The Cultural Womb
A human being is a cultural sponge. This accounts for much progress in our biology and our society. Change is driven by random mutations and then by imagination, curiosity, and chance.
As the human race began its colonization of the earth, creative eating and cooking, especially cooking, were powerful elements in our strategy for domination. Cooking of meats allowed us to preserve what we hunted and to thaw it out over fire, allowing us to live in frozen parts of the world, storing our resources for later consumption. Diversification of our diet allowed us to free ourselves of geographical restrictions. Humans, the voracious omnivores, adapted to any and all conditions and never looked back. We’ll eat anything, and therefore we can live nearly everywhere. We may seem fragile, but we’re able to survive in the most extreme condition thanks to our willingness to adapt.
Strategies for survival end up as part of the culture. That’s the beautiful dance of cultural evolution. And that’s the key to its success: it’s an evolution. Because that means that each point of its development is useful and worthy, or it would be discarded. We incorporate a local herb into our stew and discover over time whether its good for us. And only those things that work, The Fittest, survive. Our tastes evolve along with the discoveries we make about our environment, (our Terroir). When that evolution is guided by market opportunity, we can end up with horrifying results.
Do you really think that when the miracle of inter uterine bio-luminescence is achieved The Coca Cola company won’t try to co-opt birth itself?
Geophagy and You
Animals are bound to the earth in ways we hardly think about. Parrots lick clay deposits for minerals, and Elephants burrow deep into ponds with their trunks to seek nutrition from soil deposits under them. Humans, too, eat clay and earth, with almost no cultural encouragement. This demonstrates the depth of our relationship with the earth and a natural understanding of our needs. Not liking dirt doesn’t change that. We need it, and our bodies know it.
And, it turns out we don’t need as much Coke and mayonnaise as we thought. “Liking” it doesn’t change that either. Deciding to not like it is where we have to begin.
We need to train our desires, naturally, by the use of our instincts, or unnaturally by the use of our brains.
The first thing our brains can tell us is that we must never listen to food marketers. They don’t want the same things we want.
It’s up to us to design our own tastes.
The Birth of Taste
The first epicure was a protozoa with a simple plan: let some things get through, that’s food, keep some things out, that’s not food. Whatever will nourish that cell is admitted. What’s not good, not nourishing, is rejected. This is perfect ‘taste’. A balanced diet guarantees the survival of the organism
without a lot of wasted effort, but it will also keep the amoeba an amoeba till the end of time.
Curiosity, change, and challenge are important to the development of a species. Humans with our What’s for dinner? spirit, have progressed with a rapidity which must seem pretty impressive to an amoeba.
But at the same time, amoeba’s don’t get fat or have heart attacks, and that may seem pretty impressive to a human.
Michael Pollan notes that humans are the only animal which needs to be taught how to eat, but its not clear that we do. A baby at birth will instinctively float and paddle around in water far better than a three year old. The same is true of feeding. A newborn will go for the breast without much encouragement and then is able to choose a diet, (see below). These abilities disappear if they’re not encouraged, and then lessons become necessary.
The Clara Davis Experiments
Between 1929 and ‘39 pediatrician Clara Davis conducted a series of experiments on the innate capability of humans to self select their diets. In these studies infants were allowed to select their own foods in any quantity they liked. Food was placed in front of them and theywere left alone. A handful of salt for lunch, or bananas for a week if they chose. The study set out to investigate the ‘Wisdom of the body’, the natural ability of the human body to choose the quantity and balance of nutrients from the foods available to them. There was a built-in limiter in the design of the study which was that only a range of healthful foods was presented to the children. The children were not offered excessive sugars or fats, just as in the wild. But, from this sample the choices of the children provided a surprisingly balanced diet. A second important limitation to this experiment was the timing of the meals. Snacking was not an option. Humans are highly prone to eating in response to social occasions rather than hunger. In other words, if it’s there, we’ll eat it. We’re able to regulate our needs to some extent, and there is a certain wisdom of the body, but hunger and cravings are not a reliable guide. The trick, as always is free will. Without social incentives we’re no more likely to self-limit our diet than we’re likely to end war.
So it seems that the result of these experiments is that we really do know what we like. But we don’t seem to know what we don’t like.
FoodInc. likes it that way. Our bodies don’t. That’s the basic conflict in our food culture.
Natural food is natural in ways far beyond the farm; it’s in the rhymes and rhythms of our foods, and in the hidden nature of desire.