The Idiocy of Rural Food
I’m sorry to be a downer on the whole peasant food discussion, but that’s part of my job as a historian. In very good times, peasant food was halfway decent. Very good times were also very, very rare.
European peasant food consisted overwhelmingly of bread, which was also far and away the single largest expense in any peasant’s yearly budget, at least until the introduction of the potato. We can measure the advent of modernity in part by measuring why people rioted: Did they riot over low wages? Or did they riot over the price of bread? Wage riots indicate a modern economic sophistication; bread riots happen when the rioters aren’t buying much of anything else.
Worse, their bread was awful. We’ve all had “peasant” bread from Whole Foods or whatever, but real peasant bread was a different creature. Real peasant bread was often adulterated with stalks, chaff (not bran, but chaff, which is inedible), as well as grass, tree bark, and sawdust. What little was left of the peasant’s caloric intake came from a very little butter, or cheese, occasional eggs, a few meager vegetables, perhaps a little preserved meat or meat broth on special occasions, and heavily diluted wine or beer. Spices were virtually unknown. If you lived more than a day or so from the coast, you never ate fish unless it was encased in salt — itself a precious commodity. Fruits were available only for a few days a year.
In a famine, the peasantry was reduced to eating lichens, moss, and dirt. They stopped adding flour to their bread almost entirely, and got by with little more than chaff, grass, and sawdust. In desperation, they ate their horses and draft animals. After that, they died by the thousands. And then they took up cannibalism. Significant famines happened dozens of times per century in the land area of any given European nation-state. Living to adulthood typically meant living through several of them.
There wasn’t any aboriginal good taste lurking beneath the blighted peasant diet, either. I think every grad student working on the Old Regime learns this story: A peasant was once asked what he would do if he were king. “I would eat nothing but grease, until I could eat no more,” he answered. In the old days, fairy tales didn’t end with a commoner marrying a prince or a princess, which would have been about as shocking to a commoner as marrying Jesus. No, the typical fairy tale ended with a peasant getting to eat his fill at a well-appointed table. The history of history is the history of starvation.
Until recently, that is, when a combination of free trade and new discoveries in agriculture and transportation changed everything for the better. Much of what we think of as “traditional French food” originated in the nineteenth century or even later. This “cuisine bourgeoise” is what a French grandmother might cook, or at least what she might have eaten as a child. But cuisine bourgeoise should never be confused with peasant food. Cuisine bourgeoise is what you find in Proust, and it is indeed glorious. Julia Child did a passable translation into the American idiom. Peasant food by contrast wouldn’t be worth feeding to your horses, if you had any, and if it were authentic, it certainly wouldn’t be worth a whole cookbook.
I can’t speak with confidence about the history of food worldwide, but if France is any indication, much of what we think of as local, “peasant” food is nothing of the sort. It’s the Cantonese or Bengali or Ethiopian equivalent of cuisine bourgeoise. It’s local, but not too local. It’s fresh because the nouveau riche can afford it, and now, so can we. And it’s really quite a recent development.