Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Triumph of the Calorie

History Today has a piece out called "American Pie: The Imperialism of the Calorie," the story of the statistical regimentation of food. It started with the invention of the calorimeter (pictured), which was an American invention, of course. The native cuisine of the U.S. has contributed so little to the world that, if you ignore Southern soul food, it can hardly be said to exist at all. So it’s somehow appropriate that we were the country to invent the calorimeter and then go about telling Greeks, Mexican Indians, and Masai tribesmen that, to be scientifically correct, they should replace whatever grain they were used to with calorifically superior wheat flour.

Alas, in this story we absolutely live up to our national reputation for being gastronomic boors. On the other hand, we also live up to our more endearing reputation for scientific exuberance. The man who invented the calorimeter, Wilbur Olin Atwater, set about his experiments like a kid with a brand new toy:
Atwater invited champion cyclist Nat Butler to establish ‘how far a man ought to ride a bicycle on one egg.’ Wesleyan’s football captain volunteered to take his French final inside the device, to determine the quantum of heat generated by an hour of cogitation. . . . The Women’s Christian Temperance Union campaigned against Atwater after an experiment in which a test subject subsisted for six days on a diet ‘largely composed of alcohol,’ confirming that liquor was a food.
You can probably guess which nationality considered the calorimeter une invention très mauvais (and, as a practitioner of what could charitably be called “intuitive” cooking, I agree):
In 1930, French novelist Georges Duhamel recognized that he had arrived at the ‘world of the future’ when his American host urged him to order oatmeal rather than potatoes because ‘it will give you two hundred more calories.’ To Duhamel, the incident illustrated a distinctively American application of science as a palliative, as an evasion of civilization’s duty to confront uncertainty and disorder . . .
I recommend the article. One word of caution, though: Don’t get tripped up on its references to the “spanersity” of the human diet, or what a “spanerse” panoply of American food customs researchers uncovered. I’d never heard of “spanersity,” and neither had Google, but the word kept coming up in the piece. Eventually I theorized that “spanersity” was some fancy new history synonym for diversity. “Diversity” implies division, you see, and that’s a very negative way to think about difference. “Spanersity” implies that you’ve got a lot of varieties that are part of one unified thing, they just span a very wide distance.

Then I came across reference to “inspanidual appetites” and realized that a far more likely explanation was that some editor did a replace-all in order to turn the HTML tag <div> into the related HTML tag <span>. So heads up, History Today editors. Proof your articles more carefully in the future.

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