I’ve been thinking a lot about food.
When asked about human nature, John Green said something akin to, “I think humans are hungry.” At first, I thought he was being literal, which seemed obvious, but he went on to stipulate that people tend to be hungry for love, materials, and other things that don’t necessarily involve food. I’m paraphrasing, but basically we’re raised to desire things and then taught to realize our desires. That’s a pretty compelling outlook on human nature, and perhaps another blog post at some point in the future, but I wanted to take some time to analyze my initial thoughts on his statement.
The first impression I had of that idea, although not entirely what he meant, I found to be just as compelling. Maybe even more so. At first it seems like a bleak outlook, to say that all people really care about is eating. But the more I thought about it, the more the obvious became abstract (Sartre would be proud). Your daily schedule reflects just how necessary consumption is, you have to structure your entire day around finding food, even living in a modern “developed” part of the world where food can be readily available. Thus, perhaps more than we realize, there could be something to his eating equates to human nature idea.
Think about your day, or more specifically, how you start it. What is the first feeling you have when you wake in the morning? Most people, like myself, will probably say the first thing they feel is hunger. You’ve gone all night without eating, maybe 7-10 hours on a good night, and as you wake up your metabolism begins to speed back up to meet the energy needs of the day. So already, the very first thought in your head, no matter how well off or impoverished you may be, has to do with food and how not get it. It could be as simple as making your way to the pantry for a bowl of cereal, or as difficult as having to rise early, grab a weapon, and go chase something down to eat.
You eat something to start off the day. Then comes a neutral period, a few hours where you feel satisfied and aren’t looking for food. This is where things happen, probably the things that would qualify for what makes you “you”. Art, work, and school all take place in this interim, but that’s all it is. Because a couple of hours later, at least for me, your body beings a drastic change. Suddenly, you’re starting to slow down, you feel tired already. Your attention starts to slip, or at least drift to things involving food, sometimes without realizing it. Your pupils dilate, your mouth begins to water, and you’re more or less compelled to stop what you’re doing and begin the search for food all over again. This might be just a snack, something to keep the hunger at bay, or it could be in preparation for a larger meal to satisfy you for longer. But no matter how much you wish it, you’ll always get hungry again and have to stop what you’re doing in order to feed. Three times a day for meals, then perhaps another three of snacks in between, food governs the patterns in which we conduct our lives.
What I’m laying out may seem rather obvious. Of course you get hungry, that’s just what people do. People eat, then you go back to what you were doing, it’s not a big deal. I might not be saying that it’s the biggest deal, but I think that it begs some deeper analysis. To think of just how much time you devote to the acquisition, preparation, and ingestion of food and drink really puts into perspective just how beholden to food we are. And not just what time constraints we concede because w have to feed ourselves, but then what that means about human nature and what pars of ourselves we tend to ignore simply because they don’t involve the intellectual or the inspired.
And we are very beholden to food.
I doubt many people have seen the movie Over the Hedge. It wasn’t the most ground breaking animated film, but even then, I thought that their commentary on food was interesting. There’s a particular scene in which RJ the Raccoon enlightens the other characters about the relationship between food and people, and I think he puts it into a fairly comprehensive light. To someone observing from the outside, looking at a predominantly middle class living situation, it appears that people really do worship food. We make celebrities out of companies that make food not only easily accessible but taste good. We devote hours of television to enjoying the making and enjoyment of food, even if we can’t be there to enjoy it ourselves (Something that I’ve always found interesting when watching the Food Network).
But it’s not just the Travel Channel and the Food Network. There are even more hours of advertising on all networks for food; where to find it, what to order when you get there, and how much it will cost you. We have mascots, theme parks, video games, books, movies, and so many other forms of media based around food and eating. You can make the argument that capitalism makes a profit off of our necessity for readily availed consumables, and that’s a legitimate criticism. That may be correct, but I want to look deeper still. Perhaps it’s not just the monetary reward to making food available, but something essential about who we are as human beings.
