Food Culture and Globalization

We live in a globalized world and it takes no stretch of the imagination to picture a traveling businessman having bacon and eggs for breakfast in New York City, a plate of pasta on his layover in Rome, and finishing the day out with a traditional Middle Eastern dinner in Dubai.

 

The world is open to us and that includes the world's vast diversity of flavors and cuisines.

 

There has always been an exchange of food culture and knowledge when two different cultures would meet. From the black pepper trade of the ancient Romans to the introduction of potatoes from the New World into Irish cuisine, new flavors and cooking techniques were often incorporated into cuisines as a way to add a bit of interest.

 

It can often be hard to draw the line between what is truly "traditional" and what parts of a food culture have been influenced by outside forces.

 

Today though, in our incredibly globalized world, it's not just pieces of the cuisine that travel, in the form of ingredients or single recipes, but the entire cuisine as a whole.

 

Immigrants bring their traditional food cultures with them, travelers seek out the flavors they encountered halfway around the globe when they return back home, and even those people who might never leave the borders of their own country seek out a bit of adventure while browsing the "international cuisine" section of their local restaurant guide.

 

 Finding “ethnic” food from around the world is easy in most big cities

 

Food cultures truly have spread to the point where you can now find Mexican restaurants in Northern Thailand, Japanese sushi in the Middle East, and the all-American cheeseburger served up at a street food cart in a small, remote Amazonian city.

 

As our world becomes more and more connected, food culture is no longer tied down to where it originated from and can spread far and wide.

 

While it does seem incredible that you can eat traditional Indian curry while sitting in the middle of someplace like Berlin, it's important that we don't forget that the international foods we eat, no matter how far they have traveled or how much they have become a norm in our communities, have their own "cultural DNA."

 

It is far too easy for us to forget this point and to strip the cuisines of their true history.

 

We must remember where our food has come from, not just physically by tracing back to the farms where the produce was grown, but culturally by acknowledging the generations of people who developed and perfected the cuisines.

 

When you appreciate a food's cultural DNA as much as you appreciate its basic flavors, you honor the people who created it.

 

When you don't appreciate it, you run into problems and risk "culturally whitewashing" the cuisine.


As we encounter new cuisines, it is easy for trends to develop, driving interest to certain cuisines in particular.

 

Mexican restaurants seem to be found in every city in North America, no matter how small, and the sushi craze has made Japanese cuisine one of the most profitable restaurant categories.

 

However, as trends drive money, it is easy for a food's cultural DNA to be overlooked in an effort to turn a profit. 

 

 How authentic is the sushi or international cuisine found in major cities of the world?

 

In New York City, it is estimated that 85% of all the Japanese restaurants are owned and run by non-Japanese chefs and owners. This trend has caused, in many cases, a loss in the authenticity of the cuisine. How "authentic" do you really think that spicy tuna roll is?

 

In an effort to benefit from the Japanese trend, other Asian cuisines are even being relabeled "Japanese" to grab customer's interest. There have been cases of Korean or Chinese restaurants passing themselves and their dishes off as Japanese, hoping to join the Japanese food bandwagon.

 

Japan has started to take notice of this and, in an effort to preserve the authenticity of their cuisine abroad, have opened up new work visas aimed specifically at training foreign chefs in the TRUE art of Japanese cuisine.

 

Even when a food's cultural DNA is left intact and when the dishes remain authentic, it can be hard for a cuisine to stay true to its roots halfway around the world from where it was born.

 

While true, authentic Mexican restaurants can be found all over the world, the food has often lost its local heritage. Mexico is a large country and each region has its own unique dishes but when you transfer the cuisine as a whole, say to China, you often lose this regional diversity.

 

A burrito is a burrito, a taco is a taco - at least to people who have not had much experience with Mexican cuisine. The subtle differences between the Northern and Southern Mexican flavors, or the uniqueness of each community's mole, is forgotten and overlooked.

 

Recipes are boiled down to the bare basics of each dish and the real diversity of the cuisine is lost.


Despite the difficulty of preserving a food's cultural DNA as it travels, we can at least preserve the cuisine back home, where it was born, right?

 

Well, here globalization takes another swipe at the efforts to preserve the uniqueness and diversity of the world's cuisines. Globalization inevitably brings with it corporate capitalism and, as most of the power of corporations lies in the West, Westernization.

 

 Traditional foods and recipes are being replaced by multinational food imports

 

We are happy to take cuisines and spread them around the globe - the unique flavors and ingredients grab people's attention, increasing profits.

 

This is a one way street though in many places.

 

International cuisines brought in by foreign corporations are marketed as new, interesting, and different while at the same time traditional cuisines are marketed as old, tired, and often times less healthy or simply too time-consuming to prepare.

 

Despite the fact that sushi and Japanese food has taken over as a much-loved global cuisine, recent studies in Japan have found that many school children there are more easily able to identify hamburgers and pizza vs. traditional Japanese dishes.

 

In Bolivia, as corporations buy up all the quinoa crops to import to health-conscious consumers in the United States or Europe, Western products are now being marketed to local Bolivians as healthier, tastier, and more importantly, as luxury goods.

 

Globalization has opened up the vast diversity of food cultures around the world. Many international cuisines can no longer even be called foreign in the major cities of the world, with endless options from Peruvian food trucks in New York City to Michelin-starred French restaurants in Hong Kong.

 

This shift, from local to global food, is impacting not only what we eat but how to define and understand our own food cultures.

 

There may come a point where food cultures have blended and overlapped so much that finding their roots, their cultural DNA, is impossible.

 

Before that happens, let us appreciate and remember the people who gave us these delicious cuisines, the cultures whose chefs have, over generations, perfected the flavors and techniques of their recipes, and the communities who have openly shared their unique food with the world.

 

Food Culture and Conflict

Our world, though a beautiful place, has constantly been plagued with conflict.

 

The human mind, capable of so much good and kindness, is also capable of unspeakable cruelty. From war to genocide to the forced displacement of marginalized people, conflict is, unfortunately, something the majority of the human race has or will be impacted by.

 

Though it is easy to see the physical damage of conflict on our world and to understand the cost in terms of human life, conflicts often have a more subtle and long lasting effect on the culture of the people involved.

