MEMORIES OF CONSUMPTION
RENATO REDENTOR CONSTANTINO
September 10, 2007
We have two eyes so we can see more dimensions. Or at least we should.
A decade ago, Cambridge University researchers made the startling assertion that stood history on its head. Based on the work of archaeobotanist Dr. Delwen Samuel, "who specializes in analysing ancient forms of food and drink," it was put forward that it was "alcohol that had convinced the ancients to stop wandering the fertile valleys of the Nile and the Euphrates, and settle down to grow grain." Another expert tells us the "world's first known recipe, on clay tablets, appears to be a method for making beer" which "was very nutritious" and had the effect of making the Mesopotamian brewers feel "exhilarated, wonderful, and blissful."
It's "a perfectly respectable academic theory," said first class beer hunter and renowned author Michael Jackson, winner of Britain's most prestigious award for food and drink writing (the Glenfiddich Trophy) and first recipient of the US-based Institute of Brewing Studies' achievement award.
Beer came first, not bread. (It sounds like ancient wisdom.) In fact, there is even a supposition "that the words bread and brewed have the same origin."
Beginnings and origins are fascinating things, and it's a shame we tend to be less interested in them. "People worry a lot more about the eternity after their deaths than the eternity that happened before they were born," wrote the novelist and ecologist Barbara Kingsolver. "But it's the same amount of infinity, rolling out in all directions where we stand."
Maybe it's because future things are more easily conjured and tamed; we can keep them misty, while starting points tend to upset present reality.
Kingsolver reminds us, for instance, that the earliest evidence of meat eating comes from "East African sites that are less than two million years old." On the face of it, the assertion doesn't seem to pose much of a problem. But then think about it, Kingsolver asks: "Considering that we have been walking upright and approximately human for more than twice that long, carnivory may have been an afterthought."
It certainly puts to question the belief that evolutionary origins of technology lay with hunting and, by common inference, men. As the celebrated anthropologist Adrienne Zihlman noted in the mid-70s, hunting "requires many elements, from tracking and stalking to various techniques of capture that did not appear all at once." Abilities connected with hunting, said Zihlman, including the use of tools like spears, which "grew out of the technology of gathering."
Which means that "meat heroically captured by men" may have been a mere addendum to "plant food patiently gathered by women."
Which brings up the more interesting question of who exactly sat at whatever it was that constituted the head of the table back then, when things began to matter.
Today, people feed on what multitudes hunt, gather and grow -- the abundant things that a handful own.
It's an interesting notion to chew on.
"We are living," according to The Economist, "at the end of food history -- a time when everything is available everywhere."
Rare spices that once commanded exorbitant prices "can now be found in the supermarket," recounts The Economist happily in a review of the book by Kenneth F. Kiple, A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization. It's a fascinating read of what should be obvious. "Tomatoes and maize from the New World, unknown to the Romans ... are now central to Italian cuisine. India is now the biggest producer of peanuts, a South American crop. China is the largest producer of wheat, a Middle Eastern crop, and of potatoes, originally from South America. Brazil dominates the production of coffee, originally from Ethiopia, and of sugar, originally from New Guinea. It is globalisation in a bowl" which, unfortunately, overflows with food in the hands of some but is mostly empty in others.
Today, the world produces enough food to provide normal nourishment to 12 billion people, which is like double the global population. Today, world agriculture produces "more calories per person ... than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase." And in 2006, every five seconds a child starved to death.
It's a rational world.
Most hungry people today live in countries that produce food surpluses. The multi-billion dollar weight-loss industry continues to enjoy outstanding growth alongside a global obesity pandemic. Five million children die from malnutrition every year while "a quarter of all Americans are dieting."
We are told of course this is all as good as it gets. That all that's needed is the magic wand of trade wielded correctly by the enchanted hand of the market. That the economic system works and needs no overthrow; just be patient. That there is no other alternative.
But perhaps it all depends on how you look at things.
We have two eyes so we can see many angles. Or at least we should. #
1. Roger Protz, The Taste of Beer: A Guide to Appreciating the Great Beers of the World (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London: 1998)
2. There is even a theory "that the words bread and brewed have the same origin." See Michael Jackson's Beer (Dorling Kindersley Limited, London: 1998). Jackson passed away last August 30. He was the world's greatest beer writer. The phrase "a perfectly respectable academic theory" is by Jackson and was taken from the article by Kurt Stoppkotte, "Beer brewing paralleled risee of civilization," NationalGeographic.com, 24 April 2001. A toast to difference: although the theory of beer-before-bread has a wide following, it is contested. See a short discussion on the issue by German beer advocate Horst Dornbusch. Dornbusch also has a well-written region-specific background on the drink's history.
3. Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams (HarperPerennial, NYC: 1990)
4. Mairi Macleod, "Female of the species as deadly as the male," The Scotsman.com, 24 February 2007. To find out how many would-be Afterthought-Hunter males had to weigh in and huff and puff at MacLeod's story to show they're, well, males, click here.
5. Barbara Ehrenreich, "The real truth about the female body," Time.com, 8 March 1999.
6. "History on a plate," The Economist, 7 July 2007. The article is based on a review of Kenneth F. Kiple, A Movable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization (Cambridge University Press: 2007)
7. Ibid. For more information on the book, click here.
8. Lisa Schlein, "UN expert says hunger growing worldwide," Voice of America News, 14 June 2007.
9. "Feeding the world -- facts versus fiction," Greenpeace.org.
10. The pain of compulsive eaters is the diet industry's gain: Research firm Marketdata Enterprises estimates that sales of weight-loss programs and products hit $24 billion last year in the US. Steven Finch, "Dieting for dollars: these are boom times for the weight-loss industry. Can the big food companies be far behind?" CNNMoney.com, 1 April 2003.