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Food Anthropology: From the Beginning

I’ve been toying with this article for a while, and decided the only way to do it justice was to write a series of articles, rather than trying to cram it all into one place. It started, as so many of my ideas do, in a conversation between the First Reader and I. We were talking about food – he was describing his mother’s recipe for Mock Pecan Pie, which contains no pecans. It’s an interesting subject, food. Hard to escape the pervasiveness of food in our culture, where we eat three meals a day and snack in between them. To set the scene, when we were discussing the nutless pie, and talking about how poor food sprang from desperation, we were standing in the checkout line of an American superstore, surrounded by candies, gums, and not too far away, a produce section crammed full of fresh goods that had come from around the world.

Where does this obsession with food spring from? How did our favorite foods come into being? What is the future of food? These are some of the questions I wanted to explore, and my mind was bursting with ideas of what I know, but I wanted to take the time to really dig into the topic, and do some research first. For this, I grabbed a couple of books, and have been trying to make time to read, but one in particular brought me up short.

Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris (copyright 1977) was recommended to me – I wish I could remember by whom, because I’d give them a Gibbs slap. The book is an unreservedly biased take on the origin of culture, primarily looking at the pressures of food as defining how humans evolved from tribal wanderers into vast civilizations. The author is also an unabashed advocate of infanticide, and if that doesn’t turn your stomach, I don’t know what will. Harris is a believer in the Malthusian theory that humans are responsible for mass extinctions, because they hunt, and that the fewer people there are, the better, even if you do have to define women and children as non-persons to achieve that goal. As I read, I realized that I had to go look at the copyright date, which is why I included it at the beginning of the paragraph. You see, in the chapter about the origin of agriculture, he either did not know, or had dismissed, the finds at Cayonu Tepesi pushing the start of farming 10,000 years earlier than he states. He certainly wasn’t aware that the coming revolution in molecular phylogeny would prove that the domestication of animals began far earlier, either, as that technology didn’t yet exist when he wrote his comprehensive denunciation of modern technology and society.

Regardless of when it happened, it seems certain that the movement of humans from a hunter-gatherer existence to that of agriculturalists happened globally, leaving only very small pockets of peoples isolated and living literally hand to mouth. I have to think that cooking, and recipes, and the nascent beginnings of cuisine came along with agriculture. When you have the access to ingredients consistently, then you can plan around them, not whatever you’ve found today. And being human, boredom has to be a factor as well. Well, boredom, and alcohol. Beer and agriculture walk hand in hand through history, and I have heard arguments that agriculture came into existence simply so men could have more beer.

Archaeology has yielded many foodstuffs, to the delight of scholars everywhere. Furthermore, as techniques advance beyond what Harris in his we’re-all-going-to-die book could envision, we are gaining an understanding of how far and fast foods traveled. Far from being the limited range societies he postulates, forced to kill the infants to control growth of the village, or the elderly to conserve resources, in most parts of the world there were extensive trade routes in place, with people and products able to outrun a famine, as it were. The advances in technology, from digging stick to iron plow and beyond, allowed a bounty of food to be brought forth from the earth, and that was a trade good that allowed people to interconnect in ways we are still learning about. Far from being a world of societies that existed in vacuums, there was communication everywhere. Some rejected this contact, and turned inward – the Chinese is perhaps the largest and best known of this reaction to outsiders – but others kept looking further and further, which is how Europeans ended up at the literal ends of the earth. Not that they were finding land no human had ever seen, but that they were driven to see what lay on the other side of the hill. And, while they were there, to eat tasty foods, which is how Italy got tomatoes, just as one example.

Our world doesn’t revolve around mealtimes, it just seems that way. I pack my son’s lunch, and he grumbles at me for not putting in extra cookies for him to share with his friends. My mother-in-law, faced with the dilemma of expensive ingredients, created a sweet treat without them. Archeologists uncover a bowl of noodles still intact thousands of years later, abandoned when a villager fled a flood. Some things never change, and while the comfort of a meal may no longer be part of our gravegoods, the concept remains in the casseroles and covered dishes brought to the bereaved when a loved one is lost. Food is a thread that connects humans through the march of time, from mother’s milk to the elaborate birthday cakes that look too good to eat. Food has been as simple as porridge, and as absurdly fetishized as hummingbird’s tongues at a Roman feast.

Far from Harris’ vision of a world crumbling into starvation and ruin, forced back to cannibalism, we live in an era where we can fully grasp what intensive and sustainable agriculture can bring forth from the land, as we harvest and nurture that land, understanding fully that simply taking with no give can lead to ruin. Unlike his idealized simple hunter-gatherers, we are no longer content to strip an area bare of resources before moving on and hoping it heals behind us, killing our children when it doesn’t. We have the knowledge, and we are using it to make…

Food, glorious food!


5 responses to “Food Anthropology: From the Beginning”

  1. Wayne Blackburn Avatar
    Wayne Blackburn

    I happened to be thinking just yesterday, or possibly the day before, about the origins of cooking meat, in particular.

    While it is fun to think that perhaps Og dropped his food in the fire (Og is awfully clumsy, isn’t he?), then fished it out with a stick and found that it tasted interesting, I started wondering if perhaps fire wasn’t first used before we had good cutting tools, to burn the skin of the animal and make it easier to cut. I had though about the possibility that it was used to get rid of ticks and things before eating the animal, but I’m not sure anyone would have cared at that point in time.

    1. Kathleen Sanderson Avatar
      Kathleen Sanderson

      With a different outlook on the origins of man (and everything else), my theory about how meat came to be cooked is that when the early people offered their annual sacrifice to God, they smelled the cooking meat on the altar, and eventually someone said, “That smells SO good! I wonder what it tastes like!”

      1. Mom, along those lines, the scattered tribes from Babel would have carried much of the food knowledge with them, which explains some of the ‘universals’ that puzzle the anthropologists who don’t care for the diaspora concept of human cultures.

        1. Doug Irvin Avatar
          Doug Irvin

          and have you noticed that the Levitical priests of Israel were told to take the brisket as their portion of a sacrifice, then burn the fat unto God?
          I love it when I can justify barbecuing as a godly pursuit!

    2. One of the other theories is that someone tried an animal that had been killed in a wildfire, and found it tasty. I also suspect that since drying meat has been used to preserve it from time immemorial, that people started using fires to hasten the meat-drying, and wound up with cooking, instead.