Once I read a pasta cookbook in which the author somewhat reluctantly included a chicken pasta recipe "because people kept asking for one". Which set me thinking: what kind of perverts demand chicken with their pasta? Like green and turquoise, F and F-sharp, pasta and chicken completely fail to go together. They're similar enough in taste (bland starch and bland protein) that combining them adds nothing, and different enough in texture that they clash violently. And in a world where so many things work well with pasta - ham, cheese, cream, mushrooms, tomatoes, shellfish, and so on - why insist on an unhappy menage with chicken?
But then there are people who insist on chicken with everything: it's the meat for people who don't like meat, for those who want the texture of animal protein without the taste. And not just any bit of chicken will do, either. It has to be a pure, seamless white mass of chicken breast: no bones, no blood, no gristle, no tubes. The meat must be packaged to disguise that it's actually a piece of dead bird. This is the food of choice for 'chicken vegetarians' - the kind of people who are quite happy to eat slaughtered animals, but don't want to be confronted with that fact on their dinner plates.
Of course, there was a time when people couldn't afford to be chicken vegetarians. When my parents were growing up, lean cuts of meat were a rare treat indeed, and people regularly had to eat things like pig's ears, pig's feet, tongue, stomach, heart, liver and so on. And while I'm not advocating a return to the conditions of the 1940s, I will say that one drawback of the present abundance of food in western society is that it's turned us all into big culinary babies. In the 1940s, people had to eat what was available, or else they starved; there was no place for idiosyncratic childhood eating habits, the weird aversions children have to certain kinds of food. Now, we keep our childish palates into adulthood. It seems everyone I know has an inexplicable blockage about eating certain foodstuffs like fish or cheese or nuts. I myself refused to eat eggs until two years ago.
And no-one today eats offal or any non-lean cuts of meat. We've lost the thrift people had in the 1940s. Then, when an animal was killed, people ate the entire animal. People improvised, made ingenious use of what they had, making stews out of fish heads, making cakes out of stale bread and carrots. Now, every meal involves a long trail of waste. We only buy the choicest cuts of meat, leaving the rest to be dumped along with the megatons of unsold food that leave supermarkets every day. Even with the food we buy, we are wasteful: trimming off the fatty bits of meat and any other bits that fail to meet our standards of perfection; selecting the five best leaves of lettuce and dumping the rest; eating the soft parts of the bread and leaving the crust. It would make any 1940s housewife cry.
Modern marketing and distribution have distanced food from its sources: many people today are only vaguely aware of what food is or where it comes from. Indeed, people actively don't want to know where food comes from, if buying trends are anything to go by. Food must be abstracted away from the living things that produce it; everything needs additional layers of processing before it becomes palatable. Apples with natural blemishes are tossed aside in favour of apples armoured in wax polish. Cheese that tastes like it once came out of a cow is overlooked in favour of "plastic wrapped in more plastic" (to quote Jonathan Meades). 'Children's food' - itself an artifical marketing phenomenon - is the most heavily processed of all, a gaudy slideshow of fake colours, fake flavours and fake fillings.
Hand in hand with the rise of processed food has been the decline of cooking, which is well on the way to extinction in Anglophone countries. Very few people cook anymore, and there's something dilettantish about those that do - tossing together various ingredients they've seen on TV shows, without really understanding or having any empathy for what's going on. (And if everything goes wrong, they can always throw it in the bin and take out a curry.) Traditional methods of cooking have been all but lost. Things are slightly different in continental Europe - people here still talk about local Flemish recipes that involve boiling pigs' intestines for eight hours, for instance - but I have to wonder how much of this knowledge is being passed on to younger generations.
If anything, younger generations are being taught to fear food. The media bombards us with constant scare stories about food contamination, poisoning outbreaks, poor hygiene standards and so on - almost always attacking small-scale producers rather than supermarket suppliers. Increasingly, the message is that any food which isn't shrink-wrapped and pumped full of chemicals is unsafe. Unprocessed food is seen as primitive; food that falls outside 'mainstream' tastes seen as barbarian. In the recent outburst of Francophobia, the US gutter press branded the French as 'a nation of cheese-eaters' as if that was an insult. Even eating itself is demeaned, seen as yet another shameful bodily function to be exploited by advertisers, along with sex.
In this climate, it's no surprise that people are timid about food, timid about eating, timid about everything. We've bred a generation of people who wouldn't dare to eat a peach.