 

Today you can read headlines of terrorist groups destroying ancient monuments, an attempt to literally rewrite their history.

 

In the not too distant past in the United States, Native American children were taken from their homes and placed in government schools in an attempt to eliminate the passing on of their culture's traditional customs and ways of living.

 

It has been said that when one man dies, it is devastating to those who knew him, but when a culture is destroyed, you are destroying the memory of all the people who ever contributed to that vast collective cultural knowledge.

 

 Conflict and war have serious effects on traditional ways of life and culture


Unfortunately, one of the first aspects of a culture to disappear in times of conflict is food culture.

 

It makes sense. When people are fleeing for their lives or starving in a detention camp, they aren't really concerned with what they have to eat, so long as it feeds them.

 

People are also able to more quickly adjust to a new diet. Take away a culture's language, by say forbidding it, and people will be much more likely to fight the change. Tell people they have to eat a new diet and you will likely see no serious resistance.


You see this every day in refugee camps and among displaced people.

 

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is the largest humanitarian organization addressing hunger and food security in the world. It is often on the front lines of conflict regions, helping in refugee camps and feeding the victims of conflicts.

 

They address hunger with food baskets, that while truly lifesaving, are pretty standard regardless of the region being impacted. The food baskets consist of staples like wheat flour, rice, or corn and additional items like lentils or chickpeas that provide high-calorie intake along with essential nutrients.

 

The problem is that conflicts are very rarely a short-term problem and many of the people being fed by these nonprofit food organizations will have to rely on their help for weeks, months, and even sometimes years.

 

Children grow up in refugee camps, eating only what is given in the food baskets and a few items that might be grown by the refugee community in the camp or bought from local farmers.

 

 Nonprofit programs help feed refugees but often supply non-traditional foods

 

It can be hard to see the issue but I'd ask you to imagine an Italian child in a situation like this. Imagine him growing up far from home in a refugee camp, never tasting pasta, pizza, tomatoes, or parmesan cheese?  Sure, the child might grow up healthy and happy but he will have lost out on an important part of his culture's identity.

 

Even if the conflict were to end and the people to return home, a whole generation would have been impacted.

 

Just because someone doesn't end up in a refugee camp or reliant on a food organization like the WFP doesn't mean they too won't suffer the effects of conflict on their cultural identity.

 

Displaced people are often stranded far from home, in lands unfamiliar to them.

 

Farmers, if they manage to get some land, will often find they can't grow their traditional crops - whether because the climate is incompatible or the market for the produce nonexistent. Traditional recipes are thrown out the door as finding the ingredients can be practically impossible.

 

Refugees that manage to settle in Western countries are often "encouraged" to adapt to the new community. Many immigrant children have stories of being shamed in school for bringing "weird food" and find it is easier to just "adapt," even if it is at the expense of losing a part of their cultural identity.


Of course, in times of conflict there are things more important than insuring refugees and displaced people have access to their traditional foods. Preserving life is the number one goal.

 

However, we must realize that even a temporary stress on a person's cultural identity can have long term effects on a community.

 

In one generation, cultural traditions, developed over millennia can be forgotten and lost. Food culture, an easily overlooked part of a society's cultural makeup can be lost even faster, simply because it is given so little importance.

 

 Even when conflicts end, there is a long-term effect on the culture of the people involved


Conflicts can end, refugees can return home, but will they still find it as home?

 

Native American children, taken from their communities for "schooling" returned home years late, unable to speak their native language, ignorant of their community's religious traditions, and having missed out on learning all the unique knowledge of their people.

 

Today, Native Americans are still trying to find their place in the old traditions and to recover the lost knowledge. This includes the cultural knowledge of food - rediscovering the indigenous ingredients their ancestors would gather, recreating the recipes their great grandmothers would make, and understanding the once forgotten culinary traditions of their people.

 

Every time there is conflict, these are things at risk of being lost forever.

 

There is a lack of understanding of the importance of preserving a marginalized or refugee community's cultural identity.

 

If you hope to give people the chance to fully recover from conflict and return to their homes to rebuild, you have to realize that preserving who they are, as members of a unique cultural community, is just as important as preserving their life.

 

Just as we can't allow physical genocide, we also shouldn't stand for cultural genocide and the unnecessary destruction of a people's cultural identity.

 

Each community on our planet has something to contribute to the complex diversity of human existence, from their religious practices to their culinary traditions, and all must be treated as valuable and precious. 

Food Culture and Climate Change

Climate change - it is the buzzword of our century. Politicians argue about its existence, scientists argue about its severity, and businessmen argue about the costs associated with both tackling it and not.

 

Climate change has the potential to affect human society on a grand scale, everything from how we travel to what we eat.

 

In the most likely of cases, we will learn to adapt, just as our ancestors did during the last ice age. Our adaptability is the key to our survival but it is not alarmist to also note that such adaptations might come at a great human cost.

 

How many people on our planet go hungry every day, in a time when crops are plentiful and when we feel no shame in throwing out a full 1/3 of all food produced?

 

What will happen when climate change starts causing serious stress to our food sources?

 

When food sources become unreliable, how many more will be left hungry?

 

Already the change in temperatures globally is having an effect on food sources through unpredictable weather patterns.

 

Heat waves in normally tepid climates can kill off delicate crops, unseasonably late frosts often destroy sprouting plants, and stronger than usual storms - from hurricanes to tornados - can ruin a whole season’s harvest.

 

When farmers are unable to reliably plant, grow, and harvest, food shortages become unavoidable.

 

 Changing weather patterns can have a serious effect on food sources

 

In the low farming regions of Southeast Asia, sea-level rise has caused flooding and a long term effect on the salinity of local water sources.

 

The result is that rice no longer grows in vast stretches of local farmland, poisoned by the high levels of salt in the water and soil. Rice farmers are adapting, switching to shrimp farming in many cases, but the loss of such an important staple crop is having a serious effect on the local community.

 

Regions of the world once known for their perfect growing climates, plentiful rain, and rich soil are experiencing droughts more severe than ever before in recorded history.

 

Water rights and disputes are pitting farmer against farmer, rancher against rancher. We are having to change what we eat as food prices on crops, especially those requiring large quantities of water to grow, skyrocket.

