I love eating! But what is eating exactly? Google defines eating as “put (food) into the mouth and chew and swallow it.” But is that fully correct? Or are we being lied to? Are we lying to ourselves? As a society, we all eat, but do we really understand what it means to eat? Most of all, how has food affected humanity?
When and where did food even begin? Difficult question. Nutrient absorption is mandated for “the lives of people, plants, animals, and all other organisms” says National Geographic; “Nutrients help break down food to give organisms energy” and are integral for every bodily function. Kinda hard to narrow down the start. Of course, people have been eating nuts, berries, and meat for as long as we’d call ourselves humans. However, the preeminent innovation in eating happened roughly 12,000 years ago: agriculture. Setting the temperature for the Neolithic Era, agriculture rendered our hunter-gathering tradition obsolete. No longer did we need to go out with our pointy sticks and stab oversized animals, because agriculture brought sustainability at a consistency hunting and gathering could never achieve. In tandem with animal husbandry, agriculture opened the door for civilization as we know it. Surpassing mere subsistence tillage, farming en masse garners food surpluses, allowing for both the trading of said surplus and expansion into subjects beyond day to day survival. This newfound commerce and subject leniency forms the basis of an economy, introducing material ownership. Ownership requires protections. Protections means laws, and laws means government. Boom, say hello to civilization; food makes civilization.
Food is still important too (brave, I know). But really, I know we like to say the dollar rules everything but we only have the luxury of believing that because most of us have enough to eat. In 2021, 89.8% of US households held food security throughout the year (ers.usda.gov). What if 89.8% of us didn’t? See France in 1789. A rigid hierarchical structure, buckling under the weight of incompetence and bankruptcy galvanized a nation into sprawling conflict. WHAP students may cite wealth disparities and social programming as the crux of the French caste system, but the penultimate feature was food. France had been hit with several poor harvests, and while the poor masses were delegated to meek bread, the rich were eating lavishly; Marie Antoninette’s infamous “Let them eat cake” line in response to the idea of her people starving invoked notoriety for a reason. Anybody who’s watched Oversimplified knows that the worst violence started when the cities ran out of bread (history.com). Food makes violence.
But that’s not all. Food can cause people to kill each other, but it could also bring us together. What do we do when there’s a holiday? We have Halloween—send your children to larp as hunter gatherers and beg for food. We have Thanksgiving—stuff everybody you like/tolerate/don’t like into a room and eat a bunch. We have Christmas—eat things the night before (but in a festive way) then let the jolly bald man come and reverse-steal things that are sometimes food. Beyond American culture, as a species we commune and celebrate through food, with good reason. An Oxford study found that “communal eating increases social bonding and feelings of wellbeing” while promoting a general sense of community. A sense of community can do more for people than just happiness. In reality, social bonding can directly impact life expectancy, says Director Stephan Goetz, professor of regional and agricultural economics at Penn State; “”Places with residents who stick together more on a community or social level also appear to do a better of job of helping people in general live longer” (sciencedaily.com). We can observe this secret-of-the-sauce in action through the life expectancies of people living in Italy, a culture with a deep sense of community and consequently communal eating, versus that of the US, a nation with notoriously declining social capital (societal networks and relationships). In 2020, the average Italian life expectancy was 82.34 years; the US, 77.28 (WorldBank). Food makes community and saves lives.
Additionally, we could directly distinguish the linkage between food and culture. Forget your Nana’s spaghetti or berry pie, we’re talking about centuries of cuisine here. For example: Nettle Pudding. A prime example of both traditional cuisine and British “food,” Nettle Pudding has remained in the English diet since 6,000 B.C.E. (oldest.org). Often, we think of traditional recipes as excerpts of a heritage, but in reality such recipes are hallmarks of historical timelines. When we get to the meat and potatoes of it, these centuries old recipes were baked out of two things: necessity and location. People gotta eat! Before McDonalds and Walmart, average people were restricted solely to readily available resources. Back to Nettle Pudding—the delectable shlop cake’s base ingredients have remained watercress, sorrel, flour, dandelion and nettle leaves, plus chives, all of which are commonplace in Britain (wildlifetrusts.org). It’s why Europeans don’t know what spice is. Spices as bland as pepper and nutmeg aren’t local to Europe, and throughout the bulk of commercial history, spices have posited exuberant prices, reserving the flavorful dust for the elite aristocracies of European courts and dance halls. Thus, we see many European dishes boasting elements like paprika and mustard, as they were relatively local, accessible, and cheap for the masses (TasteAtlas.com). Food makes history.
But what does any of this mean? What timeline does food build? Well, as accessibility changes, so do recipes. While people immigrate and trade paths deviate, the skeleton of traditional recipes remains constant, but varying ingredients alter. Take spaghetti. Boiling it down, the third American immigration wave between 1880 and 1921 brought pasta into America’s zeitgeist with the influx of Italian immigrants. However, there’s an integral difference between American and Italian Spaghetti: the noodles. Italian pasta is kneaded with Mediterranean resident T. aestivum wheat, a softer and whiter variation compared to American All-Purpose wheat (a mix of red and white variations). Consequently, Italian noodles boast less protein, but are softer and generally sweeter than the protein-alicious, hard, bitter American stuff (medium.com). With these seemingly minor distinctions in mind, cultural migration, diaspora, and fusion can be quantifiably traced throughout history. Think of traditional recipes like accents; though they have the same roots, a NYC Italian accent is characteristically different from a homeland Italian accent. Food’s the same way—we can taste the very changing of a culture. Food makes culture.
Okay, so food’s well and dandy, but what about eating? Well, the main goal of eating is nutrient breakdown, providing energy, cell repair, and bodily growth. Once one begins munching and nom-noming down on a delicious grilled cheese sandwich, the food enters the Gastrointestinal Tract (GI Tract). Now, gastrointestinal is a very big and scary word, but the GI Tract itself is just a series of hollow organs that carry out the ingestion process, including the mouth, esophagus, and the small and large intestines (plus the rectum/anus). During a grilled cheese’s journey through the human digestive system, the body breaks down the meal via bodily juices such as saliva, small intestine digestive juice, pancreatic juice, and rile acid. As that ooey gooey grilled cheese disintegrates, more and more food particles breakdown, thus deriving integral molecules such as carbohydrates (sugars, fibers, starches), protein (amino acids), vitamins (handle growth and health), and fats (vitamin absorption). After these base molecules have been isolated, they can be absorbed into the bloodstream and distributed throughout the body (National Institute of Health). Perchance, food makes human bodies.
But why have I gone 1,269 words about food? This OP/ED is honest to God almost as long as my Sophomore SHARP. I keep meandering on because humanity’s relationship with food is just crazy. Literally every other organism on the planet just eats food, but we’ve gone and made a whole thing out of it. Think about it: we don’t just eat food, we buy, sell, grow and cook it; we industrialize and commercialize; go to places to eat it, turn on the TV to watch it, and buy restaurants so we can own it. Civilization, violence, community, history, culture, the human body itself—despite just being a basic function as elementary as breathing, eating food has shaped most every facet of our existence. If we look at our lives through a kitchen’s lens, the desire to and process of eating food is the foundation of human life. Consumption is king.