November 19th 2012
By: Sayer Ji & Tania Melkonian
Food has lost its story. Stripped of context, meaning, and reduced to its
molecular composition, ancient recipes for health and joy long to be recovered.
Recipes are ancient prescriptions for health, loved and labored into being by our ancestors. Responding to necessity and a primordial desire to experience pleasure and satiety while doing so, those who came before us perfected their edible relationship to their land and their culture. The result: codified combinations of nutrients, tastes, smells, modes of preparation and sourcing, which we know as recipes, and without which we would not be here, alive today reflecting on the subject.
If food, as Hippocrates said, is medicine, knowing and applying the proper dose and combinations – the recipe – will make the difference between a food, a dish, being healing or harmful. In this sense, recipes are prescriptions. In fact, the first literal use of the word 'recipe' was in the 1580's when for the French it meant (and still means) medical prescriptions. Handed down initially through oral tradition, recipes contain information no less fundamental to our well-being and survival, than the DNA within our genome.
Recipes provide a set of instructions from our generational predecessors explaining with just enough specificity what ingredients and combinations are required to nourish our bodies, but open-ended enough to guarantee creativity and variation based on individual and regional preference (For example, there is no universally correct molecular weight for a "pinch" of salt ). Generally speaking, for a recipe to live on past its conceptual life, it must continue to produce pleasure on the palate and ensure deep, authentic nourishment. In fact, a good meal will poignantly activate all the senses, reminding us through the enjoyment of food, that embodiment itself is not just a physical thing. As C.S. Lewis said "You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body."
Consider too, that the method of preparation and the appropriate season for preparing were included in these prescriptions suggesting that those considerations – these stories - were as significant as the ingredients themselves. In essence, the purpose of these recipes has been and continues to be to orient us to the edible universe in a way that not only sustains and perpetuates our physical life, but produces a pleasure-mediated experience of being alive.
To say, then, that food has a cultural significance is shallow. More accurate would be to realize that food has – or had – a mythical significance. The association of turmeric, for instance, with the Hindu "golden goddess" Kanchani of healing and compassion makes logical sense when we know that the spice has been confirmed through scientific methodologies to be of potential value in over 600 disease conditions. Myth, we must remember preceded logic, was denied for hundreds of years by it, and is only now, albeit as of yet peripherally being confirmed through the scientific method.
And so, we ask the fundamental question: has the myth - the story - been stripped from our food?
The Greeks posited that mythos and logos are two channels of interpretation, two overlapping and interpenetrating leaves of reality. Mythos is the story. Logos is the language. The former refers to the direct lived-experience of a thought or a thing or a food, e.g. the mood or intention of a word, versus its strict form. We may identify mythos with a more phenomenological approach to understanding, as we are allowing the things themselves – the phenomena – to present themselves to us through lived-experience in their potentially infinite depth, before the reducing valve of reflection and prejudgment kicks in.
Conversely, the logos-governed or logical approach would be to decide beforehand what the essential structure of reality is to be experienced before experiencing it. For instance, we can not reduce the rapturous explosion of flavor (mythos) known as umami to the receptors on our tongue scientists now tell us are "responsible for the effect" (logos) – at least not without the type of experiential blood-letting that occurs when we try to explain away an experience into its constituent, molecular parts.
Logos is the code – often written – that we agree to use in order to make the transmittal of facts efficacious; it also lays claim to the essential forms of our experience, even though it will never fully convey what is there. 'Apple' is what we have agreed to call the round, red fruit. Where we run into trouble is when we realize we have ignored that taste, memory, smell along with the social context or commensality (the social symbiosis of sharing food) of the experience of eating the apple.
How did we procure this apple? How does the apple bring back 10,000 other associated experiences we have had connected with apples, real or imagined (including this Apple laptop we are writing on) when we experience it? And yet, how does this lived-experience compare with my telling someone who asks what we had for lunch,"We had an apple." Does the meaning transpose from my lived-experience (mythos) to the word (logos)?
So, is not the mythos as important in describing the thing itself as the logos? Could it be even more fundamental? The soul is, after all what animates this bag of enzymes which is the human physiochemical 'body' but which is itself not measurable through the trappings of empirical science? Despite such tragic dilution, we insist on transposing mythos to logos in order to pare things down and save time. In this translation, we gain efficiency but we lose so much more.
In postmodern society, we have dismantled and destroyed (and then reconstructed) many of these recipes with an arrogance typical of those who believe they can improve – in a few easy steps – the work of generations; substituting timeless 'folk wisdom' with an uber-strict diet of synthetic formulations. Feeling superior in our scientism, we are unaware of how our very souls lose animation and self-contact on such a faux diet exorcised of authentic desire and pleasure.
