. “The giant consumer outlets are simply running the small-time businessman out of the game . . . It is extremely difficult for these small plants to compete.” Another difficulty on the economic side, according to Schupp, is that the big packers can market practically every inch of every animal they butcher. The smaller processor “can’t really utilize the byproducts,” he argues. “About the only thing they salvage from it is the skin.”
With the demise of the small meat retailer, specialty products are “just going to disappear,” he said, almost wistfully listing items essential to the traditional Cajun culinary palette, now world-famous and one of the few remaining culturally distinguishable American cuisines: “debris, stuffed tongue, grillardes, [boudin and] chaudin . . . ”
Boudin and chaudin are specially prepared and stuffed pork intestines. (The very word “pork,” by the way, is a prime example of the linkage of culture, language, and food. It entered the English lexicon after the French-speaking Normans conquered the Saxons in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Suddenly, a pig in a Saxon pen became porc on a Norman table.) Chaudin is a pork stomach stuffed with a variety of meat, herbs, and seasonings. Boudin (of the white and now FDA-banned red or “blood sausage” varieties) is a pork intestine filled with meat and rice. Both followed the Cajun culture from Normandy to the establishment of Acadia in what are now the Maritime Provinces of Canada in 1604. The roots of the dishes, however, go back to ancient Rome and Greece. They are also culturally related to the most American of foods: the hot dog.
Stomach-stuffing certainly goes back to ancient Greece. Nearly 3,000 years ago, Homer, in Book XX of the Odyssey, described Ulysses’ anguish this way:
Thus he chided with his heart, and checked it into endurance, but he tossed about as one who turns a paunch full of blood and fat in front of a hot fire, doing it first on one side and then on the other, that he may get it cooked as soon as possible . . .
The recipe for the chaudin variety of stuffed pork stomachs remained intact over the centuries. It is a difficult product to find, however, given the highly specialized market and the time-consuming, unpleasant chore of preparing a stomach for stuffing. One chaudin-maker said that he would “rather spend a week with my ex-wife than clean another one.”
The sausage industry has had its ups and downs over the millennia. Food historians say stuffed intestines began by accident during an unsavory moment at the feast of the Lupercal in ancient Rome, when Gaius, a cook at Caesar’s court, allegedly cut open a roasted hog that had been purged of offal by a week’s starvation to find that it had not been disemboweled and, voilà!, sausage casing!
The discovery meant a great deal to Gaius and to Caesar, as it does to the International Casing Group, Inc. Their website declares, “Today literally thousands of varieties of sausage are produced worldwide” utilizing three basic types of sausage casings: natural, collagen, and cellulose. Collagen is derived from a gelatin formed by boiling connective tissue and bones. Cellulose is an inert carbohydrate produced in the cell walls of plants. “Collagen and cellulose casings are newcomers in the artificial casings field,” the website explains, but natural casings are “still the preferred choice among discriminating sausage chefs everywhere.”
In America, the most popular sausage is the “frankfurter” or “wiener,” indispensable to Independence Day celebrations. Many innovations in the original recipe were introduced in the 20th century, including the use of turkey or chicken instead of pork, largely because of increasing health awareness (though poultry-stuffed hot dogs have, on more than one occasion, been traced to outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli). Modern ingredients also include a long list of “additives.” One additive, though, is original: nitrate, a preservative which gives modern hot dogs a common flavor, color, and texture. Nitrates have been used for centuries to combat botulism.
About 20 years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioned a study by the National Academy of Sciences, which concludes that the only negative result of ingesting nitrate is a digestive-reaction product called “nitrosamines.” The benefits far outweigh the detriments of nitrate, which occurs naturally in carrots and green vegetables. Nitrate also helps in blood clotting and healing wounds and burns and is said to boost immunity in combating tumor cells. (On the other hand, before the FDA was established, another common “additive” to several types of meat products, including wieners, was sawdust.)
The origin of the modern-day “weenie” is German or Austrian. “Frankfurter” comes from Frankfurt, Germany, which celebrated the 500th anniversary of the famous sausage’s invention a few years ago. The Viennese claim the “wiener” as well as, of course, the Vienna sausage.
The proliferation of hot dogs on the North American continent is generally credited to German immigrant entrepreneurs of the late-19th century. Its emergence as a national dish, however, probably dates from 1902, when the first hot dog was sold at a New York Giants baseball game. Baseball was the national pastime, passionately followed by most Americans. It was easy to extend this nationalistic fervor to hot dogs.
The early Church is said to have declared the eating of sausages sinful, because of the casing’s Lupercalian roots. Emperor Constantine the Great also banned the sausage. It may have been a sin as well to attempt to pass sawdust off as meat in the hot dogs of the early 20th century; it was certainly an action worthy of correction by the FDA. The agency’s banning of pig blood in red boudin, however, is generally deplored in Cajun country.
It would have been much worse, however, if the main ingredient of the delicacy had been condemned: rice, a food that currently feeds much of the world. Rice has had an enormous impact on virtually every society on the globe since its cultivation began at least 12,000 years ago in Asia. It has also had an enormous impact on the politics of United States, including the War Between the States.
South Carolina was the first state with a vibrant rice-based economy. It was also the first to agitate for secession after Abraham Lincoln and his Republican Party came to power. On December 20, 1860, six Georgetown, South Carolina, rice growers met in Charleston with representatives from throughout the state and signed an “Ordinance of Secession.” The elite society there was known as the “Rice Culture.” The plantation owners declared a “Planters’ War for Southern Independence.” Other states followed the Rice Culture’s lead.
Scholars at the International Rice Research Institute believe rice began spreading across the Himalayas to China two to three million years ago, when migration of fauna across the mountain range was still possible. The animals brought wild rice, depositing it in neat packets of fertilizer. The climate of Central Asia and northern China proved ideal for the cultivation of rice.
In many of the dialects of Asia, the words for “rice” and “food” are synonymous. Hindu and Buddhist holy writings frequently mention rice, and both religions make use of the grain as an offering to the gods. However, rice is not mentioned in either the Old Testament or early Egyptian records.
Archeological evidence has established that rice was an important food in the Mohenjo-Daro culture of the Indus Valley, in what is now western India and Pakistan, as early as 2500 B.C. It was also an important food source in the late Neolithic period of the Yangtze Basin of China. In 1966, pottery shards carbon-dated from at least 4000 B.C. were found in the Korat region of Thailand with imprints of rice grains and husks. Other plant remains dating from 10,000 B.C. were discovered in Spirit Cave on the Thailand-Myanmar border.
The latest figures from the World Health Organization indicate that there are still 800 million hungry people on the planet. Thus, Steinbeck’s qualification in Travels With Charley may prove to be more valid and compelling than his nostalgia. Today, just as it was 35,000 years ago on the frigid European continent, the real value of cuisine is human survival rather than good taste.