Well, it sure has been a long while. Last time we spoke I was just returning from the land of Europe and life was full with confusing homesickness and wintery, citrus cake. Now it’s warm in New York; the smell of warm trash is just beginning to permeate the air. A few cherry blossoms are blooming on St. Marks and classes have begun their final descent. Just as things are winding down, final projects are amping up and this blog is going to take a temporary turn as a platform for a tasty final.
For the next few weeks I’ll be exploring the evolution of dietary theory and culinary philosophy through kitchen experimentation, and next week will involve a subsequent blog post about my Ayurvedic experience. I’ll be turning to a wonderful scholar named Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire, an incredible book that I would recommend to anybody with any interests in food history. If you’ve made it to this paragraph, you should probably read this book. Laudan is going to help me set the framework for my cooking project next week, a cooking project that will involve lots and lots of curry.
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).
Humans start cooking, humans get bigger brains, humans start thinking more about what they’re cooking and voila; culinary philosophy. If humans are thinking more, what are they thinking ABOUT. Here, superstar Laudan keeps going, breaking down culinary philosophy into three basic tenets.
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 a cornerstone of said-promised tasty curry experiment. So what do they mean? At a base level, something like this.
Hierarchy – the idea that you have a place in society, or the universe for that matter, is hardly a novel concept. Laudan defines hierarchy as such, that “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 speaking of cooking, give tenet 3 a thought, the “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 the 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 of acknowledgement. Well actually… the royalty and noble class have to engage in periodic feasts with the tribute we grew for them while Gods go hard on the aromas of the food … but that might be a story for another day.
Basically if you are going to think like an ancient, this is what you need.
- The universe as we know it…scrap it! The Universe is ordered, finite and inherently hierarchical. Everything (and everyone) has their 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.
Now you’ve got a little theory under your belt, and it will only get more delicious from here. It’s time to get the burners going, so stayed tuned for the curry hierarchy to come.
(Cover photo courtesy of The Science Leadership Academy)