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August 4th, 2017

The Mod Cons

BY Christian Ford

Like a substantial fraction of Americans, I spent part of this summer camping. That’s a pretty broad category, ranging from ultralight hikers bivouacking under a tarp to RV retirees running satellite TV off generators in 45-foot motorhomes, but what all of them have in common is the need to get food on the table, or rock, as the case may be.

My variant was in the middle.  Our pack mule was an automobile but our only means of cooking was fire. We were remote from supplies, we were a group that doesn’t habitually eat together, and additionally, one of our number was freshly-minted vegetarian, so  laying in food stocks required some improvisation. It was, in fact, a bemusingly peculiar food shopping experience, the cart becoming the ark of four different imaginings of our future meals. The checker took one look at the culinary dissonance moving through her station, eyeballed the crew on the other side of the register, and started asking questions.

Still, the improvisation worked, even if not quite as any single one of us planned. Our time living under the sky was a vacation, but it was full to the brim with event, so much so that meals ended up shoehorned in at either end of the day.  Anyone who’s ever been a camp cook understands the dramatic difference caused by the absence of modern conveniences — the mod cons as the British strangely call them — but the revelation wasn’t that cooking can be toilsome.  No, I got to thinking – standing in the smoke of the cooking fire, scrubbing pots with a handful of damp sand – that while I was getting a refresher on the pre-electric lives of my forebears and the present day lives of the billions who live with cooking fires to this day – a little something else was being murmured in my ear. It isn’t just cooking that’s work.  Eating is, too.

This would be no revelation to most animals. A gorilla, for instance, must spend eight hours a day chewing simply to derive enough sustenance from its diet of tough plant matter. (Bet he doesn’t snack during his break time.) In point of fact, the waking hours of the majority of animals are filled with task of finding sustenance.  The only place you see animals not eating for much of the day is when you get to the apex predators — the lions, the tigers and, of course, ourselves.  Piggybacking on the ceaseless toil of the prey animals, they have time for idling, playing with the cubs.  Or camping.

What became slowly apparent during the week of campfire cooking was that while food preparation remained a focal point, eating did not.  Instead, it became less differentiated, an activity more like other activities, which meant that I sometimes found myself choosing between lunch and, say, reading a chart as two equivalent activities of which it would be nice if there was time to do both but no big deal if one had to be left for later. This, the conversion of eating from its own category of activity to one of many, was surprising. Obviously, in the end, food in the stomach wins out in the derby of relative importance, but that eventually is worth considering. The Mod Cons serve to make both the preparation and consumption of food into a near frictionless activity and I have to wonder whether that — in addition to the unhealthy “convenience” foods that precipitate out of the unending flow of GMO corn —  has something to do with our remarkable fatness as a culture.

I saw this most clearly in the concept of enough. When finding sustenance is just difficult enough, innate human laziness (cue the gorillas again) comes into play. The same impulse that drives us towards foods of convenience also – when the convenient foods are inconveniently absent – says, “oh hell, that’s enough” when it comes to deciding whether to scrounge up just a little mere.

Looking back at the catalogue of types from American history – the long cowboys, the lithe Indians, the hustling immigrants, the weathered fishermen, the dustbowl mothers, the smallhold farmers – any of those people who gaze out at us from past their well-defined cheekbones in daguerreotypes or Kodak Brownie snaps – we’re seeing faces shaped by the absence of the Mod Cons.

True, there are a few round-cheeked visages it the catalogue, but they stand out, their physiognomy representing something about their character or station in life, be they Falstaffian or rich enough to have Mod Cons in the form of other people.

I’m back in the land of the Mod Cons now, and I find that I am hungrier than when I was outside of their influence.  That’s curious, because when out camping, I spent all of my day in motion, theoretically working up an appetite but instead discovering only a  newfound appreciation for foodstuffs I didn’t ordinarily care for.

It makes me wonder whether there’s something else at work here back at home, whether they all whisper to me, the refrigerator and the microwave, the toaster and the kettle and their allies, those foods already prepared and waiting behind their cardboard curtains  decorated with glamour shots that are more of a dream of what’s inside than any real representation. It’s a funny thing, the way the Mod Cons and the boxed foods need each other, and the song they sing together, so easy, right now, right here, tiny priests at the temple of easy living, always happy to consecrate the sacrament of convenience.

 

Pix:
Camping Now by John Fladd
Camping Then by the Forest History Society