Taste Shaped by Time and Place, Says Food Historian

Posted: October 20, 2011 at 2:21 pm

By Michele McDonald

Gabriella Petrick

Gabriella Petrick. Creative Services photo

It’s tough for Mason food historian Gabriella Petrick to pick a favorite.

“I like a good steak as much as I love trying something I’ve never tried before,” says the new associate professor in Mason’s College of Health and Human Services (CHHS).

She’s dined on a Japanese preparation of chitlins, or pig intestines, but passed on the giant chewy grubs favored by Australia’s aborigines.

Petrick grew up outside of Pittsburgh, where her dad had a garden and chicken gizzards were part of the dinner menu.

When in doubt, keep it simple. “There’s nothing like a good birthday cake,” she says.

Petrick brings her love of food, as well as her educational background, to the research she’s doing for two books she plans to publish by 2013. Petrick earned a PhD in history from the University of Delaware, a master’s degree in history from Carnegie Mellon University and a master’s of management in hospitality from Cornell University.

“We are extremely pleased to have Dr. Petrick join CHSS as one of the founding faculty members in our new Department of Nutrition and Food Studies,” says Shirley Travis, CHHS dean. “Her background in food studies complements those of the other founding members and brings an important dimension to the programs they are creating for the new department.”

New Tastes Could Be Discovered

cooking foodPetrick studies how tastes evolve, how culture affects food and how large-scale industrialization has changed the way we eat.

Taste is more than just sweet, salty, bitter, sour and, more recently, umami, says Petrick, who’s appeared on the Food Network to discuss snack foods and competition among coffeehouse chains. It’s shaped by the culture of a time and place, she explains, “I’m really trying to look at how our taste is historically based,” she says of her upcoming book.

Take, for example, how the sour, vinegary taste of the medieval era is reflected in the overall culture, including its treatment of women. “If you had a drunk woman, you could smell her sourness,” Petrick says. “At the time, wine was quite sour. She drinks this and becomes undesirable.”

In contrast, the Enlightenment brought salt, which spurred the creation of modern cuisine. Food moved away from being heavily spiced to having more simple ingredients. Salt helps the essence of food shine, Petrick says.

Salt also is about the advent of science. During the Enlightenment, diners began thinking about what they were putting into their bodies from a scientific perspective. Salt not only makes food taste better — it’s an element on the periodic table.

chimichangaAt this time, “People are thinking about food in a more robust way,” Petrick says. “They’re having more complex ideas about food and science.”

It took 100 years before scientists agreed that umami, which was first described in Japan in the early 1900s, actually exists. This complicated taste comes from glutamic acid and is found primarily in Asian cuisine, tomatoes, parmesan cheese, soy sauce, seaweed and French foods.

“The Western culture’s acceptance of Asian cuisines has everything to do with the acceptance of umami,” Petrick says. “This acceptance was unthinkable in the 1950s.”

More new tastes could be out there. But it could take a while to uncover them because taste is understudied. “Taste is the Rodney Dangerfield of the senses,” Petrick jokes.

The End of American Cooking?

pastaPetrick also is researching how food processing changed the American diet. A hundred years ago, fruits and vegetables weren’t on the daily menu. Immigrants brought their favorite dishes with them to the United States. Bread and potatoes fed Irish and German immigrants. Italians favored pasta.

“We have this stereotype of the Irish eating potatoes, but that’s what they could afford,” Petrick says.

Even alcohol was a major part of some diets, especially German. Beer does have vitamin B. “The problem in the early 1900s was that people were not getting the calories they needed,” Petrick says. “Drinking alcohol was one way to get calories in little packets.”

Improved transportation brought better calories to the people by the 1910s. Trains hauled fresh fruits and vegetables further afield from the farm. Then, in the 1930s, factories started churning out canned food.

“This is the beginning of the end of American cooking, some argue,” says Petrick, adding that she doesn’t agree. “Cooking was, and still is, an arduous task.”

Industrial food has had its rough patches. It took until the 1970s before the food industry got the freezing process right. Freeze-dried food never took off and probably never will, Petrick adds. Another industrial food failure was New Coke. The other losers have faded away.

pizzaSuccesses are a bit easier to track: Heinz ketchup, Hellmann’s mayo, Campbell’s soup. “If you want to look at the successes, just walk down any grocery aisle,” she says.

Despite how commonplace industrial foods appear to be, regular munching on them didn’t take off until the 1980s. And it’s not all bad.

“There’s nothing wrong with frozen peas, and that’s an industrial food,” she says. “What’s wrong with pancake mix? And, I’m sorry, but I don’t want to boil down my own maple syrup.”

What’s next on our industrial food plate is anyone’s guess. However, Petrick says, “There’s this constant search for better and fresher.”

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu