Reflections on Food:1. Significance of Food


Mother Nature who art on Earth
Hallowed be thy ground.
May thy farms and fields flourish,
With fruits and grains that by all are found.
Give us each day our daily food
To us and to one and all.
Let’s work for the common good,
Let that be your clarion call.
Let’s not drift into selfishness
Feeding ourselves alone
When others elsewhere are hungry,
With nothing to call their own.
May we share the food we have,
For this we collectively pray:
May none suffer from starvation,
May all have food each day.

        V. V. Raman

 We are creatures on planet earth, in a niche in a vast universe of large galaxies and countless stars, amidst  planets in a solar system at an insignificant spot in the fringe of the Milky Way. In the language religion and the metaphor of poetry, we are blessed with body and spirit with which we experience this world.

The spirit thinks, generating thoughts, lofty and trivial, serious and light-hearted. It enjoys and suffers, conceptualizes and calculates. It is encased in a physical body. The body responds to sight, reacts to sound and smell, feels touch and relishes taste. It sees the wonder and splendor around, experiences pain and pleasure, and etches an individuality on the spirit making each one of us an unbridgeable insular entity at the deepest core. Yet, the body is sustained by many interconnected factors in the environment: light and warmth from the distant sun that sustains all life here below. The airy mantle that clothes our planet silently fuels our lungs.  So we inhale and exhale. This is the breath of life, the pneuma of the Greeks, the prana of the  Hindus, the chi of the Chinese.

Water quenches our thirst, cleanses our bodies, and cools us when surroundings are hot.  Rivers transport water back to the sea, the source of all the salt we need.

Of all the things that enable the body to function, the most enjoyable is food. The beauty of Nature can be seen and admired, the music of instruments can be heard and enjoyed. The fragrance of flowers is within our olfactory reach. What is seen or heard or smelled is not affected, nor diminished in quantity as a result of our experiencing it. But food needs to be personally consumed, and it reduces the source.  

One can live for many days and months without seeing a Monet or a Michelangelo, without listening to Bach or Beethoven or even the Beatles, and without relishing the smell of lilies and jasmines. But unlike beauty, sound, and smell, food is not a luxury, it is an everyday need, a sine qua non for living.

Then again, there are delightful sights and smells in Nature, and even the sounds of roaring waves and the cooing of birds to please our ears. All these are readily available.
For food, however, we need to labor, sow seeds in the ground and water the fields. Furthermore, even when we toil, we are dependent on cloud and rain for seeds to sprout. We rely on unseen forces and uncertain sources to harvest what we need.

Plato said “Knowledge is the food of the soul.” It is no less true that food is the gateway for the full experience of the soul, and it is food that enables us to contemplate the soul. The finest expressions of the human spirit emerge only in bodies that function well. Poor artists may have painted masterpieces, but there has been no starving Raphael or Rembrandt.

We have breakfast and lunch, snacks and dinner during each waking day. All these are part of an elaborate framework. That framework includes science and technology, economics and politics, culture and history too. 

Food has had enormous impact on the human condition. It is on this theme that I plan to reflect in the chapel talks this week.

Food is out there everywhere. We can see fields of wheat and corn, we  can walk through gardens of vegetables and orchards of fruits and vineyards. We find foods in grocery stores, in boxes of chocolates, and candies wrapped in glossy paper.  But all this can become part of us only when we eat them. It is eating that transforms inert matter into delectable taste. Only that which is edible may be justly called food, just as only that which is assimilated constitutes true knowledge.

As a bonus to eating, there is taste which is the experience that adds to the glory of this basic necessity for the human body. But for taste, eating would be as drab and demanding as routine exercise to keep the body fit. If we are grateful for the food we get, we must be equally thankful for the taste buds we are endowed with, which is perhaps an evolutionary trick to make sure we eat and live.

The farmer-author Joel Salatin wrote: “This magical, marvelous food on our plate, this sustenance we absorb, has a story to tell. It has a journey. It leaves a footprint. It leaves a legacy. To eat with reckless abandon, without conscience, without knowledge; this ain’t moral.” Yes, all foods have stories behind them. Whether cereal or milk, steak or salad, coffee or crackers, fruit or ice-cream,  every item we consume is the result of a long and intractable chain of transformations and processes that have evolved in Nature over the ages and have arisen through human effort and ingenuity.

Our pristine ancestors were for eons nomadic hunters and food gatherers. Between the epoch of the first appearance of humanoid creatures and the dawn of recorded history, our species procreated and propagated from generation to generation. Prehistorians have traced the activities and accomplishments our primordial ancestors during the early phases of their explorations and awareness of new terrains.

