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The secret ingredient of comfort food? Struggle.

With pho, Spam, and Hoppin' John, pandemic baking joins a tradition.

By Kara Baskin

These days, pho is everywhere. The steaming bowl of rice noodles in broth is a mainstay on Vietnamese restaurant menus worldwide — comfort food served at corner shops, food trucks, and fancy fusion restaurants. It’s a dramatic evolution for a dish that originated out of hunger and struggle.

Pho was created in Hanoi in the early 20th century, when French colonialists craved steak, and the poor masses had to make do with the scraps, says Andrea Nguyen, a prolific Vietnamese cookbook author. Vietnamese butchers had to preserve every speck of meat, so they got creative and served it in noodle soup. “Pho was born out of resourceful cooking, necessity, and scrappy people trying to make a living,” Nguyen says.

Pho is just one example of a dish that evolved from harsh necessity to cultural mainstay. Robert Hall, a professor emeritus of African American Studies and History at Northeastern University, points to Hoppin’ John, a dish of black-eyed peas (domesticated in Africa) and rice. It was made by slaves in the Carolinas dating from the 1670s, when rice was readily available and easily cultivated. Now it’s a soul food staple — a concept that’s “almost posh,” Hall says — often served as a celebratory dish on New Year’s Eve.

The history of food worldwide is intertwined with trauma — from the ceremonial matzoh that represents the Jews’ escape from bondage in Egypt to the wartime Spam that became a signature of Eisenhower-era pantries. The bubonic plague that wracked Europe in the 1300s created a labor shortage, upended class distinctions, and made spices more affordable, expanding medieval serfs’ diets with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.

And if you found yourself baking sourdough bread, pickling onions, or tending a garden during the COVID-19 shutdown, you experienced a modern kind of culinary crossroads. This past spring, people hoarded scarce ingredients, became more self-reliant about preparing and cooking food, and even rethought the power dynamics between food workers and their employers.

Time will tell which of those pandemic-driven changes will persist. But for some clues about the diet and dynamics of food in the future, it’s helpful to look at the challenges of the past.

To understand how events can change eating and purchasing habits for good, consider the cholera and salmonella outbreaks that struck New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the time, the city’s 20-plus neighborhood public food markets — government-run open-air markets without fans or refrigeration — were residents’ primary food source.

“People who have never cooked before are learning how to cook and bake, and I think that’s going to change part of how they eat.”

Ashley Rose Young
Social historian at the Smithsonian Institution

Concerns about disease peaked in 1911, as cholera persisted and flies began to infest the markets, bringing with them salmonella. Residents grew increasingly wary of those markets and the food systems they took for granted.

“Customers were unhappy. They saw people getting sick,” says Ashley Rose Young, a social historian at the Smithsonian Institution. “Frontline workers, the term used today, were still exposed to disease in the marketplace because community members went there every single day to get food. So just imagine how many people you were in contact with.” 

A grassroots initiative rose up in which women — as private citizens — volunteered to monitor the public markets. They chronicled health infractions, expanding beyond the threat of cholera and salmonella, noting who sold fly-infested, spoiled meat and reporting it to police. Vendors, too, advocated for better facilities to sell their wares. Their grassroots activism heralded the rise of privately-owned grocery stores in the city, loosening public markets’ tight grip on neighborhood trade as they were held accountable for the first time.

Young likens food-vendor activism in New Orleans, which had lasting ramifications, to the rebellion of modern gig workers — laborers at places like Instacart, who are demanding better pay and appropriate protections during the current pandemic.

“Activism is often triggered during the times of greatest trauma because there’s an opportunity there; there’s a window to actually catch the ear of a larger group of people and a nation,” she says. “You have individuals who feel so marginalized and mistreated, this invisible labor within our food system. And they’re saying, ‘You have to pay attention to us. We are putting our lives at risk by procuring food for you,’” she says. 

A similar shift in power dynamics took place in the 1300s, in the wake of the bubonic plague, says Ken Albala, a food historian and professor at the University of the Pacific and one of the world’s foremost experts on European food history. The plague wiped out some 60 percent of Europeans, raising demand for labor — and increasing peasants’ ability to command a higher wage. Suddenly, they could afford hitherto exotic ingredients such as cinnamon and cloves; they were stretching their palates, feasting like never before. 

