Peanut Butter Kid - ©

Sunday Musings: What Goes Around, Comes Back Around…

There’s an old saying: “What goes around comes around.” Which is to say, “There’s nothing new under the Sun,” and, ultimately, “The more things change, the more things stay the same.” We say something like that every time ‘history repeats itself’ or a ‘retro classic’ comes back in style…

Helman's Mayo Chocolate Cake - © Helman's Mayo

So, why do good things go out of style in the first place? Why do we have to repeat history to appreciate its lessons?

There are probably lots of reasons that specific life lessons lapse into disuse. And I’m sure there are many reasons certain classic recipes and culinary techniques are relegated to the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet (though never actually thrown out!) But I want to talk about a couple in particular in this post, just to get you started thinking about the phenomenon…

The Power of advertising

My grandmother (who grew up and learned to cook before radio was new and television was even a glint in some engineer’s eye) relied on the advertising she saw in the weekly news magazines and monthly ‘ladies’ journals’ for new of news of new products and ways of doing things around the home – particularly in the kitchen. She was exposed to a few essential products in the pages of the print publications she read and there were very few brands to choose from in any given product category. The philosophy was, “How many brands of Baking Powder do you need?” Almost everything was made from scratch. There were no mixes or ‘quick prep’ products (except maybe rolled oats). Any enhancements to the usual routine you learned of, you learned from your family and friends.

By the time my mother started cooking for her family, there had been two world wars and a ‘product’ revolution. It was the late 1940s and the early 1950s, and a whole raft of companies were coming out with newer, faster, easier ways to make ‘your favourite dishes’. Thus, we came to have instant custard mixes, instant gelatin mixes and more complex, but desirable-just-the-same, conveniences such as one-box cake mixes.

In parallel with the packaged, pre-mixed products came completely pre-made products. When my grandmother was a girl, if you wanted cookies, you made them yourself. But by the time my mother was managing her own kitchen, there were dozens of brands of factory-made cookies available. Frozen prepared foods also came into their own in the 50s and 60s, when the most popular exhibit at every ‘home show’ was the home deep-freezer. ‘Frozen’ was a revolution in itself – and a concept that my grandmother had never even dreamed of.

So what happened?

We, as cooks, learned (or were enticed by convenience) to accept whatever the big food processing and pre-packaging companies give us. If we wanted something different, we had to make it ourselves from scratch, and a whole generation of cooks (mainly women), who wanted to get out of the house and broaden their horizons, were loathe to commit to anything that took longer or required more work.

Thus were the old ‘secrets’ lost, left in the dust to be crushed by the semi-trailer rigs of progress that rolled relentlessly past, toward the future.

But then, something happened…

Somebody, somewhere came across a note or a family recipe (the latter probably more by accident than by plan), and discovered an ancient suggestion that a cake could be made moister by adding Mayonnaise to the boxed mix everyone was used to using by then. And mayo was available ready-made in all the grocery stores! Not like you had to make your own, like my grandmother had to. (My mother learned how, from her mother, but promptly forgot when pre-whipped mayo became available). Then, perhaps driven by the popularity of the mayo-cake fad, someone resurrected another old recipe that prescribed the inclusion of tomato juice in chocolate cake for unparalleled flavour and moistness. And then, after a year or so, that fad, too was left by the wayside.

Why? Cake mix companies had responded in their own way, bringing out new products that promised wondrous results and overshadowed the ‘tips and tricks’ methods by sheer force of advertising. How many times have you seen advertising slogans for packages mixes such as: “The moistest Cake ever!”

And so it goes…

It’s been the same way with dozens of ‘product’ categories over the past 50 years. As the western world has discovered exotic foods from other lands and cultures, the culinary-industrial complex has rushed to determine what was going to be popular and come out and offer pre-made, pre-mixed or frozen versions to snag their ‘share’ of the market.

And that has short-circuited the natural human curiosity and ingenuity that used to result in truly new culinary discoveries and advances.

My frustration

It’s rooted in stories like the one that came up a few days ago in a popular food blog that has scads of advertising and is read by millions around the English-speaking world (though mostly by North Americans). The venerated and revered mayo-chocolate-cake ‘hack’ (as the kids now call such things) was back in the headlines. Presented as though it was something completely new and exciting and previously unheard of. Something the under-30 generations could take credit for.

The Mayo Chocolate Cake recipe ad, (above, left) actually comes from the late 80s or early 90s, when the ‘hack was last in vogue.

I fully expect the tomato-juice-chocolate-cake ‘hack’ to surface again soon, too. Because that’s what happens in the big wide world, beyond the control of the food processors and packagers, and the guys and gals in the test kitchens and back rooms who decide what the next big thing on your plate will be. Human nature and ingenuity will always fight its way to the surface. As Jeff Goldbum’s character in the Jurassic Park franchise loves to remind ‘innovators’: “Mother nature always finds a way!”

My concern

It’s rooted in the grave concern that old ‘secrets’ from the medical and other crucial sectors in our lives, suffer the same neglect and relegation to obscurity that great old recipes and culinary ‘hacks’ always seem to.

For instance: after decades of trying to come up with a pill or some other ‘modern medical’ approach to dealing with food allergies, the medical establishment has recently cycled back around to an old and reliable approach. They call it desensitization therapy. In the case of Peanut Allergies, it simply involves introducing small amounts of Peanut product to sensitive kids’ diets at an early age, gradually increasing the amount over time, until they get used to it and grow up normal.

They knew this in my mother’s and grandmother’s times. Why did everyone forget it? Why has it been the subject of legions of studies flooding the legit medical journals over the past few years? Because system-bound scientists and researchers who have been trying to find a solution to food allergies for so long under the constraint of their ‘traditional’ ways and means that they all want to to claim this ‘new discovery’ for their own, rather than crediting the simple human ingenuity of earlier, simpler times, or – perish the thought – good old common sense.

Not demonizing the medical professions

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not demonizing the medical profession as a whole. Just some of their out-dated attitudes and practices that may be holding us back from taking advantage of old, proven cures and treatments that have fallen out of favour under the glare of the laboratory lights. Like the ‘new’ desensitization technique for treating Peanut allergies? Why don’t we take a concerted look at other old medicines and techniques, and see if they don’t have something good and useful to offer modern civilization?

There are, apparently, squads of researchers and explorers who scour the surface of the Earth looking for natural-source treatments and cures in the plants and rocks and creatures that inhabit the wild places. But they are, themselves, the creatures of the pharma industry, and their job is to pass on any real discoveries they make to the people who can make a buck by putting them in a pill and selling the at (often) inflated prices.

I’m just saying, let’s not forget that the earliest settlers in North America learned how to treat the scourge of scurvy (and thereby save themselves from extinction) from the local (indigenous) people, who showed them how to make a vitamin-enriched tea by boiling the bark of a certain tree…

~ Maggie J.