Must-Read: Rachel Laudan: Charmingly Unromantic: Measuring Progress in Food

Must-Read: Rachel Laudan: Charmingly Unromantic: Measuring Progress in Food: “Unless we compare foods of the past to the present we have no way of understanding them…

…And unless we ask whether certain practices led to progress or regress of (say) nutritional quality, gastronomic refinement, equitable distribution, ease of preparation, we risk antiquarian irrelevance…. I’d urge anyone working on the history of cooking and food processing to take a look at a recent blog post by Will Thomas… [who] gives a brief, clear introduction to how some important thinkers have tried to understand and measure technological progress….

The reason, then, that labor productivity became an important means of measuring the benefits of technology is because it is a reasonable way of measuring whether material benefits are indeed accruing to society through the implementation of various new technologies.These economic measures of technological benefit are actually charmingly unromantic….

Charmingly unromantic, yes, when compared to much of food history that celebrates, deplores, and explores the contribution of food to identity. But crucial because the labor of cooking has been huge, because reducing it has brought relief to those who did it, new opportunities in life, and better food sometimes, not always, for everyone. On a modest scale, this is what I was trying to do in Cuisine and Empire when I tried to establish roughly what percentage of the working population had to pound and grind grain at different periods in history. For thousands of years, preparing grain was the most laborious of all food preparation techniques, consuming the products was the basis of the diet… the creative destruction of thousands of water-driven grist mills and before that hundreds of thousands of hand grinders…

July 22, 2015

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