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How To Think Like An Ancient

How To Think Like An Ancient

Hello readership! It sure has been a long while. Last time we spoke I was just returning from the land of Europe and life was ripe with confusing homesickness and wintery, citrus cake. Oh how the times have changed. It’s warm in New York. The smell of warm trash is just beginning to permeate the April air. A few cherry flowers are blooming on St. Marks and classes have begun their final descent. Of course just as things are winding down, final projects are amping up and this blog is about to become a platform for what is (quite possibly) the most enjoyable final project I’ve ever undertaken. Here at Edible Escape we are about to get a bit educational.

For the next few weeks I’ll be exploring the evolution of dietary theory and culinary philosophy through kitchen experimentation and subsequent blogging. We’ll be asking some big questions of course – like, why do we even have dietary theories – as well as getting into some fun nitty-gritties. How did the Early Buddhists eat? What about the Ancient Ayurvedics? What was Plato’s ideal meal? And, most importantly, how and why did all these groups of people justify their food choices?

Together we will be cooking and thinking and thinking and cooking and, of course, eating as well. We’ll also be turning to a lot to a wonderful scholar named Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire. Cuisine and Empire is an incredible piece of work that I would recommend to – well pretty much anyone who has found anything I’ve said so far interesting enough to continue reading. If you’ve made it to this paragraph, you should probably read this book. Laudan is going to set a lot of frameworks for us in the coming weeks. Oof. That was a lot. Still with me? Yes? Okay, let’s give this a go.

At the very beginning of Cuisine and Empire Laudan makes the following statement.

“If, as anthropologists suggest, cooking set in the motion the physiological changes that enabled large brains and complex thought, in turn thinking humans developed complex theories of food, cooking and cuisine,” (42).

Okay, so we can see the basic pattern here. Humans start cooking, humans get bigger brains, humans start thinking more about what they’re cooking and voila – culinary philosophy. So they’re thinking more, but what are they thinking ABOUT. Here, our superstar Laudan keeps going, breaking down culinary philosophy into three basic tenets that are going to absolutely haunt us for the next few weeks. Here’s what we’ve got.

1. Establishment of a HIERARCHY of foods.

2. Participation in a SACRIFICIAL BARGAIN with the Gods.

3. Engagement with the idea of CULINARY COSMOS.

See those bold, capitalized letters? Hold on to them. Savor them. Don’t let go. These are going to be cornerstones of many of our tasty discussions for weeks to come. So what do they mean? At their simplest, base level they translate somewhat like this:

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 3.57.56 PMNot too bad right? Hierarchy – the idea that you have a place in society (or the universe) – is hardly a novel concept. Laudan defines hierarchy simply, stating,“every living rank of being had appropriate foods and ways of consuming them,” (43). Minerals, plants, animals, and humans all have different things that are “appropriate” to eat (just go with the minerals eating thing) and more often than not we’ve got the major distinction being that animals eat raw food and humans eat cooked food.

And speaking of cooking…let’s travel over to point number 3 for a moment – “the culinary cosmos.” What this term does is tie cooking to the universe at large, making it the most fundamental of all “cosmic processes.” In the Ancient world babies are “cooked” inside of us, plants are “cooked” in the ground, food is “cooked” through digestion, and we cook in the kitchen. If you’re going to think like an Ancient you need to step away from the idea that raw is natural, because under the tenets of “culinary cosmos” the exact opposite is true.

And what about this sacrificial bargain? What are the Gods eating and how does it have anything to do with us? Well the Gods are the reason we have any food in the first place of course! Cultivating plants may be a human process, but the plants are divinely endowed. And to thank the Gods we have to engage in periodic feasts to acknowledge them. Well actually, the royalty and noble class have to engage in periodic feasts with our tribute while Gods go hard on the aromas of food…but that might be a story for another day….

'Forget the human sacrifice. How about a pizza?'

 (Jantoo Cartoons)

 Basically if we are going to think like an Ancient as we embark on this culinary journey this is what we need to remember:

  • The universe as we think we know it…scrap it! The Universe is ordered, finite and inherently hierarchical. Everything has its place and should eat according to that place.
  • The Gods are here and we owe them (and the King/Ruler/Leader of Invading Empire).
  • Cooking is the most fundamental of cosmic processes and the more cooked a food is the “better” it is.

So stick with me! I promise it only gets tastier from here. Now you’ve got a little theory under your belt, but it is time to get  the burners roaring. So stayed tuned, it’s about to get “hierarchical” in here and spoiler alert: there will be plenty of curry involved.

(Cover photo courtesy of The Science Leadership Academy)

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