The first decade of the millennium may have been a good one for cuisine, but it was a mixed bag in terms of food-related news. At the same time that Americans were expanding and refining their culinary repertoires, nearly every week they were getting new reasons to be fearful about what they ate-whether it was safe, whether it was healthy, and whether it would continue to be available at all.
Many types of food-borne illness actually declined from the mid-1990s to 2004, you wouldn’t know it by watching the news. A series of high-profile contaminatinos by salmonella and other pathogens-in beef, spinach, peanut butter, tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, and cookie dough, to name a few-had people questioning the effectiveness of our food inspection system. And if that wasn’t bad enough, even pets and babies weren’t safe from dangerous substances in their food, although the latter case turned out to be due to a particularly nasty form of human greed.
Probably no other food has had a more turbulent decade than corn. It started the millennium with many touting its use in corn-based ethanol as the fuel of the future, an environmentally friendlier alternative to fossil fuels that would decrease our dependence on foreign oil. No sooner had it begun to be regularly added to gasoline, though, than controversy ensued. Criticism of corn ethanol came from all sides: that it is driving up the prices of other crops, that it is making less farmland available for food, that it is not really that environmentally friendly after all, and that it reduces vehicle mileage, among other things. The debate continues.
We tend to think of health food as a modern invention, but humans have made the connection between food and well-being at least since the beginning of written history-although it’s always been as much a matter of educated guesswork as solid science.
Ancient Greeks believed that good health was dependent on maintaining the balance of the body’s four “humors”-black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood-and that modifications in diet could restore balance if levels got out of whack. Hippocrates, Plutarch and other thinkers wrote books on the relationship between food and health, including Galen’s On the Power of Foods, a title that sounds like it could have been written last year.
Belief in garlic’s health properties was surprisingly widespread in the ancient world: According to legend, the Egyptian pharaohs fed it to their slaves to increase their strength and productivity (imagine the pungent perspiration of those pyramid-builders), and remnants of garlic were found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen. In China it was a part of the daily diet, and prescribed for respiratory and digestive ailments; evidence also suggests it may have been used to treat depression, headaches and male impotency. The herb was an important part of the ancient Greek military diet because it was believed to provide strength for battle, and it was fed to early Olympians before they competed.
Some ancient Greek athletes followed what resembled an early version of the Atkins diet. The Deipnosophists-a 15-volume description of an epic feast that took place around A.D. 200--Â tells of an Olympic runner who won several races while subsisting solely on meat. “This started a meat-only craze.” Some Greek Olympians abstained from eating bread right before a competition, in contrast to the common modern-day practice of carb-loading.
Although the Atkins diet was an unintentional retread of the ancient Greek fad, the last few decades have seen an increased interest in ancient theories of healthy eating, especially traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic diets. The Kemetic Diet, based on ancient Egyptian practices (the name derives from Kamit, the ancient word for the land we now call Egypt).
Good health, as the ancient Egyptians saw it, relies not only on food for the body but food for the soul and mind-a theory that was a precursor to later ideas of holistic medicine. Physical disease is caused by digesting impurities, which must be cleansed through the specific alkaline vegetarian diet outlined in the book (although most ancient Egyptians ate meat). A mainstay of the plan is drinking kamut wheatgrass juice, which comes from an ancient grain, and acts as an “alkaline flush” in the body. Ancient Kamitans were the healthiest people of their time. Of course, they still only had an average life expectancy of 40, so I don’t know how ringing of an endorsement that is.
Medieval concepts of a healthful diet were largely based on theories from antiquity, especially the idea that the body’s four humors, or bodily fluids-blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile-must be balanced through nutrition. It was believed that the humors were connected to the elements and had different properties-for instance, blood was associated with air and considered hot and moist, and phlegm was associated with water and was-Â cold and moist. All foods were classified according to the humor they were thought to affect, and the diet was adjusted according to what fluid was thought to be lacking (or overabundant).
Arab physicians of the middle ages expanded on these ideas by also ascribing to foodstuffs an intensity, from “weak” to “extreme” (Galen, the ancient Greek physician, first described this system of “gradus” but applied it only to medicines, not foods.) Haly Abbas, a medieval Persian author of medical texts, distinguished between “remedial foods” and “pure foods,” the difference being that remedial foods “change the body until the body gains power over them and transforms them into its own nature,” while pure foods “are those which the body changes and transforms into itself.” His list of remedial foods included lettuce, onions and garlic.
