September 15, 2005

Let us begin by giving credit where credit must be given: In 1983, Drs. Astri Riddervold and Andreas Ropeid contributed two papers on the influence of the natural sciences on the 19th century Norwegian diet to the Fifth Ethnological Food Conference in Hungary. Dr. Riddervold turned the information in the papers into a longer essay for Ethnologia Scandinavica in 1984. Among the material covered in these papers, and the subsequent Ethnologia Scandinavica article, was the tale of the Norwegian Porridge Feud, which caught the eye of the editor of Petits Propos Culinaires, the late (and much-missed) Alan Davidson, who convinced Drs. Riddervold and Ropeid to allow PPC's editors to adapt and abridge their work into an article suitable for PPC. "The Norwegian Porridge Feud" ran in PPC 32 and was subsequently anthologized in The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy: 20 Years of the Best Food Writing from the Journal Petits Propos Culinaires, which was snapped up and devoured by yours truly, which brings us to our thrilling conclusion...

At first glance, it sounds like much ado about nothing, with a silly name to boot -- the Norwegian Porridge Feud, indeed! -- but once upon a time in Norway, the preparation of a simple bowl of porridge became a nexus for deeply-held, passionately-argued views about the natural sciences, nutrition, economy, the role of women in Norwegian society, education, tradition, nationalism, progressivism and enlightenment. These issues had been discussed through much of the 19th century, but it was the publication of a cookbook, Fornuftig Madstel (Sensible Cookery) in 1864, that triggered the most heated debates on proper cookery and the nature of women's education and domestic roles, and gave rise to the Norwegian Porridge Feud.

The seed that grew into a nearly-two-year feud was a simple cookery question: to flour or not to flour? It was the custom of Norwegian farmers' wives to prepare porridge by throwing a quantity of flour into the porridge as soon as it was ready to eat. One might see such a practice -- adding uncooked grain to cooked -- as a redundancy, but the author of Fornuftig Madstel, Peter Christen Asbjornsen (writing under the pseudonym Clemens Bonifacius) attacked this practice as worse than redundant: he argued that it was in fact a loss to the eater, as the flour would pass unabsorbed through the body, and it was a loss to the Norwegian economy, as all of this unused flour could be put to better use. He argued further that the only way to reverse this chronic waste, and the resultant weakening of the Norwegian population, was to revise the known methods of cookery and optimal consumption of foods to adhere to the principles of natural sciences; since women were the primary cooks for their families, they were responsible for the deleterious effects of bad cookery, and they should be retaught everything they knew from scratch, in accordance with natural science. Asbjornsen was a famous and well-loved author, and his views drew considerable attention.

They also drew strong criticism from Eilert Sundt, the founder of sociology and ethnology in Norway, and the publisher of the journal Folkevennen. Sundt used his journal to attack Asbjornsen's views, claiming that the addition of flour to porridge was a thousand-year-old tradition, that women had learned over the course of 1,000 years what was best to feed their families, and that Asbjornsen's belief in cookery according to natural science was nonsense. Following this attack, Sundt found himself attacked once again, by Asbjornsen, who accused Sundt of not being qualified to discuss porridge-making, and of denying the people of Norway a chance at a better life through science. Stung, Sundt fought back, calling Fornuftig Madstel, in Riddervold and Ropeid's words, "a great insult to the people of Norway."

Thus was born the Norwegian Porridge Feud, in which both Asbjornsen and Sundt, under the banner of "Enlightenment of the People," lined up panels of experts to argue over just what was the best way to bring that enlightenment. Asbjornsen called on the preeminent natural scientists of the day to bolster his case; most of his experts were German, which brought up issues of Western European progressivism vs. Norwegian nationalism and insularity. The mid-19th century saw the discovery of bacteria as a source of disease, and of hygienic practices as a weapon against disease; it also saw a new understanding of chemical properties of foods, and chemical reactions in the human body, which gave rise to a theory of "like replacing like"; as certain nutrients and compounds were shed or excreted by the body, so must they be replaced in the foods containing them. This led to some fascinating but often spurious advice, some of which sounds outright shocking to 21st century ears: Whole grains, the darlings of 20th and 21st-century nutritionists, were seen by Asbjornsen as imperfect foods, difficult to digest; it was the digestible, finely ground, finely sifted white flour that put wheat's nutrients to best use. Coffee was seen as a blood tonic due to its nitrogen content. The heavy consumption of sugar and sugary syrups was encouraged as a means of eking out the diets of the poor; alcohol consumption was encouraged for the same reason.

Although Asbjornsen was considered a progressive, at least in comparison to Norwegian traditionalists like Sundt, the treatment of women in Fornuftig Madstel is similarly jarring to 21st-century ears. To Asbjornsen and his allies (particularly the German Dr. Klencke, who wrote a "chemical cookery book" translated into Norwegian in 1859), it was women who were primarily responsible for the Norwegian diet; it was women who persisted in "unhealthy" ways of cookery; it was women who needed a complete re-education in the kitchen; it was women who should be taught natural science principles in an organized domestic science curriculum; and it was women who were born for domestic living. For these reasons, they argued, the education of women should be confined to a purely domestic sphere. Any study of philosophy, natural science outside of cookery, languages or music was nothing but lost time and energy, a waste, like uncooked flour on porridge. Furthermore, the learning that women had already acquired at their mothers' and grandmothers' sides, and at their own hands in the kitchen, was outdated, outmoded and a further drain on the Norwegian population. It was thus important for women to devote their energies to scientific cookery, since their own experience was manifestly untrustworthy. This is what passed for progressive thought in mid-19th century Western Europe and Scandinavia.

Asbjornsen's book proved to be long-influential, and was used as a reference guide by contemporary female authors of cookbooks. It also did introduce positive changes into the Norwegian diet, such as increased consumption of fruit and vegetables. Yet the less-than-positive effects of Fornuftig Madstel's advice (heavy consumption of sugars and finely-sifted flour, overconsumption of coffee and the eschewing of both fermented and unfermented dairy for margarine) lasted nearly 100 years, until the supply of sugar and coffee was interrupted by World War II. The tenacity of Asbjornsen's ideas is all the more remarkable when we learn that the argument that started the Norwegian Porridge Feud -- uncooked flour, added to cooked porridge, passes unused through the body -- was disproved two years after the publication of Fornuftig Madstel, when a Norwegian doctor put it to the test; acting as test subjects, he and his assistant ate an exclusive diet of floured porridge. A study of stool samples (I probably should have started this with a disclaimer: "Warning! Contains references to stool samples! Sorry, folks!"wink showed no trace of undigested starch, proving that the flour *was* actually being used by the body. Over the next 20 years, more of Asbjornsen's theories were overturned, and in 1884, the Norwegian Professor Lochmann attacked Asbjornsen once more as touting pernicious nonsense under the guise of scientific certainty. Yet, such was Asbjornsen's popularity in Norway that long after his theories were debunked, Fornuftig Madstel enjoyed continued popularity, and coffee, sugar, white bread and margarine continued to be consumed with abandon.

It's a lot of baggage for a little bowl of porridge. Myself, I prefer to keep my porridge free of controversy, which is why mine never sees a speck of flour. Actually, mine never sees a speck of flour because I find the idea of adding flour to cereal to be more than a little nasty. I find it best to keep it simple. Dried fruit, yes. Brown sugar or maple syrup, sometimes. Cream, occasionally. A glug or two of Macallan 12, absolutely. But no flour, not ever. I don't need that kind of trouble.

Posted by Bakerina at 11:47 PM in incoherent ravings about food • (2) Comments • (2) Trackbacks
Page 1 of 1 pages