Friday, December 08, 2006

Thoughts on food

A private response to my post on Swedish Christmas customs inspired some thoughts on food. I was told that another Yule time legacy from Sweden’s Viking past is a test of courage and stamina called “eating lutefisk”. I looked it up- this involves soaking herring in toxic, caustic lye before cooking it. But that’s not the weird part- the weird part is that we do something similar right here in America! It seems that someone- probably from Minnesota- decided that corn, too, should be soaked in caustic lye before eating; thus was born hominy. This got me to thinking- how on Earth did we think of some of the things we do to food?

Some recipes, even fairly complex ones, aren’t hard to guess how they came about. Cake, for example- I’m picturing a hung over bachelor stumbling into the pantry one morning, and finding what is in every bachelor’s pantry: two cups of dry cereal, an egg, and a half cup of milk left over from making cappuccino the night before. He shrugs, mixes it all together, throws it into the oven and goes to the bathroom for Visine and a long shower. When he returns to the kitchen he finds that he has invented cake.

Other foods are much harder to figure out. Coffee, for example- who invented that? “Hey, Bill, I got this great idea! You know those hard, red berries on the coffee bush?” “Yeah, once I made my little brother eat a handful- he barfed, then started twitching. It was hilarious!” “OK, we take some of those, roast them ‘til they’re brown and sticky, then throw them in boiling water to leach out all the poisons...” “And...?” “Then we drink it!” “Righhhhhht....”

Or take sausage. Pan sausage is easy enough to figure out; once the principle of grinding meat was established, spicing it was obvious. But link sausage? Do you KNOW what sausage skins are? How on Earth did it ever occur to someone to stuff their spiced hamburger into THOSE?

Or yogurt- who had the guts to be the first to try that? Again, I’m thinking bachelors. “Hey, guess what I found in the back of the fridge? It’s that bottle of milk we bought last year! Wanna try it?” “Dude, it’s quivering!” “C’mon, I dare ya!”

At least with the evolution of life forms we can see the intermediate steps, see the progression from one form to another; but with food, it’s often a mystery. How did we go from cucumber sandwiches to pickles? Was there ever a dish of fresh cucumbers, vinegar, and garlic that was just allowed to sit too long? The same question goes for sauerkraut. Or haggis- was it a common thing to serve your oatmeal in a sheep’s stomach before it occurred to someone to add lungs and other organ meats to it?

What foods can you not figure out?


ms. kitty said...

What a hoot, Joel, thanks for a good laugh this morning! I have no answers for you but I now am wondering the same things myself!

powderblue said...

What foods can I not figure out?

Ones that require violence and suffering to other sentient beings for no reason related to survival, at least for most people, but rather just to taste preferences. Let them live and die in agony so that we may be pleased?

Unitarian Universalist minister Gary Kowalski says in his book The Souls of Animals what probably few disagree with:

“Animals are living souls. They are not things. They are not objects. Neither are they human. Yet they mourn. They love. They dance. They suffer. They know the peaks and chasms of being.”

He asks: “Can we open our hearts to the animals? Can we greet them as our soul mates, beings like ourselves who possess dignity and depth?”

Yes we can, at least for those we know and love, like Laurie the kitty. Someday humanity's circle of compassion and moral consideration will include those beings we don’t personally know, too. Unitarian Universalists will be near the edges of that circle, pushing it outward, just as our forebears have done for the moral imperatives of their day.

I know you were looking for a lighter reply, like how did tofu come to be? I have no idea – it’s so complicated to make. But what a bargain to purchase.

Adam Becker said...

Our ancestors starved a lot. They ate everything and if it didn't kill them they ate it again. Sausage - hey, they didn't just eat the intestines; they ate the contents too. And the hooves and the entrails and the marrow of the bone. I've never really been hungry; you never have either. But something in our blood remembers.

Joel Monka said...

You have a point, Adam, and that does explain how we found out that snails are tasty. But it does not explain some of the really complicated foods- neither herring nor corn need to be soaked in lye to make them edible, for example. How would hunger explain that? Or take the tofu Powderblue mentioned- you start with soybeans, an already edible product. Then you have to make soy milk out of the soybeans- a difficult and complicated process in itself. Then you take the perfectly edible soy milk and add gypsum or acids to it to make it coagulate into tofu. At any stage you could have just stopped and eaten it if hunger were the issue... and yet someonekept going until tofu was born.

iBeth said...

I love this topic! I have wondered about marshmallow. Who said, "If we do this complicated thing [whatever it is] to sugar, it will become white and chewy?"