Thursday, May 10, 2012

What's on your plate?

Humans have plenty of interesting traits. One of them is our ability to eat almost anything. (Humans cannot eat actual carrion or high cellulose plant material such as wood and grass).

If we find something we can't eat, we'll go out of our way to find a way to eat it. Take the common English stinging nettle. It's a plant you don't want to argue with...the slightest contact with the edge of the leaves and you'll come out in hives. Cook them, however, and goodbye nasty acid, hello tasty green. (I'm told it makes great pesto).

People will even risk eating fugu, which can kill you if the chef didn't prepare it correctly. Humans will eat anything. Even, in some cultures, each other. It's part of what makes us such a flexible species.

But there's something else about humans and food. If I say 'grits', most of you will think 'American South'. If I say 'Vindaloo', India pops into mind.

Different humans eat different things. There's reasons for this, of course. First of all, in the past, we could only eat what was available in our immediate region. On top of that, other environmental factors can affect what people eat. The Japanese, for example, eat raw fish. Why? Because on their harsh islands, wood was too valuable to burn. All Japanese cooking is designed to use as little fuel as possible. And while the rest of us can enjoy sashimi, only the Japanese get full nutrition from it, thanks to special gut bacteria unique to them.

We also make a big deal out of eating. We celebrate with feasts, we court...and later strengthen our pair bonds...by sharing food. We remind ourselves of friendships with cookouts and pot lucks. But we do all of these things differently.

Thinking about this made me realize something. How we prepare food and how we eat it is not just an aspect of culture - it's an entire separate language. Food defines who we are and it says something about who we are. You can learn more about a culture by their food than by any other means short of living there.

So, next time you travel, don't go looking for a McDonald's. Throw caution to the wind and eat with the locals. You'll have more fun and you might just learn something.