How Midwestern agriculture conquered the world
Recently, I spent some time in Michigan – my childhood home, my parents’ home, and, not incidentally, the birthplace of Seventh-day Adventism. And somewhere (it may well have been Wikipedia) I came across a random fact about the state. “Leading crops include corn, soybeans, flowers, wheat, sugar beets and potatoes.” Not surprising, remembering the corn fields we used to play in as kids. Not really interesting, either, unless you’re a farmer or commodities trader.
But wait. Look what’s first on the list. Corn and soybeans? And then consider the history of Adventists. As you know, health and diet were (and are) a big part of the church’s mission. A calling for healthy eating, vegetarianism, and abstinence features prominently in the identity of traditional Adventists. The most famous product is, of course, corn flakes, invented by Adventist John Harvey Kellogg, and subsequently the whole breakfast cereal genre. Why use corn in a breakfast cereal? Because it was locally grown, and abundant. The same goes for the humble soybean which was an essential source of protein for vegetarians trying to come out in a meat-dominated society. Being cheap, efficient, and a major Michigan crop, soy became the ingredient of choice in the many meat substitutes produced by Adventist-owned food companies. Wheat also features prominently on the Michigan high-score list, and interestingly enough, gluten has also been a staple of the Adventist diet.
Now a lot of Adventism’s lifestyle advice is actually pretty sound. And multiple studies in the U.S. and elsewhere (including Scandinavia) show that adhering to some of all of the advice enhances your lifespan significantly. This is worth noting, and remembering.
But I find it interesting that the agriculture of Michigan should come to have such a big influence on the world. After all, the advice is to eat less meat, not necessarily eat more corn and soy. Still, as Adventism spread to the rest of the U.S. and abroad, it promoted not just the lifestyle advice, but also the specific remedies (meat substitutes) to go with it. So as Adventists in Denmark, we faithfully produced and consumed a wide array of soy products, even though soy wasn’t very abundant in these latitudes. Localization never played a big part, so essentially Adventist diet became Adventist cuisine (thus the title of this post). Certain staple ingredients and recipes epitomized Adventists’ dietary identity, regardless of their commitment to health issues in general.
How would it have looked if Adventism arose not in Michigan, but in Louisiana, or Russia, or Thailand? The focus on health might have been the same, but we definitely would have eaten very different things. Fortunately, as vegetarianism gains a stronger foothold in many places, so does the will and the means to diversify. We may still eat our soy sausages, courtesy of the MDA, but hopefully their importance will diminish as we discover local and/or more authentic alternatives.