 

There may come a time when there simply isn't enough water and we will either watch these regions shrivel up and die or we will have to start getting seriously more selective on what we grow - not based on what we like to eat but on what grows well in drought.

 

In other regions of the world, climate change seems to be having an almost positive effect.

 

Farmers in Greenland, who in the past were lucky to harvest a few potatoes and turnips out of each summer’s short growing season are now enjoying longer, warmer summers. Unheard of in the past, you can now find locally grown strawberries, tomatoes, and even lettuce.

 

 Warming temperatures are having both positive and negative effects on Nordic food

 

That’s not the whole story though.

 

At the same time as Greenland farmers celebrate their first harvests of strawberries, many of the indigenous communities of the far north are suffering through substantial changes to their traditional food culture.

 

Ice melt has drastically changed the way indigenous tribes hunt and fish, affecting a large part of their traditional diets. Harvest seasons are coming too early and with the thawing permafrost, gathered vegetables, grains, and seeds are spoiling sooner as the traditional preservation method - ice cellars - become impossible.

 

Add to that the opening of the Arctic to commercial interests - with newly ice-free shipping lanes and access to new oil drilling locations - and even in the far North, a warmer, longer summer doesn't look so good.

 

As our climate becomes more unpredictable, as droughts, floods, and famines drive people from their homes, we will also begin to see a growing humanitarian crisis - climate refugees.

 

Just as people flee war and violence, so will people flee starvation and hunger.

 

Even if regions of the world are able to adapt well to the changing climate, they will inevitably be faced with the desperate migration of people from less fortunate regions.

 

How we handle and care for our starving neighbors will likely be the measure by which our society is judged by future generations.

 

Despite what some politicians might hope to believe, climate change is happening, and as we speak it is subtly changing food cultures around the globe.

 

At this point, damage has already been done and will continue to ripple through the food system, from how we farm to what we eat. There is little we can do to fix the damage already done and even if we, as a world, take serious action on climate change now, some changes are simply too far along to reverse at this point.

 

 Climate refugees will only increase as climate change effects global food sources

 

While we might not be able to stop the effects of climate change on food culture immediately, we should be studying the changes as they happen now.

 

Traditional food cultures are being slowly destroyed and this loss in knowledge could be devastating to our species if we are able to survive this change in our global climate.

 

Today, traditional food cultures are growing and using heirloom seeds that might be the key to crop survival in flood-prone regions.

 

Farmers in small villages in Africa are still using techniques, passed down for generations, that help crops survive severe drought.

 

Grandmothers, in indigenous communities around the globe, still remember what foods they were able to gather from the forest when their crops failed and the children were crying out in hunger.

 

All this knowledge is what has kept the human species strong and thriving across the millennia.

 

The Westernization of the global food landscape is slowly destroying this traditional knowledge but with climate change putting more stress on the human species globally than ever before, this is the knowledge we need to be cultivating.

 

We survived the last ice age and climate change will not likely be the end of the human race anytime soon.

 

How well we adapt, how well we feed and ensure the survival of all 7+ billion people on the planet though - that could very well come down to how much we value and preserve the unique traditional food cultures all around us.

 

How Our Adaptive Diets Let Us Conquer the World

What has made the human species so different, so able to conquer the world?

 

From the deep Amazonian jungles to the icy landscapes of Northern Europe to the harsh Sahara desert, human civilizations have survived and thrived in regions as different as possible.

 

And yet, we all evolved out of the same ancestors; those early humans who had the will and the curiosity to walk out of Africa and spread themselves literally around the globe.


As our ancestors encountered new environments, the main key to our survival was our species' ability to quickly and successfully adapt.

 

These changes occurred physically, mentally, and culturally. Northern climates taught humans to sew and wear thick animal skins. Harsh desert climates required that we become experts at finding, collecting, and storing water.

 

But it was our ability to adapt our diet that truly gave us the keys to the world.

 

Some animal species have evolved to perfectly survive in their limited habitat. Pandas are a great example, an animal whose diet is almost exclusively bamboo. Take a panda and drop it in the middle of a lush bamboo-free jungle and it would starve, despite being surrounded by edible plants.

 

Humans, on the other hand, will eat practically anything edible if they are hungry enough.

 

 Diversity of foods eaten around the world

 

It is not just our love of food as a whole that has protected us and given us free reign on the planet. Our bodies have also adapted perfectly to each region of the world's unique food landscapes.

 

Fans of trend diets, like the raw-food diet or the Paleo diet, like to point out that humans have evolved very little in the last 10,000 years, since the rise of the agricultural era.

 

That is true, however -

 

Subtle and important changes have occurred in the human species in the last 10,000 years.

 

These adaptations are directly in response to our changing diets and our spread to new and more challenging environments.

 

Our ancestors in Africa were almost entirely lactose intolerance and yet, within just the last few thousand years, a genetic mutation has evolved that allows some humans to continue breaking down dairy after childhood. This adaptation is found throughout Europe and other regions of the world where animal herding was common.

 

A new food source, animal dairy, meant that humans could survive and thrive in more difficult environments. This genetic mutation is not however as common in Native Americans or East Asian populations, who didn't rely on a diet so tied to raising and herding animals.


Another great example is the bacteria living inside of us.

 

The ability to break down food sources and absorb their nutrients is highly tied to the "helpful" bacteria present in the human gut. While human evolution and genetic changes happen slowly, these bacteria are much quicker to change and evolve.

 

As our human ancestors moved around the globe, they quickly adapted to their new diets thanks to the bacteria inside of us all.

 

Studies have shown that the indigenous of Northern Canada, Greenland, and Alaska have gastrointestinal systems more capable of breaking down fats, a large part of their hunting based diet.

 

Children tested in both West Africa and in Southern Africa are found to have gut bacteria that optimizes the digestion of high fiber food staples found in their traditional diets. 

 

 Ancient cultures worshipped gods of the sun and rain to ensure bountiful crops

 

Beyond the physical adaptations, humans have also adapted to their various food environments culturally.

 

The earliest agricultural communities worshiped gods of the harvest season and gods of rain, worshipping to ensure a consistent and plentiful food supply.