“They had more expendable income. They could eat more meat. They could dabble in spices that their superiors could only afford,” Albala says. What resulted was ginger in cakes and cardamom in cookies — and globalism, as new demands fueled the international spice market, perpetuating overseas trade and discovery.  

“Columbus wasn’t trying to discover a new continent. He was trying to get to China to get these spices,” Albala says. 

“Columbus wasn’t trying to discover a new continent. He was trying to get to China to get these spices.” 

Ken Albala
Food historian

Global geopolitics had a role in the evolution of pho, as well, Nguyen notes. Soon after its creation, the dish grew in popularity. But when the French colonial period ended in 1954 and the country split in half, Northerners made do with an austere version of pho. The Communist Party took over pho shops and strictly rationed portions; it was served in small bowls without much spice or meat. In the South, on the other hand, pho was lush and sweetish-savory, embellished with chiles, mint, Thai basil, and plenty of beef.

Now, “Northerners are still purists,” says Nguyen. In Hanoi, there are pho shops that sell modestly sized bowls with minimal accoutrements.

Meanwhile, pho shops in the United States proliferated as people fled Saigon — forming an economic foundation for generations of immigrant families. “This is one dish that initially launched so many people’s livelihoods in America and elsewhere through the diaspora,” Nguyen says.

Soul food like Hoppin’ John, too, has shaped some economic fortunes, rising from roots in austerity to become a foundation of American regional cuisine. Classic Southern dishes such as collard greens with fatback — a cut of meat from the back of the hog — were the food of enslaved people in the South, says Debra Freeman, managing editor of Southern Grit magazine. Freeman studies African American culinary figures and foodways, writing about the origins of American barbecue and the African American migration to the West during the Gold Rush. The phrase “high on the hog” comes from choice cuts of meat, unavailable to slaves at the time, she says. Yet those less-desirable cuts now make a dish authentic.

“If you want to make collard greens [today], for example, then you’re going to put a piece of fatback in it,” Freeman says. “Something that was considered not a great cut, and something that was really hard to work with, turned into a staple in most African American homes hundreds of years later.” From necessity comes tradition, familiarity, and, finally, choice. These dishes have been appropriated by countless restaurants nationwide, often dressed up as delicacies. 

During the COVID-19 shutdown last spring, as lives became confined and movements restricted, different kinds of foods became necessities. Sales of staples skyrocketed; as of the summer, according to Supermarket News, sales of canned soup in the U.S. were up 369 percent, dried beans and grains were up 297 percent, and powdered milk was up 368 percent. Housebound people made do, cooking and gardening, experimenting with breads and canning, taking up hours of time that might have previously been filled with commutes, carpools, or going to restaurants. Like spices of yore, homemade pickles hit the mainstream. So did bread: One market research firm reported in the spring that flour sales were up worldwide by 238 percent.

“I do think people have become more comfortable with their home kitchens. People who have never cooked before are learning how to cook and bake, and I think that’s going to change part of how they eat,” says the Smithsonian’s Young. 

Not every food trend lasts, of course; the next step after fetishization is commercialization, and then boredom. Meat loaves and casseroles were staples in budget-minded post-World War II households in the U.S.; now, they show up ironically at nostalgia-themed dinner parties or on cheeky restaurant menus. Will today’s sourdough become tomorrow’s dinner party joke? 

Or will people newly understand that food can be a luxury — and an extravagance? As peasant diets expanded in the Middle Ages, Albala says, elites distinguished their own consumer products with over-the-top touches, even putting ground pearls and coral in their food. He predicts that when the economy bounces back, so will high-end cooking — driven by science, fantasy, invention, and imported ingredients. 

“I think we’ll see a new wave of scientific, expensive, exotic, elitist cuisine; trying new cuisines; buying new gadgets; and eventually a rebirth of restaurants,” Albala says. “The ones that survive will have to work on a different business model, and I think that will involve dining not just as getting food, but as theater, a whole night out, an extravagant experience — like it was in the late Middle Ages.”  

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Kara Baskin is a writer based in Boston. She has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Bon Appetit, McSweeney's, Elle, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. 

 

Illustrations by Grace Helmer

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