You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of the occupation “food anthropologist” before. Katherine Spiers hadn’t either, even as she began her career in the field. To Spiers—host of the food-centric podcast Smart Mouth, author of the Smart Mouth newsletter, and former food editor at LA Weekly—the most interesting part of a food story is what happens before the meal arrives on your plate. So she decided to move away from restaurant coverage and turn to uncovering those backstories for a living. It’s “a way more interesting way to talk about food,” she says.
Spiers spoke with The Takeout about the cooking and eating habits we’ve adopted under stay-at-home orders amid our quarantine-related restlessness and whether those new habits are bound to stick. This isn’t the first time that a widespread public health emergency has reshaped our relationship with our kitchens, and Spiers highlighted some interesting examples from history that might inform our future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Takeout: We’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s changing everyone’s relationship to food. How would you say our behaviors are changing, and how does it compare to past pandemics?
Katherine Spiers: People are remembering that they can cook for themselves. These are all generalizations, of course, but I think people were just buying items without thinking about how inexpensive or easy certain things are to make. Bread is the number one example of that. And what’s interesting is that it’s kind of the opposite of what happened during and after the Spanish flu in the United States [in 1918]. At that time, people moved away from home cooking a little bit, because people became so obsessed with hygiene. Canned, jarred, and boxed items were sold as more hygienic.
TO: Were they sold as more hygienic on purpose, as a direct marketing response to the flu outbreak?
KS: Yes, that was the main reason. It was out there in the ether that people were scared of germs, so the food manufacturers all started to market themselves as “the cleaner way.” This also came about at the same time that grocery shopping was changing. It used to be that you went to the market and you told the person what you wanted, and they collected everything. Now people were learning about brands. So brands had to market themselves, and this was one of the main ways they did it in that era.
TO: It sounds like the changes that came about in 1918 did permanently change the landscape, then, rather than revert back to the way they had been before.
TO: Do you think that 2020 will create a lasting change in the way that people prepare and consume their food?
KS: I think it’s less likely that our current pandemic cooking habits are going to have a permanent effect, because it’s easier to switch from home cooking to buying food. Going from buying food to home cooking, I don’t think that can necessarily last as long. Society has changed in the past 100 years. Another reason people are rediscovering cooking is because they don’t necessarily have to go into their offices anymore. Whereas a lot of us are usually tied to our jobs and spend a lot of time there, we currently don’t. But people are going to go back to their jobs, and cooking, while it can be fun, is just yet another household chore that has to be done. And if you can buy food instead, I think most people are going to go back to that, probably. Which is totally fine! We’re too busy. Society is too busy.
TO: And nobody wants to keep doing all these dishes that keep piling up.
KS: Oh my god, yes.
TO: Beyond the pandemic of 1918, what other major events have contributed to our eating habits?
KS: There’s the more general pandemic that the Europeans brought over to the Americas when they first started invading. Europeans and the Catholic Spaniards were really into the Church’s idea that only wheat could be Communion. So everywhere that they went, they wanted to bring wheat with them, they wanted to plant wheat, and they wanted everybody to only eat wheat, because to them, if you’re eating a little wafer that’s made out of corn or what have you, you’re not getting the body of Christ. You have to eat wheat. And this is still something that some priests think to this day.
This all clearly shows up in how much wheat is now grown in the Americas. It’s not native to this part of the world, and wasn’t here 400 years ago, but now it’s been here for [that long], and it’s absolutely a part of most people’s diets if you live in North or South America. That’s because the Spanish invaders wanted to spread Catholicism.
TO: So, barring the religious context of the wheat, we would’ve had no reason to cultivate it here, because there were bountiful crops already?
KS: Yes, there were bountiful crops. But the Spaniards were big on their own food: they planted everything that grows in Spain in the Caribbean area and the eastern side of South America and North America. They wanted to see what would stick—and they overstated what would stick, too, because they wanted to brag about what a good job they were doing.
They wanted the indigenous people to eat their food, too. That was part of their so-called civilizing mission. There’s a lot of talk now about eating insects, and how that’s probably better for the planet than eating animal protein. The indigenous people already were doing that, and the Spaniards said that that was gross, and they brought all their domesticated animals with them and told the indigenous people, “Unless you eat lamb and beef, you are gross to us.” So that was forced on indigenous people culturally as well.
It’s mostly Europeans who, throughout history, do not eat insects. So when they colonized everywhere and they brought their values with them, and they decided that it was gross, that’s something that Europeans have done that’s bad for the planet. They brought their high-methane animals everywhere with them.
TO: From an anthropological perspective, is there anything noteworthy or surprising about shopping habits, cooking trends, and eating in 2020?
KS: People are stocking up even more, which is interesting because North Americans already shopped fewer times and bought more each time than a lot of other countries do. The idea of having bags of flour on hand—that’s kind of a different idea than how a lot of people in the U.S. operate, that idea of being prepared.
I’m wondering if people’s relationship to the kind of meat they eat is going to change. It was so hard at the beginning of the pandemic to get chicken, for instance, and chicken is the most consumed meat in America. So I’m wondering if people are either switching to different cuts, different animals, or if people are becoming slightly more vegetarian.
TO: It sounds like such a simple way to change one’s habits: It was hard to find chicken for a few weeks, so now we’re just going to consume less of it. Do you think that our habits can be that easily influenced, or do you think they’ll revert sooner or later?
KS: In this particular instance, it remains to be seen, but I do think our habits can be elastic. We don’t think about our consumption in modern times; we’re advertised to, and we react to that by buying. So if we see that there’s no chicken, we might say, “oh, I’m going to buy lamb instead, even though I don’t normally do that.” I don’t think that we are a society that really thinks about its consumption very much.
TO: What are the benefits of becoming a society that’s more conscious of its own consumption and its own habits?
KS: There’s no downside [laughs]. It can only be a good thing. And one thing everyone is learning about now is that it’s the supply chain that’s broken. It’s not that there’s not enough food, and that’s hardly ever the case in contemporary history. It’s the distribution that’s broken. One of the reasons it’s broken is that everything has been so centralized. So if we had more local foodways, then that would also make us healthier, because each community would have more food and a more diverse array of food.
When you have, let’s say, one chicken processor, then that processor has to think about which cuts are going to sell the best. If it’s chicken breast, then they’re going to say, “Okay, we want to mostly be selling chicken breasts. That needs to be the main focus.” And that creates a lot of waste, whereas you don’t have to necessarily appeal to the broadest base if you have more of a local food distribution.
TO: So you can get more variety, and more of what people in your immediate community might be interested in.
KS: That is the theory, but it is still a theory since America hasn’t done that for 200 years [laughs].
TO: What other lessons can we take from past pandemics?
KS: I was surprised by how long some of these issues can last after a pandemic is over. For instance, I learned that in England for a while in the 1500s, it was illegal to sell fresh fruit. They were afraid of fresh produce. Even when it wasn’t illegal, this was a fear for around 200 years in England, that fresh produce could give you the plague. And I was thinking about how the entire world jokes about British food and how everything is just boiled to hell. And I thought, oh my god, that’s actually true! It comes from health concerns from 500 years ago! This is still a stereotype of British food.
TO: In 500 years, maybe future civilizations will look back at us and say, Why were they so obsessed with banana bread?
KS: Yes. And hopefully they’ll take pity on us.