There’s a bit if religiosity in preparing food. And I don’t just mean the religiosity of certain foods, like the Catholic wafer or unleavened bread in Judaism. There’s a ritual in food preparation and enjoyment, at least in places where food is plentiful. Personally, as someone who really enjoys the act of cooking as much as he does eating, I have a kind of reverence for the creation of a dish. You take out the pots and pans, plates and utensils you plan on using. You grab the oils and spices and meats and place them together on the counter. You begin a ritual of heating things, utilizing essentially sacred fire and oils at a special alter. You then take a bunch of ingredients and create something delicious out of a lot of things that, on their own, really don’t make a meal. Plating everything, making everything appetizing, and then sitting down to eat are all quasi-religious experiences, followed then by a cleansing of the dishes and utensils you used. It’s all ritualized, and if you’re someone that enjoys a home cooked meal, it happens almost daily. I feel like that illustrates fairly well our devotion to food. Even if you’re making something as simple as pasta or ramen, all of those things listed before still apply. It’s still a daily ritual devoted to the act of feeding.
Spice in the Time of Bland
I also submit that this is the way humanity has always been, and we’ve only grown more devout to food, even as it became more easily available. I think it’s interesting to think about the history of what we eat to appreciate just how far we’ve come and the lengths we’ve gone too in order to make the daily feeding ritual tolerable.
Food has never tasted as good as it has now. The best food that has ever existed resides in the present, and it will only be bested by whatever comes tomorrow. If you’re the kind of person that, like me, sometimes thinks “What would suckling pig taste like back in the time when that was something you would actually eat at a nobles estate?,” you need to concede the fact that no matter how good you might think it taste, it would be nothing like you imagine. In fact, go back only a few centuries and you find that food, at least to us, would totally suck.
Because making food that tasted good wasn’t really the goal. You needed food that would last and food that was available. If it tasted good, then great. If it fed you and your family, even better. But the latter part was the most important; you had to eat for the sake of fullness rather than enjoyment. Why were commodities like salt or industries like the spice trade so successful? Because that was one of the few ways that food actually became something enjoyable. If you didn’t have those things, food was bland and tasteless, and anyone would get tired of eating burned and bland meat and potatoes all the time, depending on where you lived. But with even a dash of salt, suddenly you have something that fills you and makes you happy. With a little sugar, you can make something sweet, and with some other spices, you can create dishes that define cultural identities. I’ve tried Saffron rods; those little vials that you can get in the super market for $25 when a little bottle of ginger maybe goes for $3. The reason that costs so much is because it creates a flavor unlike any you’ve really ever tasted until you try it. It’s not the greatest spice, but it is certainly unique, and it makes sense how something that could engineer that kind of flavor would be so expensive.
I can completely understand how all of the things I’ve said thus far still sound obvious. Yes, the spice trade made food good, and capitalism has kind of made an empire of food out of many countries, and food takes up a lot of our time. We just have to eat, that’s just how it is. How does that effect the human experience?
In the spirit of the philosopher, I challenge you to then imagine a world where you didn’t have to eat. Not everyone, just you. Suddenly, you wouldn’t die from starvation or thirst. The last thing you ate that filled up would be the last thing you would need to eat, and you would carry that feeling of fullness for the rest of your life without having to refuel. You can still eat things and digestion occurs normally, but for this experiment, if you chose to stop eating, you would just continue living without discomfort.
So what happens?
Suddenly, the staples of your home become irrelevant. You don’t need to store or keep any food, nor prepare it. Your stove, microwave, fridge, freezer, pantry… All of it is just space. You can clean it out, move out all of those things to make room for other things to enjoy. When you invite people over, something feels off about your home. Because a large portion of any home is designated to the creation of food, so without that, your home would feel just a little off from anyone else.
You have time to do things, and you’re always doing things because you never need to slow down to eat. You can get invited to dinner, in which you can go for politeness sake. You may even eat a little, but you wouldn’t seek out places to socially eat. Most of the time, people don’t enjoy eating alone, it’s an experience you want to share with others. But if you’re not searching for something to brighten up your palette, because you don’t need to, those kinds of engagements lose something to them. The satisfaction of eating simply isn’t there.
Those are only a few examples, but I submit that without eating, something inherently human is lost. The structure of the day around food, the seeking of desires, the hunger are all necessary to what make us people. It’s a visceral way to view humanity, but I also think it’s grounding.
We’re all just social animals. People are hungry.