One of the most popular books of dietetics was written by a Christian physician in Baghdad, Ibn Butlan, and translated into Latin as Tacuinum sanitatis, or “table of contents of health.” It includes descriptions of the natures and degrees of various foods: cherries are considered cold in the second degree and moist in the third, roasted meat is hot and dry, and veal is hot and moist.
Diet books proliferated in the two centuries after the invention of the printing press, in 1440. “Courtly dietaries,” intended for courtiers who were frequently required to attend lavish banquets, included both advice and recipes but were not very restrictive (some even offered remedies for drunkenness). One 15th century author, Marsilio Ficino, actually advised drinking human blood, writing, “Why shouldn’t our old people, namely those who have no [other] recourse, likewise suck the blood of youth?” This idea did not catch on, it appears.
It wasn’t until the 16th century that diet books began forbidding certain foods, notably cakes and other sweets, that were considered gluttonous. Other foods, like onions, leeks and garlic, were proscribed for (presumably educated) readers-Â because they were “appropriate for barbers and journeymen.” It would be another three centuries before the modern concept of dieting for weight loss took hold.
As one of our most basic needs, it makes sense that food has had such a powerful influence on world history. Early agrarian societies formed around the production of food; they developed social structures that allowed some people to focus on farming and others to work outside of agriculture and which eventually led to stratification of classes and the concentration of power around those who controlled access to food.
Things really get interesting when food moves beyond mere sustenance. The use of spices as flavoring was the next great gastronomically motivated game-changer. Because spices often came from other lands than the ones in which they were enjoyed, whole mythologies formed around their source. In the fifth century B.C., Herodotus (“the father of history”) wrote that cassia, a form of cinnamon, could only be obtained by wearing a full-body suit that protected the wearer from “winged creatures like bats, which screech horribly and are very fierce.” He also wrote that no one knew where the cinnamon actually grew, but that the sticks were “brought to Arabia by large birds, which carry them to their nests, made of mud, on mountain precipices which no man can climb.” The only way to collect the sticks was to cut up the bodies of dead oxen and leave them on the ground near the birds’ nests. The birds would come get the large hunks of meat and bring them to their nests, which couldn’t bear the weight and would tumble to the ground, where the harvesters could gather the fallen cinnamon sticks.
With such wild stories about the origins of spices, it was no wonder that they were so expensive and sought-after. Europeans’ taste for spices led them to begin exploring the planet in search of direct access to the sources. This, of course, led to the discovery of new lands, as well as vast international trade networks through which knowledge and cultures spread. Unfortunately, it also helped spread diseases, like the Black Death in the 14th century.
Food has also played a pivotal role in wars from ancient times to the last century. The most effective weapon in the history of warfare isn’t a sword, a gun or even the atom bomb; it’s starvation. As Napoleon, famously, was reported to have said, “An army marches on its stomach.” The outcome of conflicts, including the American Revolution, often hinged on which side had the better food supply. The importance of food supply to warfare led to the invention of canned food; France offered a prize in 1795 to anyone who could develop a better method of food preservation. The prize was claimed by Nicolas Appert, who experimented with a technique of putting food in airtight bottles and boiling them in water for a period of time. It wasn’t understood how or why this worked until Louis Pasteur’s explanation of pasteurization in the 1860s.
Starvation has also been used as a weapon against whole populations, from Josef Stalin to Robert Mugabe-who, in 2008 was accused of offering food to people in opposition areas only if they gave up the documents they needed to vote. Food continues to be one of the driving forces of politics around the world.
From the origins of agriculture about 11,000 years ago to the spread of Big Macs and Chinese restaurants around the world today, the story of food is also one of globalisation. The emergence of different foods in various parts of the world, and the myriad processes by which they spread, mingled and spawned new offspring, from chilli con carne to the Happy Meal.
It is a fascinating tale. The opening of the Silk Road in the first century BC, for example, meant that knowledge of winemaking passed eastwards from the Middle East to China, while the idea of noodles moved in the opposite direction. And the "Columbian exchange" of foodstuffs between the Old and New Worlds was second in importance in food history only to the adoption of agriculture.
Several themes emerge from the resulting historical casserole. Across time and space, food has always been used to delineate social distinctions, whether in Roman dining rooms or modern gourmet supermarkets. The dividing line between foods and medicines has always been a hazy one. New foods are generally regarded with suspicion, as potatoes were in 18th-century Europe and genetically modified crops are by many people in the 21st.
But today, after ten millennia of food globalisation, we are living at the end of food history - a time when everything is available everywhere. Spices that once commanded exorbitant prices and prompted merchants to invent tall tales to obscure their origins""can now be found in the supermarket. Tomatoes and maize from the New World were unknown to the Romans but 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.
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