 

During the deep cold winters of the Northern Hemisphere, early humans were able to survive not by hibernating or migrating south but by learning to preserve their food and stockpiling for the winter.

 

Across the globe and across human history, cultures and communities tended to develop around the dominant crop of their region, that which was easiest to grow, high in caloric intake, and plentiful.

 

In Mexico corn was more than just a food staple, it was the symbol of the Mayan culture. Ancient Egyptian tombs are decorated with images of wheat harvests, side by side with the images of their gods. In the East, rice became such an important part of society that at some points it was even used as currency.

 

In addition to adapting our physical bodies and cultures to new food environments, we also adapted our food environments to better fit us.

 

Over thousands of years, we have bred and changed key ingredients in our diets, from their wild roots to the modern versions we find today.

 

Modern chickens produce more eggs, cows more milk, the corn we eat now is much larger than the wild varieties our ancestors first found, and almost all the fruits we consume today are significantly sweeter than their wild counterparts.

 

We found edible plants everywhere we roamed on earth and once settled, began to perfect them for human consumption.

 

 Diversity of foods grown around the world

 

To claim there is one "true" human diet, one diet that is best for our species, is missing the point entirely.

 

Humans have adapted to new foods from the very beginning and have continued to do so as they traveled and settled in every corner of the world.

 

That is the true human diet - the diet of diversity, of change, of adaptability, and of survival.

 

Today, in our modernized world, as we rush to urbanization, as we idealize the Western diet, as massive food corporations start to dominate around the globe, the human “diet” is at its most vulnerable.

 

Adaptations that have taken thousands of years to cultivate are being lost in a matter of one generation. The problem is that the information being lost might just hold the keys to our long-term survival as a species.


Diversity goes hand and hand with adaptability.

 

Diversity in our food sources, in what foods we grow, in what foods we know how to cook, in what foods our bodies are adapted to digest - this is what ensures the human species survives, even if one food source or another is lost.

 

We are losing the diversity that has protected us for millennia, at the same time as serious risks, like climate change, affect our world.

 

Add to that growing evidence that the Western diet probably isn't that good for us anyway - i.e. diabetes, heart disease - and there might come a time when we wish we hadn't tossed out so much cultural knowledge on what our distant relatives ate.

 

We will adapt, as we always have, but why not have a few thousand years of human ingenuity, knowledge, and cultural adaptations to turn to for a bit of help?

 

Beyond Heirloom Seeds and Into the Kitchen

The human diet has evolved over millennia - from our early days as hunter-gathers to our first steps into the agricultural era to today where the industrial revolution has drastically changed what we eat and how it is grown.

 

While for most of history this change was slow, in response to environmental changes or our migration to new climates, the last 100 years has seen changes in our food systems on such a scale as our ancestors could never have imagined.


Since the early 1900s, it has been estimated that farmers have lost around 75 percent of the crop diversity they use to have. In addition, wild food foraging has become an almost forgotten skill, dropping the number of wild plant varieties we eat as well.

 

Combined, the true loss of food diversity in the human diet has been estimated at closer to 90 percent and today a full 75 percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species.

 

Thankfully, we have begun to realize the danger of relying on mass monocultures and limited seed varieties.

 

From the Russian Vavilov Research Institute to the "Doomsday" Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, millions of dollars are now being funneled into seed preservation and research.

 

On a more local level, heirloom seed enthusiasts are preserving their own regions' natural diversity through small seed banks, community seed exchanges, and even the growing diversity seen in local farmers' markets.

 

 Heirloom seeds should be saved to protect food diversity

 

There is another side to food preservation though, beyond the farmers' fields and into the kitchens of those people who feed the world.

 

When we discuss a 75-90 percent loss in food diversity, we aren't just talking about seeds.

 

The loss in diversity has also come in the form of lost recipes and forgotten food traditions.

 

Each of those plant varieties lost from farmers' fields had a strong cultural connection that disappeared as well. 

 

Think of a simple red tomato. To a farmer, it is just a tomato but to a cook, it is the key to a recipe, a recipe that has its own cultural meaning and history. Give a tomato to a Mexican chef or to an Italian chef and you will get drastically different results.

 

We can work to preserve the ingredients, the seeds, the tomatoes, but without the cultural knowledge, the recipes, and the culinary traditions to match... we will never be able to understand or preserve the whole picture.


Seed preservation is extremely important but we can not forget that both the farmer and the cook need to have a voice in what and how seeds are preserved.

 

When the farmer or biologist is given the task of collecting the "most valuable and important seed varieties" you will find seeds are often saved based on how well they grow in different climates, how much they can produce per acre of growing space, and how unique they are.

 

Ask a chef or the family cook to complete the same task and you will find seeds saved based on flavor, based on how nutritious they are for the loved ones being fed, and based on the cultural and emotional connects they invoke. 

 

 Traditional farmers preserve food diversity through heirloom seeds

 

Ask a chef in Mexico if it is necessary to preserve the 600th variety of heirloom corn and you will get a strong - Yes! - but ask an Italian chef if a unique truffle variety is more important and you will no doubt be told it is an insult to cooking not to save the truffle.

 

Seed preservation must take into consideration the voices of the people who use the products, as well as the farmers who grow them.

 

They are two sides of the same coin, two voices of the same soul.


While today millions of dollars are spent to preserve seeds in deep storage, frozen in the far north or in underground bunkers, the truth is that this is not preservation but simply storage.

 

To truly preserve the diversity of the human diet, we must encourage the diversity of seed varieties being actively grown and consumed. It matters not how many unique varieties of potatoes you preserve if cooks aren't using them.

 

By preserving seed variety in the here and now, not just in deep storage, we are also preserving the cultural food knowledge and recipes attached to them.

 

There is a movement in the heirloom seed sphere to encourage plant varieties by working with chefs to develop new and interesting ways to use them. It is thought that when a chef "promotes" a new product, a new market will be created for it, and farmers will have an incentive to grow a wider variety of foods.

 

The truth though is that every heirloom seed variety out there has its own unique cultural history and at one point there were no doubt many recipes that called for the heirloom variety. In many places of the world, these recipes have been all but lost though.

