Many of us have probably read journalist and food activist Michael Pollan's famous quote, "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food."
But how did (depending on your age) our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents really eat? I interviewed seven seniors at the Mars Hill Retirement Center in the little town of Mars Hill, North Carolina. The two men and five women ranged in age from 71 to 95 years old. Most needed the help of walkers, canes or motorized wheelchairs. Some had more difficulty speaking than others, but all were eager to talk and answer my questions.
"We raised everything we used," said James, age 89. "If we needed coffee, salt or sugar there was a small store called Frank Runyon's where we'd go."
Lewis, who is 82 years old, nodded his head in agreement with James.
"I remember Runyon's," he said. We never wanted to run out of salt — or black pepper. If we needed more groceries, we'd go to town in Marshall where there were four grocery stores. We even grew our own wheat and corn, and would take it to a mill to grind."
None could remember freezers until they were in their teens or older and a couple mentioned weekly visits from the ice man who would deliver blocks of ice to keep food cold.
When I asked how the nearby 70,000 square foot Ingles Market would compare to the grocery stores of their childhood they all laughed.
"You could have fit about seven or eight of the grocery stores we shopped into that Ingles," said Florence, who is 95 years old.
Harriet flung her hands wide.
"Let's just talk about the cereal aisle," she said. "You can't even see to the end of it. All we had was Post Toasties."
Was there a restaurant in your town? Did you drink soda when you were a child?
All agreed that there were few if any restaurants when they were growing up. Judith, who is 73 years old, said there was a Woolworth's in the town of Kingsport, Tennessee, that served food.
Patricia, who said she is "80 something," recalled that the only time she ate at a restaurant was when her family drove from California to Kansas to visit relatives.
"We'd pull up at a restaurant and my father would go in," she said. "If the place served alcohol he'd come back out and say we weren't eating there and we'd keep going."
Sodas were something not regularly consumed. Milk and water were usually served at meals; some also had sweet tea. Patricia said that orange or grape Nehi soda — "10 cents per bottle!" — was a special treat and something they only had on car trips.
The type of meat served for a special meal seemed to depend on where people lived. For those who had grown up in the country or on a farm, it was usually ham. Those that lived in towns mentioned eating beef or fried chicken for a special dinner.
When I asked about turkey, Harriet puzzled for a moment and then said, "No one raised turkey so I don't recall having turkey for a holiday meal until I was much older."
As we moved on to talk about the differences between food and meals today compared to their childhoods, the differences grew even more apparent. Most said they ate foods in season. During winter months, fresh fruits and vegetables were seldom available and fruits or vegetables at meals were from those canned or preserved in the home or in some cases purchased from grocery stores. Harriet recalled that getting an orange in her Christmas stocking was like "pure gold."
Most families had kitchen gardens that supplied the vegetables that were served at meals, such as beans, tomatoes and greens. Patricia explained that during World War II, these were known as Victory Gardens.
There were two issues that these seniors were most concerned about. The first was the prevalence of eating out and the second, food waste in the home. Several mentioned that people could save a lot of money if they didn't eat out so much.
"It's because they don't know how to cook," Harriet said.
It was time for my last question. What would they say to people who think that food was better in the old days?
There was no real consensus on this. Some seemed to think food tasted better, but there were far fewer options. Most agreed that life was harder, particularly during war time when sugar and even shoes were rationed.
Some were impressed by and appreciative of all of the choices and variety available today; others felt this was not necessarily a good thing. But James in particular seemed dismissive of the idea that the old days were better.
"If we wanted chicken for dinner we had to raise it and then kill it and pluck it and cook it," James said. "Life was harder. You had to be tougher."
I don't know if I would necessarily want to eat the way my great-grandmother ate. There are foods that I have access to now that she would never have seen in her lifetime. King crab legs, mango, papaya, kiwi, quinoa — I celebrate all of the choices we have today. At the same time, talking to these seniors made me reflect on what we may have sacrificed in our race towards material success and technological advancement.
Fewer people have the ability or inclination to cook, and technology-free family mealtimes have to be fiercely guarded. I think it would be optimal to take the best of the past and combine it with present day so we don't lose sight of valuing time with family and simple food pleasures, like that one orange in the midst of winter.
Talk to Leah
Leah McGrath is the corporate dietitian for Ingles Markets. Follow her @InglesDietitian. Contact her at Lmcgrath@ingles-markets.com, 800-334-4936 or at www.ingles-markets.com/ask_leah.