September 4th is Eat an Extra Dessert Day (one of those fun internet holidays) and it’s also Hunger Action Day, so I’m thinking about food.
Recently someone commented “Why would someone eat that?” about lobsters. “What, looking at a lobster, would make you think, I want that in my mouth?”
The initial response is “hunger”, but the more I think about it, the more I think that cuisine, is closely associated with community. That first man (or woman) who looked at a lobster and said to himself “I’m faster and bigger than that!” probably also was thinking “I might be able to fill up on one of those.” as well as “it’s still alive, so the chances are good it won’t make me sick.”
Most humans have, as they hunt or gather food, someone to tell them, “yes, we eat this berry; no we don’t eat that one”, and “we’ll come back next week; it’s not ripe yet”. Any human who had to actually try different things might find himself curled up on the ground wondering if (and maybe hoping) he’d die from what he ate. That person would have to have been living on his (or her) own, and probably most of those in that situation died without progeny; Darwinian selection means humans select for eating with others. Most would have a grandmother (to teach them how to suck eggs), or a father who’d make smaller versions of his hunting tools, and show the kid how to use them, how to track, and where to look. I think most modern people would get pretty hungry if dumped in the wild without instruction, but at some point you’d get hungry enough to experiment, and “it’s slower than me” starts looming a bit larger than “it looks like other things I’ve eaten”.
A lot of food sources in the wild are not immediately apparent. To dig for a root to eat it has to go back before we were humans. To know that if you look behind, under, or inside something to find the edible bit, requires either someone else showing you, or a great imagination. Cassava, for example, is a staple, but has to be processed before you can safely eat it. Was the first person to do that processing trying to disguise a food everyone knew was poison to get someone else to eat it? trying to make it palatable as a suicide technique? or maybe inspired by a friendly plant spirit on how to get the arsenic out of the starch?
Sharing foods is what humans do. Not just the consumption, but also the procurement and production of food is shared. When we get a group of people, food becomes an integral part of culture. Humans, being humans, do often divide jobs along culturally created lines: gender, age, training, but more than what we wear or what language we speak, we’re defined by what we put in our mouths: what, and how we eat.
The minute food stops being fuel, it becomes something more, at very least a shared experience, at most communion with those around you, with the spirit of the plant or animal, with the universe.