Food – A Culturally Beautiful Necessity

Herbs and vegetables decorate a window sill in a Sherpa home in Nepal
Perhaps the oldest decoration in the history of human habitation–Herbs and vegetables beautify a window sill in a Sherpa home in Nepal.

It is an act so sacred that prayers and blessings are often said beforehand; not by all but by many surely. Try to imagine any wedding, birthday celebration or even a funeral without it. It’s the perfect companion to a favorite television program. It consoles the lonely, if only temporarily, yet it can be the main driving force for uniting the masses. It’s preparation and place in daily ritual can form a basis of one’s culture surpassing even religion in it’s importance. In it’s most basic form, it’s an absolute necessity, yet when effort is applied and the right tools are available, it is a work of art that even the most artistically-challenged, cultureless soul will appreciate.

It is of course, food. Glorious food! And the act that is so closely associated with food is eating. Together, this noun-verb duo forms the most basic, yet beautiful sentence a human being can say: Let’s eat!

We’ve come a long way, gastronomically-speaking, since our earliest ancestors made custom of eating the raw shoots pulled from the earth or the bloody liver torn from the carcass of a freshly-killed roe deer.

One of the biggest breaks in mankind’s culinary evolution was our ability to harness and utilize fire. We would have our first introduction to cooking after fire became more of an ally than an enemy. Besides keeping us warm on those frosty, prehistoric nights, it made our food more palatable and the act of eating, more enjoyable. Mankind hasn’t looked back since.

The concept of cooking over an open flame was and still is such a practical and effective way of cooking that it remains in wide use still today; particularly with meat. The methods used in preparation of roasting meat have changed little, save the ease of starting the actual fire. Instead of sticks or flint, we now use matches or a lighter. And for those who own a propane barbecue grill it gets even easier.

What has changed over time, is the use of the open flame cooking method. Whereas early man utilized it on a regular, perhaps daily basis; we now tend to save the open flame for celebratory occasions or perhaps an idle Sunday afternoon. Of course, this will vary from place to place, culture to culture where it is sometimes common to see streets lined with vendors selling everything from roasted corn to crispy fish cooked over an open flame and served on a daily basis on seemingly every street corner of a particular town or city.

Perhaps one of the greatest leaps forward in human history was made after fire became one of man's tools.
Perhaps one of the greatest leaps forward in human history was made after fire became one of man’s tools.

The concept of cooking over an open flame was and still is such a practical and effective way of cooking that it remains in wide use still today, particularly with meat. The methods used in preparation of roasting meat have changed little, save the ease of starting the actual fire. Instead of sticks or flint, we now use matches or a lighter. And for those who own a propane barbecue grill it gets even easier.

What has changed over time is the use of the open flame cooking method. Where as early man utilized it on a regular, perhaps daily basis; we now tend to save the open flame for celebratory occasions or perhaps an idle Sunday afternoon. Of course, this will vary from place to place and culture to culture. In many developing countries it is still common to see streets lined with vendors selling everything from roasted corn to crispy fish cooked over an open flame and served on seemingly every street corner of a particular town or city.

Barbecue (roasting meat over an open flame) is a cultural tradition going back thousands of years before the concept of culture even existed. Here, Patagonian lamb, suckling pig, goat and beef flank get the Argentine barbecue cooking treatment at an eatery in Buenos Aires.
Barbecue (roasting meat over an open flame) is a cultural tradition going back tens of thousands of years before the creation of the earliest civilizations. Here, Patagonian lamb, suckling pig, goat and beef flank get the Argentine barbecue cooking treatment at an eatery in Buenos Aires.

For most of us who eat and cook at home, sweating over a raging fire is definitely not the rule. The reason being not only our fast-paced lifestyles demanding more of our time away from sticks and matches, but also humankind’s revolutionary taming of the wild grain which would not only require a change in our cooking methods but it would also bring about the next phase in our evolution, farming.

Farming’s impact on human evolution cannot be overstated, it not only changed the way we eat, it quite literally civilized us. The earliest civilizations known all began in and around fertile valleys and plains centered around rivers, never too far away from the sea. The rich soils provided the foundation for the food-crops which were irrigated by the rivers, which also functioned as a mode of transport and travel as early boatmen took to the rivers and seas to not only trade goods, but also ideas which would foster unprecedented growth in our march toward where we are today. It’s the cooperative effort that brought isolated hunter-gatherer tribes together to farm as an easier more efficient way of feeding themselves that sowed the seeds which ultimately sprouted our earliest civilizations.

This was good news for our taste buds. With this agricultural revolution brought a plethora of newly-discovered roots, spices and even plain old salt to the tables of the common people. Many of the spices were so coveted that wars were fought over them and colonies were established by European powers for the control and trade of them. Some spices were even used as currency as is the case with vanilla for the Aztecs in pre-Colombian Mexico.

