Even as a culinary historian accustomed to taking on the vagaries of historical recipes, there a few words that can strike fear in my heart about meal times. My spouse presented me with his desire to follow a low carb diet. I panicked.

Partly because I am, to put it mildly, a carb lover. (Give me good bread and no one gets hurt).

Partly because I do not react well when presented with rules and restrictions.

That is the interesting thing about the table. It shows us our hearts, both in what we choose to eat (or not eat) and our reaction to the food presented.

Currently, most of us live in food luxury compared to our ancestors. In most parts of America, whatever food you want to cook is available year round, either fresh or frozen. Gone are the seasonal constraints of our forefathers who lived before modern food transportation and preservation. Price may be a consideration (sometimes a limiting consideration), but the food is available, nonetheless. We are limited not by supply, but by desire. Perhaps that is why “diets” that restrict our food choices have become endemic. We need help sorting through the myriad choices available at our grocery stores, so we rely on some prescription to delineate for us what is healthy, therefore “good”, and what is unhealthy, therefore “evil”. When I present my spouse with a plain baked potato, he will eat a small piece. I think of the Irish potato famine, and what luxury a whole potato was at that time in history in that area. I think of the early settlers of our Northern Midwest surviving on root crops to establish their claims. He eats a small piece. He has the luxury of choice, to choose to eat only a small piece, and to meet his food requirements with other food. He embraces the choices that our current food distribution network allows.

I eat the whole potato. I could feel superior; after all I ate what for years was a large amount of precious food that he scorned. He, on the other hand, consumed a large spinach and tomato salad with tons of antioxidants and vitamins—both touted as the “it” food of this decade—that I was too sated by potato to eat. So he could feel superior.

Which of us is “right(eous)”? Or is our menu showing the cultural mis/understandings of our times and our current science?

That is how I approach historical recipes and menus. They not only show the tastebud preferences of their times, they reflect how people viewed themselves, their bodies, their society, and the scientific ideas that were widespread at their time and place in history. The table has always been a place where we work out our salvation—whether that be physical, spiritual, emotional or social. There is so much at stake in a simple baked potato.

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