In the context of our lived-experience of food, this translation has occurred mostly recently. In our lifetime alone we have been guilty of egregiously amending traditional recipes in the name of health, convenience or practicality. Even merely questioning our ancestor's recipes would be audacious enough. If these recipes are intact prescriptions that our very genetic integrity and health depend upon, then isn't our constant need to deconstruct them disrespectful to the practically infinite library of experiences our predecessors (and theirs, and theirs ad infinitum) drew from, not to mention counter-productive to our health?
The omelet is one of those sublime foods that seems so simple when explained. After all, our code of language (logos) reduces it to a lightly whisked egg, cooked and folded over some combination of ingredients. Find the story – the mythos – and it is clear how evocative the omelet really is. So, powerful is the egg as an icon that it has clothed an entire profession. Really. The origin of the pleated Chef's hat holds that the number of pleats corresponded to the number of ways a Chef knew how to prepare eggs.
There is no pleat for the egg white omelet. During one of our many panic -induced responses to some ultimately inconsequential headline (this one, aimed at the many lipid-phobic among us) we created reduced fat and non-fat foods, low-fat foods and.... the egg-white omelet. With every batch of 'lite' menus that peels off the printing press ,we chip away just a little more at the mythos of the egg. Its shape and beauty as a scientific and aesthetic wonder where oil and water almost do mix inside a smooth white shell slowly vanishes inside cartons of egg substitutes.
The egg is initially the perfect symbol of the universe – smooth and round and heavy - before it is cracked by awareness, and cooked into something we humans transform into our food. When we see the egg strictly logically (via logos) and divide it into white and yolk , we lose the tradition and history of the egg. Ironically, we also probably lose the prescription of health. We know this much: that the fat in the yolk helps us to utilize the beautiful lutein and zeaxanthin which provides the light-exposed macula of our eye with the 'sunscreen' it needs to prevent degeneration.
We know the whole egg tastes full and textured and not monotone like it's dismembered yet allegedly healthier incarnation. But what part of the story gets lost before we even get there? The example of the omelet shows us how we have cavalierly assume that our nascent and ultimately unproven science trumps generations of pleated-hat adorned tradition.
It is no wonder that butter is regarded as a luxurious and decadent ingredient when you consider that it is the fat in foods that carries and delivers flavor. It was an extremely precious commodity in ancient times, and a concentrated source of calories. It effectively prevents sickness from malnourishment or death from starvation. Its saturation protects it from rancidity, so that clarified butter, for instance, will stay nourishing much longer than any unsaturated fat (vegetable oil, canola oil, corn oil).
In combination with other ingredients (ie. in recipes/prescriptions) it draws the fat-soluble antioxidants and vitamins (K, A,) out of the cellulose in plant matter, or from compounds like curcumin (turmeric) rendering them concentrated and therefore far more medicinal. But lipid-phobia (due to logos) especially against saturated lipids, has lead us to 'improve' upon recipes by using "Earth Balance" unsaturated fats in their place.
Rancidity, inflammation, poor nutrient bioavailability all follow as a consequence of tinkering with the mythical origin – or mythos – of these fundamental prescriptions. Believing that the mythos is only fiction and that the storytellers are merely uneducated folk prevaricators is at the heart of these tragic recipe tweaks. There is a reason why a Beurre Blanc has never become Margarine Blanche and why you can't make a decent curry with expeller-pressed canola ghee!
Still we persist. We have soy cheese. Isn't the whole idea of cheese that it starts off as milk? There are those precious baby carrots. Apparently, they are not yet child carrots and still a long way from being adolescent carrots. Widely available and widely used is the strange and disturbing garlic powder. It's not as if garlic takes up so much storage space that we need to concentrate it even further into a powder!
We have created meat (which many avoid) out of gluten (which many avoid) in seitan. Available widely is soy bacon which is a small, thin product (as you would expect bacon of any kind to be) packed in large packaging simply to accommodate the long list of unpronounceable ingredients it takes to make this food replacer taste like the real thing. And the sweeteners. Oh, the sweeteners. We have lost our way so desperately and completely, that we think nothing of shaking out a teaspoon of Aspartame into our morning coffee rather than just a little bit of actual sugar.
In the final analysis what we are doing is re-spinning yarns. Our engineering, substituting, doctoring, replacing and eliminating foods from traditional combinations have changed the genre of the stories. They start as mythos. They morph by our hands , our weird science, our selfish rationale into a different kind of story – a Greek tragedy. In these tragedies, the protagonist of our fragile traditional recipe prescription - our butter, our eggs, our sugar - bounds proudly along making appearances in meals through time only to be unwittingly sabotaged and meet its demise at the hands of packet of Splenda.