 

 Preserving heirloom seeds through the promoting of heirloom recipes

 

While modern chefs can contribute to the rebirth of heirloom seed and forgotten crop varieties, we must also acknowledge that the work has already been done for us in many cases.

 

While crop diversity has drastically changed in the last 100 years, there are many people still alive today that remember the old recipes or have old family recipes hidden among their modern cookbooks. We must seek out and ask for this knowledge before it is truly lost forever.

 

In places where crop diversity hasn't yet been so drastically reduced, we must also aim to preserve the unique culinary traditions and recipes of the people.

 

In Brazil, famous chefs like Alex Atala have begun to use wild yucca and other native Amazonian plants to draw in crowds at their award winning restaurants.

 

While the publicity is good for the survival of the plant varieties, it is ultimately not about how many chefs can come up with creative and inventive uses for heirloom plant varieties but how many people in these local communities still buy and cook with the ingredients.

 

They are the true consumers that will keep the variety alive in their local communities, beyond the quickly changing trends and tastes of the restaurant world.


The fact that millions of dollars are being devoted each year to seed banks and preserving plant varieties is an incredible thing. These seed banks could well be the key to preserving the human species through climate change or the breakdown of our monoculture food systems.

 

However, if we can devote millions of dollars to seeds and plants -

 

Should we not be putting at least some effort into preserving the thoughts, recipes, and knowledge of the people who have developed, used, and perfected these seed varieties over generations?

 

Let us move beyond the fields and into the kitchens, while there is still something worth preserving.

 

The Modern Destruction of Food Culture

Not that long ago, when mankind was more connected to the land and to his place in the world, local food was a truly unique part of each community's culture. New ingredients might be introduced and new food traditions developed but in general, each region of the world had recipes and a food culture as unique as the languages they spoke.

 

Food has always been an important part of one's identity. Like learning your mother tongue, children learn to eat and like the foods of their society. People celebrate and take pride in their local recipes and food traditions.

 

Even as people move across the world, they take their recipes with them. You can get great Indian food in London and Japanese immigrants have created a whole subsection of Peruvian cuisine.

 

Unlike some other elements of society though, food culture has always been very flexible.

 

Incorporating new elements is normal, whether that be new ingredients or new ways of cooking.

 

Irish food without potatoes seems impossible but the rather new ingredient was actually incorporated into many older Irish recipes rather than just replacing part of the food culture completely. The introduction of spices like pepper to Europe created new ways to preserve and cook foods but the recipes developed were still uniquely European.

 

 The important role of culinary heritage in preserving food diversity

 

Early anthropologists like Margaret Mead saw these differences in the traditions and rituals around food as important parts of a society's culture.

 

While you could introduce new ingredients and other elements into a community, it really was nearly impossible to change the overall diet of the society on a deeper level.

 

It is easier to change a man’s religion than his diet.
— Margaret Mead

Italian food is Italian food despite the fact that it has a huge reliance on the rather newly introduced New-World tomato. Just because a new ingredient was added, that didn't mean that they suddenly started making Mexican salsa.

 

The study of food culture has never been about preserving food and recipes in a time capsule. Just like the ingredients used, food culture is alive in its own way and changes slowly but constantly.

 

The goal of studying food and food culture is to notice this change, take record of the old, and embrace the new.

 

The problem? Food culture has begun to change on a major, global scale - much faster than ever before - and it is just no longer true that a man's diet is harder to change than his religion.
 

The advancements of the human race in the last 100 years has been astounding. No longer do societal changes happen on a century scale but rather a decade or even yearly level. A lot of this modernization has come from the West creating the massive force that it Westernization.


In the past, explorers, traders, and missionaries introduced new cooking ideas and food products to cultures they encountered. Some of the ideas would be taken in by the community, others tossed out.

 

It was a matter of evolving and changing. Today, food culture is no longer just being influenced by Western society though, it is being destroyed.


Cash Crops and the Physical Destruction of Local Food Culture

 

 Traditional farming vs industrialized cash crop and monocrop farming

 

In the past, people tended to grow what they would eat and could use. A farmer would grow some extra crops to sell but nearly everything on his land was still something he and his community could use.

 

Cash crops - like corn, tobacco, wheat, and rice - have always had a place in farming communities but the modern scale of these operations is no longer something that can sit side by side with the traditional farmer.

 

There are places in the world where you could literally drive for miles and miles and come across nothing but fields of the same cash crop.

 

In the developing world, often these crops are not even something the local community would use or eat. Imagine acres of wheat grown in a society that has always been rice based - it is clear that money drives this development rather than the local food culture.

 

Add to that the fact that many of these cash crops are grown on massive farms bought up by foreign companies that have no concern for the ways their crops might be damaging local soil, driving out local farmers, and taking away land that was traditionally used to grow crops people in these communities might actually use.

 

The result?

 

Communities that use to produce nearly all their own food now must buy imported Western food or find a way to eat these new cash crops. Either way, their own unique food culture is quickly disappearing and their old recipes being thrown out to be replaced by foreign recipes that take advantage of the new, dominant crops and food sources.


Another example - a local food source suddenly becoming a cash crop and being sold away from the community.

 

In the high Andes of South America, quinoa has been an important part of the local food culture for generations. They even have myths and legends of their ancestors literally being born from the quinoa plant.

 

Today though, vast amounts of the quinoa grown in the region is being bought up by foreign companies, causing local prices for the grain to rise, and leading many local communities scrambling to replace this important part of their food culture with something else.


The “Luxury” Food Market and The Role of Multinational Food Corporations

 

 Traditional foods vs foods imported by multinational food corporations

 

With food landscapes and the food culture of many regions around the world changing on a physical level - with different crops being planted and prices for region foods skyrocketing - there is also a simultaneous, deliberate marketing effort to change the world’s food cultures on an emotional level.

 

In the past, food cultures would change slowly as outside influences were added. These outside influences came from individual travelers, immigrants, and even corporations.

 

However, while the powerful food and trade companies of the past, like the East India Company or the Dutch West India Company, were able to make incredible fortunes by fundamentally changing food cultures around the globe, these companies had nowhere near the power or control multinational food companies have today.

 

The most powerful message international food companies use is the idea of “luxury” foods.

