On Eating Words

A representation of Homo  erectus  developed from fossil-skull evidence.

A representation of Homo erectus developed from fossil-skull evidence.

Anyone who eats three meals a day should understand why cookbooks outsell sex books three to one.
"The Grab Bag"
--L. M. Boyd

For most of my life on this planet, it has been my pleasure and good fortune to eat three meals a day. Sometimes more. I miss at most a half a dozen a Year, and even then usually have the opportunity to make up for it: a little something to tide me over, just a bite, a small dish--but great small dishes.

Most people eat to live; gourmets live to eat. I cannot help having felt an instant empathy with ladies and gentlemen of the ancient Chinese court upon reading of the exquisite heights to which the contemplation of food was elevated. For some, the consuming passion filled hours of dreaming and absorbed their principle energies while awake, as the fantasy, focus and fulfillment  of life symbolically revealed the deeper, mysterious, ineffable and divine principles of the Tao. It could all be seen played out on the micro-stage of the place setting.

If our memories and thoughts of food fill the balloon of our dreams, then there is a way in which life itself can be understood as, say, one of the more general cases of eating. Subatomic nuclei capture, or "eat" electrons, and galaxies may eat itinerant spaceships or stars. Life may be seen as a part of eating, or eating as a part of life. In the famous story, Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly. Upon awakening, he was not quite sure if he were Chuang Tzu who had dreamed being a butterfly, or if he were really A butterfly merely dreaming he was Chuang Tzu.

Without serious question the cuisine of imperial China was the most extensive, complex, delicate, subtle, inventive and consciously perfected eating the world has ever known. Had he cared to, Chuang Tzu probably could have pre­pared and eaten the butterfly in any number of deli­cious ways, just as honey-fried grasshoppers are still considered a sweet and crispy treat.

We may read words written about food that are some four to five thousand years old. Margaret and Ancel Keys, in their book The Benevolent Bean (Noonday 1972), cite the earliest written record of the soybean, "found in the books of the Emperor Shen Nung, dated 2800 B.C., which described the five principal crops of China: rice, soybean, wheat, barley and millet. Later in that millen­nium there were writings giving expert advice on growing the soybean." (p. 38) The Keys also mention a fresco of the time of Rameses III (120C B.C.) depicting the pre­paration of lentil soup, "but lentils were used in Egypt for at least a thousand years before then. Remains of lentils have been found in tombs of the Twelfth Dynasty (which they place between 2400 And 2210 B.C., but which most scholars now agree should be dated around 1800 to 1600 B.C.). (p. 32) Nevertheless, a full thousand years before even the date the Keys adopt, in the region of 3200 B.C., with the first appearance of writing at Sumer in Mesopotamia, foodstuffs can be identified as principal items among the inventories and tax lists. This is, of course, a far cry from a cookbook.

Pictorial representations of food in antiquity have survived more plentifully than written accounts. And here it is perhaps worth recalling that both the archaic Egyp­tian and Chinese languages are based upon pictorial representations--hieroglyphs and ideograms. It may be that some evolved form of ancient spoken Egyptian language is presently identifiable in Coptic dialects, but the written form of hieroglyphs developed modifications lend­ing ease and speed to writing, eventually producing a cursive "demotic" script. The ancient pictorial, ideo­gramic style of hieroglyphs continued to be used down to times of Greek hegemony of the last few centuries B.C.

As is very well known, all three forms of writing--hieroglyphs, demotic and Greek--appear on the famous Rosetta stone discovered by Napoleon's troops in 1799, which provided the key for Champollion's decipherment--the identical text in all three languages being a decree from Ptolemy V dated 196 B.C. Hieroglyphs soon disappear­ed from use altogether, but not so with the pictographic basis of the written Chinese character. Although many stylistic variants have evolved, in certain essential ways the archaic ideograms are perfectly intelligible to one who is capable of reading modern characters. Thus, of all the forms of written language in use by a significant number of people in the world today, Chinese is the only one based on pictorial, ideogramic, iconic ("right cortical hemisphere") activity. And, Chinese is the one language which, in its written form, represents the oldest continuously intel­ligible usage. So, technically considered, when we come across ancient examples of either Egyptian or Chinese written languages, we may very well recog­nize representations of foodstuffs.

