I was a normal boy growing up in the 1930s, worried about Hitler and the Depression but trusting FDR to take care of such things. I played baseball and tennis, rode a Raleigh bike, liked girls, hung out with boys, read more than I could fathom, had a dog named Terry. But my most vivid childhood memories are of food: my grandmother’s old world Russian meals with a Yankee accent; dinner on the Boston and Maine’s Pine Tree Limited with padded table linen; lamb chops in paper skirts served under a silver dome; hashed brown potatoes in cream in their own monogrammed serving dish; blueberry pie with rich vanilla ice cream. Then there were family outings to country inns recommended by Duncan Hines, the Zagat of the 1930s. I trusted him too until he sold his name to a pancake mix company. At the age of eleven I had invented my own pancake recipe: buckwheat, buttermilk, and maple sugar.
In our town my favorite store after the Smile a While Bookshop was Morosini’s market with its pyramids of navel oranges from California which seemed to glow within their pink tissue wrappers. Apples, pears, even potatoes wrapped in tissue imprinted with the word “Idaho” were stacked in woven baskets beneath a frieze of pineapple soldiers with crossed swords. I remember the wooden crates of Bibb lettuce under crushed ice, the cloying sweetness of ripe honeydew in August, the yeasty smell of fresh bread, and the sweet, sharp smell of Parmigiano. Beside the cash register were faded sepia prints of Mr. Morosini’s native village, old men in black hats wearing white shirts under tight black suit coats. It was in Morosini’s that I saw my first Red Delicious apple, a new hybrid that lived up to its name until it was manipulated into inanity for the sake of shelf life.
I remember too my dismay edged with fear and anger when the first supermarket opened across the street from Morosini’s. This must have happened in August of 1939 because I conflate this memory with the day my father told me that war was certain if Hitler attacked Poland. He hoped the war would not begin on the 25th, my birthday. But it was not war that worried me. It was the fate of Morosini’s California navels. I was an eleven-year-old isolationist and an elitist. The new supermarket was selling Florida oranges for ten cents a dozen. Mr. Morosini’s navels were ten cents each. I consoled myself that the supermarket would fail, that no one would buy its pallid Florida oranges. But a shadow had fallen across my tissue-wrapped world for I knew even then that Mr. Morosini didn’t stand a chance.
The subject of Michael Pollan’s fine new book, In Defense of Food, is the technological abyss toward which humankind with its tacit consent is being driven by the industrialized American diet. Pollan’s critique of the American food industry and the plague of obesity, diabetes, coronary disease, cancer, and untimely death…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.