 

As developing countries gain more stable and profitable economies, large (usually Western-based) corporations are seizing the chance to earn a new market.

 

How do you sell something like an apple flavored candy though to someone who has never even seen or tried an apple?

 

This is the problem many Western food corporations are facing in these new markets. Their solution? To present their products, backed by the power of millions of dollars in advertising funds, as the “luxury” option.


The perfect example?

 

Poor farmers in South America, now earning a better living selling their quinoa to Western markets, are being sold the idea that a father who provides for his family and loves his children, should treat them to “luxury” imported food products.

 

The same companies exporting the quinoa have begun importing these “luxury” Western stables - everything from soda to US raised beef.

 

In effect, the money they are putting into the local economy through the purchase of quinoa crops is being taken right back out as they heavily market and sell their “luxury” imported foods.

 

Quinoa has become too expensive for many poor locals to buy and now, even the farmers growing it are cutting it out of their diets in favor of “luxury” imported foods.

 

What kind of affect will this have on the local food culture?  On the children of these farmers?  On the future food landscape of these communities?

 

The local food culture is being stressed on all sides and changing on such a rapid scale that recipes passed down for generations risk disappearing altogether in just a few short years.


Why the Rapid and Massive Destruction of Food Culture Matters

 

 What we can learn from traditional recipes and culinary traditions

 

As we said before, food culture is extremely fluid and always changing. The problem is not the change of these unique food cultures, but the speed at which it is occurring.

 

In some cases, this change is happening so rapidly that over as little as one generation there is an almost genocidal destruction of a culture's unique food heritage.

 

Food culture will always change but without the opportunity to record and observe these changes over multiple generations and across decades, we risk losing vital parts of who we are as individuals, as unique cultures, and as a human species.


Food culture contains a great deal of a society's knowledge.

 

As mankind spread across the globe, billions of people have over hundreds of generations discovered how to survive in each of the planet’s unique ecosystems.

 

It is not scientists discovering the next new superfoods but cultures who have eaten them for generations finally sharing that knowledge with the world. The preservation of foods through pickling did not come about because of a corporation’s desire to better deliver food to distant customers but from necessity and the ingenuity of the people who settled harsh lands with long, winters.

 

With changing climates and loss of biodiversity, this vast encyclopedia of knowledge could literally be the key to our survival as a species.

 

Who know’s what the next “superfood” discovery might do for the study of cancer or what farming techniques might save the drought-stricken farmlands of California?

 

Preserving this knowledge is a matter of ensuring our future.

 

 Preserving heirloom seeds, ingredients, and recipes


Loss of this cultural food knowledge - what to eat, how to grow it, how to prepare or preserve the ingredients - directly leads to the loss of biodiversity.

 

As people stop eating the foods of their ancestors, they stop growing it, they stop buying it, and the market for it dries up.

 

A great example is the corn industry in the United States. There was a time when hundreds of varieties of corn grew in the United States. Today, an estimated 90% of all the fruit and vegetable varieties of the US have vanished and you would be lucky if you could even track down a dozen types of corn still commonly grown in the country.

 

Loss of biodiversity puts us all at risk of food shortages due to climate change, plant diseases, and stronger pests who specialize their attacks to the few varieties of crops still grown commercially around the world.


In the end, it is this loss of knowledge and diversity that threatens us the most.

 

We lose the plants and animals our species has come to rely on as food sources.

 

We lose cultural knowledge on not only what is safe or most healthy to eat but also how to grow, harvest, and use these resources.

 

We lose the stories and traditions that make up our unique societies, creating a more bland world and eliminating the insights that come from different ways of thinking and understand the world.


Diversity is what has helped mankind survive and thrive on this planet.

 

Having a diverse source of ingredients, recipes, and culinary traditions to pull from makes us stronger as a species.

 

We can not let corporate greed, mega cash crop farms, or our own desire for the “luxury” items of our neighbors destroy what hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and human ingenuity have created.

 

The Role of Food in Human Culture

There are many things that set mankind apart from the animal world - our minds have allowed us to develop civilization, create incredible technology, and literally change the face of our planet.

 

With all the advances of the human race, we often forget that our uniqueness in the animal kingdom goes back even further and deeper, back to the very roots of our existence and to one of our most basic needs - food.

 

The human relationship with food is truly unique - from our ancestors first cooking food to today where we are literally changing food on a molecular level.

 

Beyond the technological relationship we have with food, humans are also unique in our emotional connection with food. In the rest of the animal kingdom, food is by and large simply a matter of providing nutrients to one's body. Animals eat out of instinct.

 

Humans, on the other hand, see food as so much more than just a nutritional need. In fact, we often use food in a destructive way - overeating and eating unhealthy foods - which negatively impacts our bodies instead.

 

For humans, food seems to sit on an emotional level first before being an instinctive need.

 

Mindless eating is a term used negatively in our world but when you stop to think about it, isn't that what most animals do? Why must we be mindful when eating?

 

The answer lies in humankind's deep connection with food. It is not just about mindless eating - it is about preparing, creating, discovering, exploring, inventing, and changing our food and food landscape. The role of food in human culture truly does separate us from our animal relatives.

 

 Human connection with food vs our animal relatives

 

Part of our connection with food does come from our primitive animal brain. Having a strong desire and connection with food makes seeking it out a priority. Food is, of course, a necessity and anyone who has given a dog a treat understands that animals too get satisfaction and joy out of eating.

 

For humans though, it goes further.

 

Food is Love

 

We don't just use food to satisfy our own needs but to show an emotional connection with others. From mother's first milk to our grandmother's homemade stew, food is a way we connect and show love for others.

 

You know a relationship is getting serious when your partner invites you over for a home-cooked meal. When a neighbor or friend suffers a loss, we bring them casseroles and soups. When a best friend is dumped, we rush over with ice cream and cookies.

 

Preparing and sharing food with people you love solidifies the connection you have.

 

Food is Memory

 

Because we apply so much emotional importance to food in the moment, it only makes sense that it would also become an important part of our memories.

 

Studies have shown that humans recall memories more easily and clearly when they are attached to a physical sensation as well as an emotional experience. From the sounds of war to the feeling of first touching snow, when we use our five physical senses we create stronger memories.

