There is no denying that hunger is what compels us to eat. However, if functional necessity was all we cared about, why so many rituals, stories, and recipes about food?
Over the following paragraphs, we’ll discover why.
We all learn from an early age that meals are daily rituals that reveal a lot about people.
Mom appreciates when you eat your veggies, grandpa is somehow adamant that “stake will put hair on a real men’s chest,” and your older sister only drinks green juice because she’s on a diet. Small details, and yet, so revealing.
One of my fondest memory of preparing food comes from a childhood recipe called ‘Fake Fried Eggs’, consisting of peach in syrup over whipped frosting. As every good 5-year-old trickster, I bestowed the masterpiece after Sunday lunch, proclaiming:
“I fried eggs yesterday night and kept them cold in the fridge. Everybody to have a bite for dessert!”
Experiencing my family’s look of disgust, followed by surprise and enjoyment, was priceless. To this day, I chase the same positive feelings whenever I cook and eat.
If you are interested in acquiring a lifelong knowledge about people, history, economy, and zeitgeist, one of the best things you can do is to spend a few hours visiting local markets and restaurants while traveling.
What condiments are displayed, what flavors desired, what is considered exotic or chic, what is traditional and unique? And, above all, what the hell do people eat on a day-to-day basis?
When you observe and ask a few questions about dietary preferences and trends, cultural insights acquire a new special flavor.
One universal rule about food is that a secret to a recipe’s success is its palatability.
From what I learned, even though each type of cuisine is a cultural construction influenced by food availability, technology, culinary preference, and history, they all answer to the same five taste receptors on our tongues. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory (also called umami).
If we train our palate enough, we become experts who appreciate the subtleties and richness that exquisite cuisines can offer.
Primatologist Richard Wrangham writes in his book Catching Fire, that an essential factor in human evolution was the shift from raw to cooked foods. Once we started cooking, not only did we learn it softened food and enhanced its flavors but also that it allowed us to spend less time chewing and digesting and more time deploying our new-found energy for exploration.
Cooking provided us with the added value of killing potentially harmful microorganisms while changing our bodies, shortening our stomachs, and modifying our faces and jaws.
That is really cool, if you ask me.
We all know spices are used almost universally throughout the world to enhance flavor, color, and palatability. In fact, you don’t need to be a huge history buff to know spices are valuable and shaped entire societies. Just remember Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus.
Spices come from plants-flowers, roots, stems, seeds, barks, shrubs, and fruits. But wait, there is a special quirk about them you probably didn’t know.
The Antimicrobial Hypothesis
According to the research made by Sherman and Flaxman, spices such as onion, garlic, allspice, and oregano kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms and prevent the production of toxins we eat. To my surprise, their research revealed that
“more spices, and more potent spices, tend to be used in hotter climates, where unrefrigerated food spoils more quickly. […] In the hot climate of India, for example, the typical meat dish recipe calls for nine spices, whereas in the colder climate of Norway, fewer than two spices are used per meat dish on average. ”
Spices are about flavors, health, and climate too.
In short, food is more than satiating hunger. It is a medium that reveals stories about people, what they enjoy, and where they’re from.
I’m a big fan of cooking and using those opportunities to bond and learn about people. Even though we’re not what we eat, what we eat shapes the story of who we are.
Next time you cook or eat something tasteful, rejoice and pay attention. You are taking part in one of our greatest traditions. So why not learn a thing or two?!
Talk to you soon.