As with all other creatures, the first and foremost concern of Homo sapiens was survival which called for food and shelter from the elements. At one time human beings consumed practically everything they could lay hands on: earthworms, frogs, lice, and spiders, to name but a few which may seem  unpalatable to many in our own times. But some of these are available today in select upscale restaurants, reflecting our proclivity to progress and regress.

The need for variety and the desire for better things have always propelled humans. In the distant past this spurred hunting for large animals. Thus, from the very beginning, efforts to satisfy needs and desires have been among the  mainsprings of human activity. When all needs are met, and all desires fulfilled, there is no urge to improve upon what is easily available. If all materials needs are met, there might be no change and further search. On the other hand, it is only there is enough food to eat that there can be creativity in art and science and music.

When religions preach curtailment of wants, as they often do, they inspire us to ethically noble and spiritually uplifting modes. But too much restraining desires is seldom an incentive for scientific, technological, or economic  growth. Whether such growth is necessary for human happiness and to what extent it is even healthy, and at what point it may even become harmful are questions that ethicists and social philosophers have been debating for a long time.

Gradually, humans beings developed the ability to obtain more massive flesh, like that of the elephant and the reindeer,  the buffalo, the camel and such. Instinctively they kept away from the lion and the tiger. In any case, hunting by Homo erectus had some unexpected consequences. To begin with, most wild animals that hunt for prey, such as lions, tigers, and wolves, use brute force on their victims. Their piercing claws and sharp teeth rip open the bowels of the prey. But in the case of humans, the would-be prey was often stronger and more massive than the hunter, thick-skinned and wild.  Not all animals are as easily snared as the frog and the fish. This meant that humans had to devise other means to subdue their game. This they did with sharp stones and pointed sticks to begin with. In other words, humans began to use the resources of the world around in order to exploit Nature for their needs, and to explore new ways to augment their intrinsic strengths and capabilities. They began to manipulate things. Our ancestors became tool-makers. Thus was born technology. Its initial aim was to kill in order to feed. Who would have thought that it was the quest for fleshy food that gave birth to technology!

But even with tools and techniques, it was not always easy to capture the swift deer or the massive elephant. This could only be done by careful scheming, clever strategy, and coordinated action. That meant collaboration between different individuals. This called for communication through grunts and groans.  Thus hunting provoked humans to act in concert, to share thoughts and plans through symbolic sounds. A victorious capture led to collective jubilation. Social cohesion arose. Efforts to combine forces also led to better communication: the transfer of thoughts and ideas. Thus it was that   language emerged in human groups.

In other words, not only the material tools, but also the conceptual instruments of language and the spiritual dimensions of shared life arose from the hunting era.  Thus, the foundations of technology and of   culture  were laid by the most fundamental characteristics of our species: namely, perennial attempts to satisfy hunger, the urge to have more than what is available, and the ingenuity to exploit the resources that abound in Nature. Food has played a more important role in our history than one generally realizes.  The New World was “discovered”  as a result of a quest finding a shorter route to get for spices from the Indies. If there had been no cumin and pepper there might not have been a United States and Canada.

Some twelve thousand years ago, a spectacular change occurred. Unlike political revolutions, the agricultural revolution was not born of the mind, not stirred by ideas and ideals. It did not arise from an urge to fight imperialism or injustice. It was brought about  by the accident of discovery, by Nature thrusting upon humans the possibility of food from land on a regular basis. The agricultural revolution is perhaps the only revolution that did not call for the spilling of blood. As the cultural critic Daniel Quinn put it, it was “not an event like the Trojan War, isolated in the distant past and without relevance to your lives today. The work begun by those Neolithic farmers … has been carried forward from one generation to the next without a single break, right into the present moment. It’s the foundation of our vast civilization today in exactly the same way that it was the foundation of the very first farming village.”

Now there was an opportunity to settle down and produce food systematically. This was no small discovery. It took many centuries before its full impact was realized. Prehistorians have determined the particular grains that first came under humanity’s sway. As to precisely when and where this occurred for the first time, no one can be quite certain. There is considerable evidence that major transformations along these lines occurred several millennia ago in what we now call the Fertile Crescent.

As we all know, along with the agricultural revolution came the domestication of animals: the dog and the sheep, then cattle, horse, and other animals. This was another giant step in the human  control over Nature, for now human beings began to exploit the muscular power of oxen, the wool of sheep, the milk of camel and cows, the vigilance of dogs, and the speed of horses. The history of technology is no more than the history of humanity’s gradual harnessing of the resources of the world around us to mitigate muscular effort and enhance physical comfort. And it all began with the search for food.