 

 Food’s connection to memory and history

 

No wonder so many memories are attached to food then.

 

Perhaps it is a memory of a great meal shared with close friends or just recalling the delicious crepe you ate while walking the streets of Paris on your honeymoon.

 

Food has the ability to activate multiple senses - smell, sight, and of course taste - to help us remember some of life's most meaningful and magical moments, whether large or small.

 

Food is Identity

 

The human species has always placed strong importance on cultural identity. In the beginning, being able to identify someone as belonging to one group or another was an issue of safety and security. The question of “are they a friend or a foe” did not rely on an individual person but rather their identity as part of a group.

 

Food, in turn, became a way of quickly identifying people.

 

Today, food is a way to connect to our heritage and to our own cultural identity, whether that means a bowl of ramen for a young Japanese boy in Tokyo or a new immigrant family in the United States making tamales for Christmas dinner.

 

Whether people stay home and learn the recipes of their ancestors - making old family recipes with their grandmothers - or move halfway around the world and still keep their cherished recipes "from the home country," food is a way to identify who you are, where you come from, and the history of your people.

 

Food is Connection

 

When you think about it, in the history of mankind, eating alone was never something truly normal. Perhaps a hunter would snack while out alone in the forest but meals were always something shared. Families and friends would gather together to eat. All major social events seemed to include food, from weddings to funerals.

 

Today, with the way technology and work culture creates physical isolation, eating alone is much more common but even so, people seek out others to enjoy a meal with - to connect with.

 

 Connecting with friends and family around good food

 

While food is often used to separate us into different groups, it can also be used to connect us.

 

When you go on a first date, what is the most likely situation? Dinner, right? Or if not that at least a cup of coffee at a cafe. The picturesque image of the happy family always seems to show them sitting around a dinner table. Even in the business world, connections are made over coffee or a business meeting lunch.

 

Connection and inclusion is a important human need - isolation is one of the top causes of depression. Combining that need for connection with another basic human need - food - ensures not only our physical health but our emotional health as well.

 

Food is Understanding

 

As the famous cookbook author James Beard said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”  

 

It doesn't matter if you are Black, White, or Brown - you eat. It doesn't matter if you are Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim - you eat. The foods we eat around the world are vastly different but the connect we have with food and the act of eating is something we can all relate to.

 

This universality allows food to create a true opportunity for universal understanding.

 

When you realize that a father halfway around the world just wants to provide and feed his children like any other good father, you can connect with him on a deeper level. You see this across cultures - the use of food to solidify an understanding between people. We literally speak of peace being created with the "breaking of bread."

 

When people come together over food, they can better relate to each other, whether that means a family trying to form better bonds of understanding or enemies trying to forge a new peace.

 

Food is Creation

 

There is a beauty in old family recipes. Passed down from generation to generation, these pieces of the past connect us with our heritage.

 

At the same time though, food for mankind has always represented progress, change, and invention. From the first days of agriculture to the molecular gastronomy trends of today's top restaurants, food has always shown the true ability of the human imagination.

 

 Food as an art form and a way to express creativity and imagination

 

Think about it - what would Italian food be without tomatoes?  And yet, this crucial ingredient was only introduced to Europe a few hundred years ago.

 

The success of the human species relied on our ability to adapt, change, and create, especially when it came to food sources.

 

Food is both nutrients and art.

 

Today we continue to stretch our minds and abilities from the creation of new hit street foods to fine dining restaurants pushing the realm of what is food further and further to the future.

 

Food is Joy

 

This goes back to that primitive animal brain. Enjoying food makes sense - if we didn't have a strong drive to eat, we wouldn't have survived as a species. And yet, the joy humans get out of their food is so much more than an evolutionary trick of survival.

 

Food does not just make us happy and satisfied but often gives us true joy.

 

Throughout history, the wealthiest of society would display their wealth through great banquets and feasts. In the same way art and music would signify "the good life," so would food. Food was about living well and enjoying life. In reality though, the cost of the feast or the rarity of the ingredients mattered little.

 

Anyone who has enjoyed the sweet taste of a fresh peach or a hot bowl of delicious soup on a cold day knows the simple, peaceful joy food can bring. When you eat something that just tastes so perfect that it literally reminds you to stop and appreciate all you have in your life - that is the unique joy and magic of good food.

 

 The joy of simple, fresh ingredients and homemade recipes

 

Food and food culture quite obviously makes up an important part of who we are, how we connect, what we value, and how we express ourselves as human beings.

 

As our world becomes more and more interconnected, as people move across the globe, and as Western culture becomes more and more dominate, the food and food culture landscapes of our world will continue to change and evolve.

 

Change is inevitable but it is important to honor and acknowledge the ways we have all personally grown and been shaped by our own unique food cultures.

 

Perhaps it is time to learn to make your grandmother’s famous pie or to write down the story of the first homemade meal you cooked for your spouse, even if it did involve burnt garlic bread or spilled red wine.

 

Just as we honor our past with stories and literature, let us preserve our food cultures with the memories they evoke and the recipes that bring them back to life.

 

The Invention of Cooking: Literally What Makes Us Human

Food is essential to sustain life; that is true across the animal kingdom. When it comes to humans though, we are unique. Eating is not just something we do to survive but something that literally winds itself into our very being.

 

No matter where you go in the world, people love good food. They are passionate about it - whether they are debating where to find the city's best pizza or learning and passing on old family recipes.

 

We don't just eat our food; we prepare it with love and care. We turn it into art. We also sometimes overdo it. We eat until we are sick or eat things with no real nutritional value. We crave it and it becomes not just a necessity but a pleasure.

 

Why is it that we, alone in the animal kingdom, have this connection with food?

 

We don't just seek it out instinctively but allow it to become part of who we are, part of our culture.

 

Science into the development of the Homo sapiens brain might have the answer and surprisingly this connection with our food, and our desire to take it beyond what we find in nature, might be the very thing that makes us human.

 

Neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel wanted to understand what makes the human brain special. Why have humans been able to advance so much in so little time? What is it about our brains that allow for such high levels of creativity, ingenuity, and development?

 

 

Her research, interestingly, lead her to do more than explore the importance of the human brain but also to develop a theory of how we developed such a brain. Her hypothesis?