Evidence very much older than any form of writing is provided by archaeological discovery of habitation sites and preserved remains of foodstuffs themselves. The origins of grain agriculture and of the Neolithic cultural complex with which it is associated in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, most scholars agree to have begun by around 10,000 B.C. When we are mindful of the traditional, mythic (but often quite precise) methods of time reckoning employed by ancient peoples, there is a strong temptation to associate the beginnings of large-scale collective agriculture with a time frame of 12,500 B.C., when the star Spica (the lucida, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo) will have risen conjunct with the sun on the morning of the Ver­nal equinox. This star is equated with alphita in Greek, the kernel of pearl barley, or with the ear of corn, or with the sheaf of grain. Everywhere it is associated with grain, its many names being listed in the classic text of Charles Hinckley Allen, Star Lore: Their Names and Meaning. And as we know now from the work of many scholars such as Joseph Campbell (The  Masks of God) and Giorgio de Santillana (Hamlet's Mill) the helical rising of a star, when this occurred on the vernal equinox, was of monumentous import. In fact, an understanding of this phenomenon together with the idea of the precession of the equinox, provides the master key for reading aright not only Shakespeare's Hamlet, the Norse myths and those of the Classical world, but also the ancient king lists of both the Old Testament and Babylon.

Recently there has come to light even older evidence for the existence of some sort of grain agriculture in the Nile Valley. Grains of barley have been identified at a site in Upper Egypt, and dated 17,000 B.C. What everyone has assumed was that a global pattern of hunting and gathering persisted until the advent of agriculture. As Richard Leakey argues in Origins, this was the long period of the golden age for humanity, a time of great abundance, when typically a few hours of work a day were adequate to insure a comfortable sub­sistence. As Farb and Armelagos point out, "The main advantage of horticulture over hunting-gathering is not its much greater efficiency, but rather that people can live together in larger and more permanent settle­ments." (Consuming Passions, p. 67)

The discipline of physical anthropology, through inspection of human jaw and tooth formation in com­parative specimens, provides some early clues about food habits. The central point seems to be that our species evolved as omnivores, with a varied and effi­cient set of teeth, capable of grinding grains, tearing meat, incising apples. Richard Leakey makes a strong case for the emergence of a very human-like creature, "Homo Habilis", sometime about three to five million years ago. From two to three million years ago we have evidence of campsites, and indications of several key cultural traits appearing together. Human cranial capacity became large enough for the brain to have grown, developing a sufficient complexity for language. Early cobblestone tools were in use both as hammers and to provide a cutting edge. Perhaps also there was the techno­logical innovations necessary for a gathering and food sharing society, the idea of a carrying tool or con­tainer, whether folded large leaf or plaited fronds of a proto-basket. We do not know when human beings invented the concept of braiding, but it, too, must have occurred very early on. The principle is immediately obvious to anyone whose hair is blown and tangled by the wind. Odin or Wotan, the archetypal Nordic-Germanic culture-bringer, is said to have invented the braid after having plucked three hairs from the tail of the Night Mare; with these he makes a lasso and captures her, thus domesticating the horse--although the domestication of animals, and particularly the horse, probably happened much, much later than the invention of braid and twine. The problem is that objective physical evidence cannot be expected to have survived, with the exception, of the cobblestone tools.

For our interests, the most pertinent argument concerning the behaviour of early man involves the sharing of food, especially meat. It has been confirmed by recent studies of higher primates that the sharing of food occurs almost exclusively with meat. Baboon and chimpanzees who occasionally eat meat will share it with others in the group, but never, never will they share fruit or vegetables. It may have been just this tendency to share elements of their carnivorous diet that contributed to the evolution of a high level spoken language as a basis of social communication. And people still like to talk about dinner.