Agriculture also meant settling down: to sow and nurture and reap. In between, there was time to relax, to reflect, and to stare at the stars. No longer was  every member of the group needed for food production. Clay, stone, and wood, which had  come under creative hands, began to inspire artistry and craftsmanship. The possibility of storing food averted famines, and it also increased population. The establishment of communities led to social order and communal activities. Some began to build better shelters, some to watch the skies systematically, yet others to sing and fantasize, and others still to just talk about it all in groups, if not in conferences. In other words, astronomers, composers, scientists, artists, poets and wordy philosophers: all could thrive only because food became readily available. This has been so all through history down to our own times.

This milestone also had considerable effect on Nature over the ages. Even during the hunting stage, human beings began to indiscriminately drive many a beast away from its natural habitat, if not push it to extinction. Gradually, human ingenuity turned to even greater assaults on the environment. Plants and trees have always grown in abundance in various regions of the world. The richness of the flora and fauna has more significance than their variety and splendor. We have come to realize  in our own times that the totality of plants and animals in any given place, and in various regions of the world, form an interdependent self-sustaining whole that we call the ecosystem. In due course, the complexity of the ecosystem was drastically reduced by human intervention. The channeling of waters by means of irrigation schemes began to erode the soil, creating imbalances in the ecology with the ultimate result that vast areas of lush vegetation were turned into arid deserts. The rich variety of fauna was replaced by one or just a few crops of advantage to humans. In other words, one important consequence of the agricultural revolution was that complex ecosystems were reduced to simpler ones, more prone to agricultural distress. The difference between ancient times and the modern is that in the past people did all this without knowing, now we do this with full knowledge.

The agricultural revolution transformed us from the Stone Age to that of settled  communities which invented writing. But food from land  also prompted the conquest of other peoples because not all geographical regions are equally conducive to the cultivation of wheat and corn, or the rearing of cattle and pigs.

In the modern world, as long as we live in a closed and self-sufficient community, with enough food to consume, we can simply eat and drink and be contented. That is how many generations lived and thrived, satisfied with what they had, and quite unaware of or indifferent to the wants and  insufficiencies of others beyond their own group. But in our own times, gory details of the contrast in the world are being brought to light all too graphically through magazines and televised news. That contrast is hard to imagine, it seems incredible and strikes as awful to many who are unaccustomed to it. At the one extreme we have restaurants in some cities where people dine with wines and fancy desserts for a few hundred dollars. At the other extreme there are anemic children and emaciated mothers who barely get a meal a day. Awareness of this unconscionable contrast prompts many to think of others, and to care for the pain and predicament of fellow beings. That is what constitutes moral awakening: It forces upon us an ethical responsibility that it is hard to shirk for a moral being.

Such is the story of food: from berries and beasts to haute cuisine, from a time when all had whatever was available to a phase where there is gross maldistribution of food, from the stage when food was just for nourishment to one where it is packaged and sealed, traded and transported and sold.

Beyond the menu in restaurants and recipe books, food has become a topic of great interest in today’s complex politics and grave concern in today’s economy. It has taken center stage in public discourse.

Let our satisfactions from the food we eat

Be incomplete without our sharing with others

In one way or another

Whatever we are fortunate to receive.

And to the ultimate source of our daily nourishment

Let us give thanks today as on every day.

 August 6, 2013

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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One Response to Reflections on Food:1. Significance of Food

  1. Arvind says:

    Nice read. I couldn’t agree more about the difference between ancient times and modern time in terms of awareness. I think we do tend to pay little attention to the influence of food throughout history. If it weren’t for this motivation and ingenuity, humans would have perished like many other creatures or perhaps never made such an impact on this earth.

    This topic does force me to think about the dichotomy in the evolutionary process. On one hand, nature forces us humans (and most other creatures as well) to co-operate and co-ordinate to survive by giving them survivalist instincts while on the other there, it seems to have also evolved a consciousness and thereby inculcating a moral responsibility to help each other out by sharing/ giving. What I do wonder about is, why this distribution of food, so uneven? Why have some human populations in specific geographical location provided with an abundance of resources while regions that have traditionally supported such vast cultures and civilizations not have enough to sustain itself? Or is this a result of the intervention of humans? Finally, what concerns me is what next? Do we rest assured that nature knows to take care of itself and this vicious cycle of exploiting nature for our benefit is intended or whether this will really cause an irrevocable damage to our environment?

    -Arvind

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