 

It was literally the invention of cooking that allowed humans to develop into the intelligent, worldwide, multicultural species we are today.

 

There always seems to have been a universal human connection with not only food but food culture.

 

We don't just eat; we create recipes. We use eating to cement family bonds; we negotiate the end of wars and the start of new business deals over shared meals. We value what we put in our bodies, not only for the way it makes us physically feel but also for the emotional happiness it can bring.

 

All of this is universal and perhaps it is because cooking, preparing, and sharing a meal is literally the driving force behind our success as a species.

 

Now the science is still not 100% clear on all this. Anthropologists still debate when fire was first discovered and by who. It is a bit of the chicken or the egg debate - are we smarter because we discovered fire and therefore cooking or did we discover them because we became smarter?


In Suzana Herculano-Houzel case, she believes the first. We are smarter because we discovered fire and cooking.

 

If it all still seems confusing, that’s understandable. Below we have outlined some of the main points from Dr. Herculano-Houzel's research and the overall theory of how the invention of cooking may well have made us who we are today.

 The development of the human brain and the role of cooking in human evolution

 

Our Brain is Important But Not Unique

 

Dr. Herculano-Houzel started with the question of what makes the human brain unique. Her answer? It isn't, in fact, unique at all.


It was once thought that the size of a brain determined intelligence, however, one only needs to study an elephant to realize that brain size alone does not determine intelligence.

 

The reality is that it is the neurons of the brain that increase cognitive ability.

 

In her research, Dr. Herculano-Houzel started by developing a method to count the number of neurons in a brain. She found that different brains from various species have different neuron patterns and that as you increase the size of a say rodent brain (by selecting different rodent species of larger sizes) you will find a similar ratio of neurons vs. brain mass.

 

In rodents, this means that even if you increased the size of the rodent brain by breeding a giant, super rodent, the animal’s intelligence would still not match a human’s because the rodent brain has fewer neutrons per square inch of brain matter.


When you study primate brains, you will find that humans have the expected number of neurons for a brain of our size.

 

Primates are more intelligent than other animals because a primate brain has more neutrons per quantity of brain mass.

 

Humans are more intelligent than other primates because we have larger brains. Simple enough...


But Why is Our Brain So Big and Why Don't Primates Larger Than Us Have Larger Brains?

 

 Understanding why larger primates, like gorillas, have smaller brains than humans

 

The next question in Dr. Herculano-Houzel's research, after determining that our brain is just a large primate brain, was why don't other primates have large brains even when they have bodies larger than us? Why is it that we, Homo sapiens, developed larger, intelligent brains?

 

The solution came from studying the metabolical costs of having a larger brain. The more neurons a brain has, the more intelligence it can produce, but it will also need more energy to run.

 

The human brain uses 25% of all the calories we consume!

 

On top of powering our brains, we also have to power our bodies.

 

If you do the math and apply a typical raw food primate diet to the equation, it would be next to impossible for us to survive as a species. We would have to forage and eat for 9 hours per day to feed our bodies and brain, which puts stress on our species and makes us more vulnerable to food shortages that could wipe us out.

 

Other primates, such as gorillas, have sacrificed brain size in order to increase body size while still keeping their daily food intake needs at a reasonable level.

 

So, why did we survive as a species, despite our large brains? Why is it that we can survive on less food, spend less time foraging, and therefore have more time to use our larger brains - creating all the advances of a modern, intelligent species?

 

The Discovery of Fire & the Invention of Cooking

 

 The discovery of fire and its relation to the invention of cooking

 

Dr. Herculano-Houzel and many other scientists believe that the key to human mental development and the success of our species came from our simple mastery of a single, powerful tool - fire.

 

If you believe, as Dr. Herculano-Houzel does, that fire was first discovered by our ancestors - Homo erectus - possibly as early as 1.5 million years ago, it is easy to understand how humans became so smart.


Homo erectus was a relatively smart primate as far as we can tell and there is even evidence that he hunted with the use of tools. It is not a far cry to claim that Homo erectus could have stumbled across the magical powers of fire.

 

Once this discovery was made, our evolution as a species was suddenly possible.

 

Homo sapiens (modern day humans) eventually evolved from Homo erectus. While Homo erectus was intelligent, his brain was not nearly as developed or large as ours. He simply couldn't evolve to be much more intelligent on the raw, hunter-and-gatherer type of diet he had.

 

But, thanks to his discovery of fire, his descendants could.


With the invention of cooking, food intake requirements for Homo erectus dropped dramatically.

 

Meat especially became much more valuable to the species. Raw meat is very difficult for the human body to digest - taking lots of time and energy. Cooked meat, on the other hand, is more quickly digested by our bodies, allowing for greater caloric intake with less work.

 

The same is true to a smaller extent when it comes to cooked vegetables.


With cooked foods, suddenly Homo erectus and later Homo sapiens could spend less time gathering food and more time developing their societies.

 

Over hundreds of thousands of years, larger brains developed because there was no longer stress on the species due to excessive food intake requirements. We literally became smarter because we learned to cook our food.

 

But What About Modern Day "Raw Diets?"

 

 How modern raw diets differ from the raw hunter-gather type diets of early primates

 

A question that eventually comes up when this topic is discussed is the issue of modern day "raw diets." This trend towards eating only raw foods has really taken off, especially in the Western world.

 

The question is, if cooking was so fundamental to our mental development, could raw diets impact this?If everyone were to suddenly switch to a raw diet, would the overall intelligence of our species be affected?


The real question though is not how such a diet would affect the human race. The real question is, are modern day raw diets truly the same as the primate diet of our ancestors?

 

The original calculation of 9+ hours of feeding per day necessary to support our brains and bodies considers also the time needed for foraging and finding that food - but how many raw dieters do you know who go forage for their food?

 

The fact is that the only reason people today can switch to a raw diet is because our ancestors switched to cooking.

 

Cooking allowed us to develop so much as a species that modern day "hunting and gathering" takes no more effort for the average person than walking through a supermarket.


So, whether you enjoy a "raw diet" or prefer a well-done steak, eat up and be grateful that your ancestors loved a tasty meal as much as you.