Wheat. A cereal grain tracing its origins to the Eastern Mediterranean but cultivated worldwide today. Wheat is one of the grains which fueled the earliest civilizations; both literally and figuratively.  In the photo Nepali farmers thresh wheat the old-fashioned way with flails to separate grains from the husk.
Wheat. A cereal grain tracing its origins to the Eastern Mediterranean but cultivated worldwide today. Wheat is one of the grains which fueled the earliest civilizations; both literally and figuratively. In the photo, Nepali farmers thresh wheat the old-fashioned way with flails separating the grain from the husk.
A sample of the ancient Mesoamerican (an area of the world extending from Mexico through Central America) diet. Corn, avocados, chile peppers and a variety of different types of beans helped the form the more sedentary and complex civilizations of the region. This agrarian diet stands in contrast to the hunter-gatherer tribes of the great plains in North America.
A sample of the ancient Mesoamerican (an area of the world extending from Mexico through Central America) diet. Corn, avocados, chile peppers and a variety of different types of beans helped form the more sedentary and complex civilizations of the region. This agrarian diet stands in contrast to the hunter-gatherer tribes of the great plains in North America.
A collection of fruits collectively referred to as "berries" at a farmers market in Oregon. Blueberries are a fruit native to North America and are one of the fruits which pack the highest amount of antioxidants gram for gram. Raspberries and blackberries are native to and cultivated in a wide variety of regions around the world. Strawberries, first cultiaved in Brittany, France are one of the most fruits which are popularly called berries.
A collection of fruits collectively referred to as “berries” at a farmers market in Oregon. Blueberries are a fruit native to North America and are one of the fruits which pack the highest amount of antioxidants gram for gram. Raspberries and blackberries are native to and cultivated in a wide variety of regions around the world. Strawberries, first cultivated in Brittany, France are the most popular type of “berry” in the world.
A sample of home grown garden produce accompanied by sirloin steaks and with some Jose Cuervo tequila to wash it all down.
A sample of home grown garden produce accompanied by sirloin steaks. Jose Cuervo tequila to wash it all down. Tequila is a product of the fruit of the agave cactus. The agave is native to Mexico and has long been coveted there by natives for a wide variety of uses in addition to its intoxicating effects.
Sushi. One of Japan's greatest exports after Toyota and Sony technology. Sushi comes in a wide variety of forms but the common theme is a medium to short grain rice, raw fish and usually seaweed. That's just the tip of the iceberg.
Sushi. One of Japan’s greatest exports after Toyota and Sony technology. Sushi comes in a wide variety of forms but the common theme is medium to short grain rice, raw fish and usually seaweed. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Trays of fresh produce for sale in a market in Yangon, Myanamr.
Trays of fresh produce for sale in a market in Yangon, Myanamr.
A plate of black sticky rice topped with diced potatoes and tofu on the side.
A plate of black sticky rice topped with diced potatoes and tofu on the side. Shan state, Myanmar. Rice is a seed of the monocot plant. It runs just behind maize (corn) and sugarcane in world production. Given the fact that a large portion of the world maize harvest is dedicated to other purposes beyond human consumption, rice is hands down the most important grain as a staple food. In Asia, it plays second fiddle to no other grain. The rice family is divided into two groups by origin, oryza sativa, which is from Asia, and oryza glaberrima, which calls Africa it’s home. It is believed that the Asian variety of rice and all of it’s varieties saw it’s domestication sometime between 8,000 to 13,500 years ago in China.
A bowl of spicy and well-seasoned noodles is as ubiquitous in the Far East as hamburgers are in North America. Photo shot in Bangkok, Thailand
A bowl of spicy and well-seasoned noodles is as ubiquitous in the Far East as hamburgers are in North America. Photo shot in Bangkok, Thailand
Shrimp cocktail being prepared.
Shrimp cocktail being prepared.
Shan noodles. Named after the state in Eastern Myanmar where this dish was prepared. A cheap treat composed of Chinese style noodles and tofu. Seasoning varies but includes the usual suspects of salt, pepper and plenty of flaming spice. Vegetables in season are used as a garnish. Ginger is always present as well. Myanmar borrows heavily from its neighbors in the culinary aspect. Imagine a fusion of Indian, Thai and Chinese.
Shan noodles. Named after the state in Eastern Myanmar where this dish was prepared. A cheap treat composed of Chinese style noodles and tofu. Seasoning varies but includes the usual suspects of salt, pepper and plenty of flaming spice. Vegetables in season are used as a garnish. Ginger is always present as well. Myanmar borrows heavily from its neighbors in the culinary aspect. Imagine a fusion of Indian, Thai and Chinese cuisine.
A specialty of Valparaiso, Chile. Chorillana. A cardiologist's worst nightmare consisting of french fries, chopped beef, fried eggs, sauteed onions, cheese and a single leaf of lettuce for those with a sense of humor. Make no plans afterwards.
A specialty of Valparaiso, Chile. Chorillana. A cardiologist’s worst nightmare consisting of french fries, chopped beef, fried eggs, sauteed onions, cheese and a single leaf of lettuce for those with a sense of humor. Make no plans afterwards.

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