Food - The World's Greatest Need
( Originally Published 1917 )
"We eat to live." Food is the first demand of physical life. There are climates in which it is possible to live without clothing or shelter, but the necessity for nourishment is the same the world over. Neither man, beast, nor any other living thing can withstand this demand for more than a few days.
For this reason the most important question we can ask about any country is: What does it yield to the world's food supply? The land that gives little or no food for the support of the human race is too barren to claim the interest of an intelligent man or woman, boy or girl. The search for gold and precious stones has been shrouded in romance, but this line of exploration is of little significance when compared with that which ransacks the most remote corners of the earth for foods with which to nourish mankind more generously, wholesomely, and pleasingly.
The bill-of-fare and the map. It would be hard to suggest a more fascinating pastime than that of taking our daily bill-of-fare apart to learn where every element of it has come from, how far it has traveled, and by what strange and devious ways it has journeyed to reach our table. Apply this suggestion to every bit of food served in your home for one week and you will learn more real geography than in a month of memorizing meaningless statements which seem wholly removed from your personal experience. Certainly the food you eat comes close to your daily life; and to trace to their sources the things that nourish you is to show only a reasonable degree of human curiosity.
Altogether the most interesting way in which to get a grasp of the distant background of the foods that come to your plate and of the many remote and mysterious regions of the globe which contribute to your meal, is to spread a map of the world before you. Then with a penciled line connect the spot that stands for your home and that from which hails each article of food on your table. Now,, if you would realize still more vividly the pains the food merchants have taken in order to set before you an ever-increasing variety of tempting delicacies, get another world map on which are marked the ocean pathways traveled by ships of commerce. Then trace on this map the trade routes over which each food element has been brought to this country.
In this connection the term "tempting delicacies" is used deliberately, because, if you follow this interesting line of .inquiry, you will soon learn that no other country in the world is capable of producing so generous a supply of the real food necessities as the United States. There is scarcely a single food in all that may be mentioned which is not produced in large quantities in this country. Or, to put the situation in the simplest terms possible, scarcely any food is furnished by other countries that we could not do without. But if the food merchants should suddenly stop drawing on the distant regions of the earth for our table supplies, we would be brought to a quick and keen realization of the service they are rendering the public. For we would miss a multitude of delicious things which make our meals not only more tempting but also a great deal more wholesome.
We can never appreciate what the world-searching industry of the food merchants means to us unless we keep in mind the fact that we demand variety in our food as well as in our work and our play. Also narrow living is likely to mean unwholesome living, and the human stomach as well as the human mind abhors and rebels against monotony. There-fore, he who adds a new and agreeable food to the list from which we are able to choose our fare does us a distinct service.
The foods of yesterday. It is almost impossible to realize how narrow and limited was the range of diet in the days of our grandfathers and great grand-fathers. But we need not go back to the pioneer days of this country to illustrate the meager variety of foods with which the average family larder was stocked. The day book of a retail grocer located in a midwestern town shows that the entire list of imported articles of food sold by him in the year 1862 was as follows: coffee, tea, figs, mustard, pepper, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, lemons, oranges, sago, prunes, raisins, and almonds. This day book also shows that the principal line of foods then handled by the country storekeeper would add to this list only eggs, molasses, dried apples, dried peaches, cranberries, potatoes, sugar, vinegar, saleratus, butter, cheese, crackers, lard, smoked halibut, whitefish, dried herrings, rice, sirup, salt, cream of tartar, beans, rye coffee, peanuts, beef, veal, pork, lemon extract, onions, cabbage, turnips, and native nuts.
Possibly this storekeeper kept other foods, but if so, his charge accounts for two years give no evidence of that fact. How strange a stock of goods confined to these items would appear in contrast with the. wide range of articles required by the modern retail grocery! A man living in eastern New York declares that he remembers when a pound of loaf sugar lasted his family a year. As a schoolboy, his luncheon was "hasty pudding"—cornmeal mush—and milk. In his boyhood on a New York state farm his family lived almost entirely upon the products of their immediate neighborhood, the principal things purchased being tea, pepper, salt, and cinnamon. . The foods of today. Contrast with this narrow and monotonous diet the range of delicacies now available to the American family of average means,and to the housekeeper who carefully considers her outlay for foods, while giving her family a generous variety of things good to eat. Possibly the best way to make you realize the wonderful expansion in the range of our food supply would be to repeat the statement of a large food jobber who recently said:
"The cost book of the smaller inland grocery jobber to-day contains from 5,000 to 15,000 separate and distinct items, while there are more than 40,000 items listed in the cost book of this house, which does a nation-wide business. A majority of articles in that list are brought in from foreign countries; and, measured in dollars, we do a larger volume of business in imported foodstuffs than we do in domestic. goods. We are food explorers, ran-sacking the entire earth for the things with which to satisfy the cultivated appetite of the American consumer. The stock in the most ordinary country grocery store is brought from the four corners of the earth.
"The only way in which to get a vivid and graphic realization of the economic service which the wholesaler in this line renders to the consumer is to try to imagine what would be the food situation in this country if every grocery jobbing house were suddenly struck out of existence, together with all of their accumulations of food supplies. For all practical purposes we should then be thrown back to the old, crude system of the earliest pioneer days,when each community lived almost entirely on the narrow range of foods that could be produced locally. But such a situation would be wonderfully illuminating. It would reveal as nothing else could the position of the wholesaler of foodstuffs in the economic scheme of modern living. `Also it would show most vividly how immense and complex is the fabric of modern food demands—a fabric woven of threads drawn from every part of the civilized and semi-civilized earth."
In view of these facts, the statement that the study of geography from the standpoint of the dining table and the food store becomes a fascinating pastime, seems only too true. When you meet every kind of food that passes your lips with the question, "Where did it come from and what has been its history, its travels, and its demands upon the labor of mankind?" you are in a way to learn much about geography, government, and economics and to learn it with little conscious effort.