There was no sitting around the old campfire then. Or if there was, we cannot prove it. The earliest evidence for the controlled use of fire by human beings comes from a mere half million years ago, from sites in Java and China. The Chinese site is especially renowned in the lore of anthropology--it is a cave complex called Chou Kou T'ien, the home of Homo erectus, who apparently roasted his meat. Seventy per cent of the bones found at the site were of a species of deer, indicating that venison was a prized dish. But the diet was varied, as researchers have also identified bones of tiger, buffalo, rhinoceros, otter, wild sheep and boar. Some writers question whether or not Homo erectus, the so-called Peking man (Sinanthropus pekenensis) roasted his food. "Like his predecessors, he went to the trouble of splitting particularly juicy bones to get at the marrow-‑which he need not have done if he had known how to cook. The marrow can be extracted without difficulty from bone still warm from the fire." (Tannehill, p. 13, citing Don and Patricia Brothwell, Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples, London, i969). Bone marrow is a highly nutritious food, and may have been preferred raw, despite the difficulty. In any case, the indisputable finding together of fire. food scraps and the bones of a human creature provide a crucial reference point for the study of early cuisine.

The general conclusions about the human use of fire  at least as an adjunct to the preparation and consumption of food is substantiated by other field research in archaeology--investigation of cave remains in  France and Hungary. (Farb & Armelagos, p. 53). Two other topics deserve mention: caries and cannibalism. At a site contemporary with Chou Kou T'ien but near the Trinl river in Java, One of Peking man's southern colleagues, formerly known as Pithecanthropus erectus and now known as Homo erectussuffered tooth decay, belying the naive assumption that this is an affliction peculiar to soft or modern times. Dental caries also occur in the teeth of omnivores such as pigs, monkeys and rats, and likely can be attributed to eating quantities of honey and sweet fruits without brushing and flossing after every meal.

The custom of eating ones fellow human being, although occasioning revulsion when mentioned in polite society, appears to be both an archaic practice and a disturbingly recurrent--we trust diminishing--vestigial propensity. Peking man feasted on human flesh. We have no way of knowing whether this was because other food supplies ran low, if it was a matter of dietary preference, or if it went together with some then current trumped up version of social-military expediency. The evidence suggests that cannibalism was not merely an incidental response to desperate circum­stances. It is clear that Peking preferred, first of all, to eat his victims brains. The cells of brain tissue rapidly disintegrate after death, but if consumed forthwith, provide what may be objectively described as an excellent source of nutritious high quality protein. Accordingly, the skulls in the cave at Chou Kkou T'ien show that Peking man had developed a remarkable and precise technique for tapping out a certain part of the cranium in a way that would enable him to lap out the fresh human brains. In fact, for this explicit purpose he had invented, and perfected the design of a special tool. There can be little mistake about it and less cause for indulgence in sentimentality: can­nibalism cannot have been simply a now-and-then pro­position, indulged in with romantic reluctance, or under dire duress "when other meat was scarce." (Tan­nahill, p. 16) Despite the chilling implications, it seems clear that we have here the first scientific indications that creatures very, very much like ourselves initiated the concept of haute cuisine: special tools and techniques, careful attention to timing, mode of service, perishability, quite cultural and psychological rationalizations that constituted what to us would be ritual.

Beyond such evidence, we have only speculation as to whether or not we have, in the cave site at Chou Kou T'ien, a compelling instance of the emergence of something unique in the emergence of higher consciousness: an approach to food that transcends fulfilling basic needs, mere sustenance, and inaugurates the practice of art. The logic of evolutionary theories suggests that there must have been some advantage in terms of natural selection obtained from such cannibalistic practices. Possibly some cytoplasmic genetic material may have been directly incorporated into the eater's heritage, analogous to the way in which mice run the maze faster when fed the brains of other mice who had learned to run the maze fast. It may indeed be that direct ingestion of human brains was a contri­buting factor to the spectacular evolutionary growth and development of our neocortex. And perhaps the loftiest of activities performed by this crown of creation involves intelligence and imagination imbued with style, art, and esthetics--considerations which are essential to the distinction between filling the belly and appreciation of fine food, between sustenance and cuisine.

The missing piece of information, the unknown detail in our account of La Cuisine Imaginaire, is simply when did the first person grace the roast leg of whatever with a sprig of tarragon? The chances are seven out of ten that it was venison in the earliest known kitchen at Chou Kou T'ien. And yet, in the chronology, menu item num­ber one could well have been l'homme a l'estragon.

Kurt von Meier
May 30, 1981