America’s blossoming romance with food has arguably gotten out of hand. Inspired at least in part by
“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,”
there has been a banquet
of books documenting farm-to-fork, pasture-to-plate and boutique-to-bistro eating, where each individual bite of grub has a blue-blooded pedigree and a price tag to match.
“The Secret Financial Life of Food” is a refreshing and much-needed look from a different perspective: food as commodity. Kara Newman, the spirits editor at Wine Enthusiast magazine, tells the story of food as it is bought and sold in massive, standardized quantities; shipped and packaged efficiently; and transformed into the edible goodies that are the building blocks of the often rotund people that Americans have become.
Within the whirls and eddies of financial history described in this trim volume are any number of engaging observations about the rise and fall of various commodities. Newman tells us, for example, how pepper evolved from a financial instrument of critical value into a lowly bulk foodstuff and how the seasonality of eggs and milk faded as refrigeration created the modern era of year-round dairy products.
The book clearly and elegantly documents the growth of various forms of commodities trading, everything from coffee to spices to soybeans. But as a window into how commodities trading influences the modern grocery and fast-food dining experience, “The Secret Financial Life of Food” promises a bit more than it delivers. Instead, it spends a great deal of time delving into the founding of boards of trade and early-20th-century attempts to corner various markets.
And while the book points to a link between market behavior and culinary practices, sometimes that link is weak or nonexistent. For instance, Newman tells the story of how the haute-cuisine revival of the pork belly occurred just as trading in pork belly futures ended in 2011. One might think that a surge of popularity would buoy speculation and trade, but the connection is tenuous.
Besides, as Newman explains early on, consumers are in many cases buffered from the effects of gyrating commodity prices. “For every dollar spent on food,” she says, “15 to 20 cents represents the raw commodities used in that product.” Advertising, shipping, packaging and a host of other factors far outweigh the ups and downs of the market.
Even so, “The Secret Financial Life of Food” is a neatly composed, thoughtful history of a vital but often overlooked sinew of American life. What commodities trading lacks in winsome sex appeal, it makes up for with sheer beefy importance.
Norton, who edits a Midwestern food journal called the Heavy Table, is the author of “The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin.”