The wonders of food
Thanksgiving is truly a great holiday. I’ve always enjoyed the day — how it feels, smells, and of course, tastes. As a college instructor, I’m fond of Turkey Day because it comes at the end of a long fall semester. Thanksgiving offers some needed down time right before the total chaos that rings in the end of another academic year. Aside from that, November is perhaps my favorite month as it is a true season of change. Late fall has a darkened, yet vibrant hue and the air is crisp as we welcome winter. My love of this Thursday holiday started long before I started my profession, however. I remember as a child my mom and dad would pack the car and I would crawl into the backseat as we traveled from Tennessee (or Michigan; we bounced back and forth) to my great grandmother’s house in Wheeling, West Virginia.
I always loved pulling up to the small but cozy house. Wheeling is a working class town — a cold, red brick community in the gray shadow of industrialization. Great Grandma Shorty lived along the train tracks near the Ohio River. My love of the sound of trains began as a youngster packed away in the house with Shorty, my parents, all of my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. All of us kids would howl with delight as the train roared by and blew its horn, probably hauling a load of coal off a mountain. Aside from the horn, church bells from the nearby Catholic church would chime across Wheeling, another blessed sound.
On Turkey Day, however, one could not be more comfortable. Shorty, my grandma, mom and all my aunts would labor away in the kitchen while the rest of us were no doubt watching the Detroit Lions lose a football game. The smell of butter, onions and celery, ingredients for the french bread stuffing, would fill the home. The clean smell of southern style green beans with roasted garlic, the roux for gravy that would eventually cover mashed potatoes, the rich glucose scent of sweet potatoes, the freshness of cranberry and, of course, the savory, sage-rich smell of turkey had us all excited. There was no place else any of us wanted to be.
When the labor was done, each of us would pull up a seat around Grandma Shorty’s table and enjoy the special meal. We’d talk, tell stories, listen, learn, laugh and eat. That very table sits in my wife’s and my house today. On years like this, when we get to host Thanksgiving for close friends and family, I take time to think of the memories built around the food on that table.
As a student of biology and natural systems I also think about the wonders of food. Thanksgiving is a holiday unique to the United States, but every culture around the world has big holidays that are celebrated for any number of reasons — be they historical, cultural, religious or otherwise. One thing all of these celebrations have in common, however, is food. It is a very interesting reason why.
The road toward humanity was actually pretty quick regarding the immensity of evolutionary time. When our early ancestors stood upright and left the safety of the trees for the open savannah, the human experiment began. Those apes were no longer fixated on the ground; they could gaze across the horizon at one another and look up to the sky with wonder.
As time progressed so too did sophistication — and all animals must eat. When you look at our closest genetic relatives such as the bonobos, chimpanzees or even gorillas, you’ll notice a fiber rich diet. Gorillas spend roughly 80% of their day eating plant material and chimpanzees and bonobos close to 75%. This is a lot of time to devote to nutrition. 1.8 million years ago, however, something interesting happened in genus Homo.
The aforementioned human ancestor that left the safety of the trees was Homo erectus (upright man), so named for their bipedalism. They would be the first hominids to cook food. The evolutionary implication of this simple act is astounding.
So, we’ve stumbled upon a key difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom: Cooking. There are many other social animals out there, and they do dine together. Think of a pride of lions. A pride is more than just a group, it is a family unit with a highly organized structure. So, recall your favorite nature documentary — the pride dines on their prey together. We humans though, thanks to our upright Pleistocene ancestors, cook.
Cooking changes our food and makes it much easier to digest, especially plant material. The chemistry of food is very interesting. Take protein as an example. Protein is a chain of amino acids, and each individual amino acid is something called a monomer. When these monomers (meaning part) bond together they form the polymer (having many parts) protein. All of the food groups, from carbs to lipids, are organized polymers. When we cook, we begin breaking these chemical bonds down before we even ingest them. This makes digestion all that much easier. Cooking food breaks down the tough cell walls of plants, deactivates plant toxins, and denatures, or unwinds, proteins. Digestion is so much easier, plus the absorption of nutrients is maximized. In short, cooking allowed the Pleistocene hominid to extract much more energy out of its food.
Cooking involves a host of different strategies. Obviously we can think of roasting meat and vegetables over fire, but we can also cut fruits and vegetables into strips and let them dry in the sun. We can mash-up food with tools so they are easier to digest, or we can let nature cook for us as we discover ways to ferment products (Beer! A longstanding institution!). The takeaway point from all this is that these animals labored together with food.
As digestion and absorption of nutrients became easier, human evolution kick-started. Our bodies could devote less time to breaking down plant matter so our digestive tracts grew smaller. The calories we saved from digestion built our complex, neuron-rich brains. As intelligence increased, more complex tools and methods of cooking developed. Let’s not forget all the time we save either. Humans spend roughly 5% of their day eating, allowing much more time to use our big brains on creative endeavors, social bonding and leisure. As we grew better at cooking, the hunting and gathering lifestyle (the longest chapter of human history) closed with the dawn of the Neolithic Age.
Having to cook food meant there was a central location for humans to come home to. We settled down together. We cut vegetables and roasted meat, experimented with new dishes. We looked to one another, grew social bonds, cared for our young, listened to stories and went to sleep next to each other, full, comfortable and happy. Our children had better nutrition which helped them survive into adulthood, and our elders lived longer. The Neolithic age is not a single data point, but a transition for the human species that lasted tens of thousands of years. We settled, cultivated culture, crafted social organization and eventually, we grew civilization.
Here we are today, Homo sapiens, in large part thanks to the wonders of food. It is no wonder why there are so many global, joyful ceremonies that revolve around food. We ate our way to humanity — socially, culturally and biologically. Let’s reflect on our human story this holiday season as we carve into vegetables or roast meat over smoldering hickory embers. Humanity was born around a campfire, roasting food in much the same way.
All too often, it is easy to focus on the politics that divide us. All too often we forget about some of the fundamentals of humanity. In light of recent global events, such as the slaughter of innocence in Lebanon and France, and the continuous bombs that fall on innocent lives across the war-torn regions of the globe, may we remember that cooperation formed the basis of our early culture. Let’s remember this when politics are addressed. The answer to conflict does not lie within a method of governance or a single policy, but within each individual. Sitting around food together, caring for one another and enjoying each other’s company is part of the answer we are all searching for — it is an innate characteristic of the most social of animals.
A profound story told on the airwaves since the tragic attacks in Paris is that of a conversation between a boy and his father who call the City of Lights home. The father looked to his child, and asked if he understood what happened. The boy responded: “They have guns, they can shoot us because they’re really, really mean, daddy.” The man then told the boy all the flowers and candles being left at the memorial were there to protect them, that they were stronger than any guns. After a moment of reflection, gazing at the shrine the boy repeated: “The flowers and candles are here to protect us.” There is so much humanity in those words. We live in interesting times, but there is still far too much violence in the world. But, for what it is worth, we can take refuge in humanity. Today, as always, there is much more compassion. Peace to all, and may love receive you with open arms.
Eat, drink, be merry. Remember to love and give thanks.
UVA Basketball Fans!
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