Food For Thought: What Montaigne Can Teach Us About Ultraprocessed Foods

By Concepta Cassar, published on Litro Magazine‘s website 23rd April 2015.

montaigne baudelaire food concepta cassar
In Des Cannibales, Montaigne contrasted wild and cultivated food.

The wisdom of Michel de Montaigne extends to most spheres of human life, not excepting agriculture and matters of the palate. In his 1580 essay Des Cannibales(Of Cannibals), in which he lambasts Europe’s hypocrisy in its perception and treatment of the people of the New World (in particular the Tupinambá people), Montaigne also draws some striking comparisons between cultivated and wild food. These comparisons not only strike a chord with the forager within me (who delights in the taste of what is to be found growing in the most unlikely of places), but also to the grower, who notes the difference in flavour when food is cultivated with a little care.

According to Montaigne, it should not be wild fruit that we call “sauvage” (carrying the implication of “savage”), but “[those] fruit which we have artificially perverted and misled from the common order”[1]. He affirms that “living”, “vigorous”, “natural” fruit has been “bastardized …by merely adapting them to our corrupt tastes”[2]. This last thought has particular resonance when we consider it in light of the mass­-produced and ultra­processed food that has come to dominate so much of people’s diets around the world today. In high-­income countries, ultra­processed foods can make up more than 60 per cent of total energy intake [3]. This would not be a problem if these foods provided people with adequate nutrition, but according to recent studies, ultra­processed foods are currently responsible for more than 18 million deaths each year through non-communicable diseases such as high blood pressure, high body­mass index, high fasting blood glucose and high­ total cholesterol [4]. More troubling still is that these multinational companies, that have become so adept at manipulating the fats, sugar content and textures of foods, market these products aggressively to the poorest societies, where they will make most of their profit in the next five years [5]. Just as the eating of meat has become a marker of prosperity in many societies, so the giants of the processed food industry have come to embody the capitalist dream across the world.

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A Quick Note on Wild Garlic, Foraging & Pickling

wild garlic buds pickled in vinegar
Wild garlic buds pickled in homemade cider vinegar. Deliciously piquant, and completely free to produce. Pickling is a cheap and simple way to preserve the flavours of plentiful times for the months to come.

Wild garlic is perhaps one of my favourite plants to forage, and was certainly one of my first. The leaves are wonderfully versatile, and can be used in anything from salads to lactoferments (the latter of which I use as a vegan-friendly ‘trotter gear’ to flavour soups and stews). For me, they are the true flavour of Spring. It is worth noting, however, that the leaves are not the only part of the plant that can be used, though they are, arguably, the most sustainable.

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