Health food, then and now

In the mail the other day came a book whose title struck me as odd:  500 of the Healthiest Recipes and Health Tips You’ll Ever Need.  I wasn’t sure, for a moment, what made it so odd.  But then I realized it was that “health food,” as a term, isn’t something we hear about so much these days.  Sure, we “eat healthy”–or try to–but it’s come to mean something other than what “health food” did some, oh, say, 45 years ago.

I say 45 years mainly because it was in 1977 that the Moosewood Cookbook, that icon of early-mainstream vegetarianism, was first published.

Moosewood featured tofu and “exotic” dishes like baba ganouj and guacamole.  It had weird compounds like carrot-mushroom loaf and lentil-walnut burgers.  It had a lot of stuffed eggplant and a lot of stuffed squash.  Like sprouts?  Cottage cheese? So did Moosewood.

To read Moosewood today is to glimpse a carb-happy, dairy-tolerant, newly multicultural vision of health in which “vegetarian” equaled “healthy”–if only because out there in the secular world they were still serving steak Diane, or maybe quiche Lorraine, or some other megacalorie blockbuster named after a girl.

We live in both more and less earnest times.  On the one hand, in 1977 there were no vegans to speak of, and most everyone would have scoffed at the idea that you should avoid honey out of respect for the bees.  On the other hand, Moosewood’s free hand with the cheese would have stopped today’s keepers of the health-food flame in their tracks.

If I had to generalize (oh, OK, if you insist!) I’d say that the 21st century concept of health food is in some ways more inclusive–whole grains! lean protein! probiotic dairy! (as well as the plant foods that everyone has always known they ought to eat).  But at the same time, if you look at the wide variety of diet-specific publications–gluten-free, lactose-intolerant, IBS-sensitive, Paleo!–you can’t help but be struck by their increasing specificity.

So, I ask you:  what does “health food” mean to you? And is it the same as what it means to your parents? and your children?  Because even if food mores may be everlastingly subjective–de gustibus non est disputandam–good health, fundamentally, is not.

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