In the beginning there was... the meal
Have you seen the Danish film ‘Babette’s Feast’ and do you remember the feast itself, where Babette cooks for the frugal and abstinent congregation in an outlying community in West Jutland? At first local fishermen and farmers gather around the table with tense expressions on their faces. But during the course of the lavish meal, old hostilities dissipate and the community unites.
“The meal can create community, it can reinforce an existing community, it can differentiate a community. It can remind us of how important a sense of community is.” These are the words of Ole Mouritsen. He is the President of the Danish Gastronomical Academy, Professor of Biophysics and head of Smag for Livet (Taste for Life). Ole Mouritsen knows something about most things when it comes to food and what it relates to. Here he talks about what the meal has meant to mankind throughout time, from the earliest age to the present day.
COOKING MAKES US HUMAN
We have to go back a few years in time. A few million in fact. That is how long ago man first lit a fire and used it to cook food. We gathered around it and the meal as we know it today came into being.
“The community around the meal is partly due to, and perhaps particularly because, man began cooking food using heat from the fire. Anthropologists believe that as a species, we began to cook food using heat 1.9 million years ago,” says Ole Mouritsen.
Ole Mouritsen is particularly inspired by Richard Wrangham, who is Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University. Wrangham is ground-breaking in his research. He believes that cooking over fire is the reason for man’s evolutionary success. That cooking made us human. At the same time, he throws a spanner in the works of evolutionary theories that tell us our ancestors ate the same food as apes: raw, unprocessed and difficult to digest food. That kind of food would require a third of the day’s hours to chew and digest. According to Wrangham, neither our stomachs nor brains are designed for that kind of food. Food cooked using heat makes the food more easily digestible and therefore softer. At the same time, it contributes nutrients and therefore more energy, and that was necessary for the development of humans’ large brain. According to Ole Mouritsen, our brain uses about 30% of our energy, and therefore cooked and nutrient-rich food has always been important to us.
THE FORMATION OF A SENSE OF COMMUNITY
“The men went out hunting and gathered food, while the women looked after the fire. And there you already have the suggestion of communities you can call families,” says Mouritsen about the small units that gathered around the fireplace and ate in the evening.
He continues: “Food cooked using heat made community possible, because cooking food with heat freed up time. It meant that now our ancestors didn’t have to spend eight hours a day gathering food and eight hours chewing it, there was time for something else. And it is that time that anthropologists believe made it possible to build social structures, cultures and develop language, which in itself is not a necessity for survival,” he explains and refers to Wrangham’s theory that cooking with fire gave rise to couples getting together and marrying: “You became a sort of food couple, because it was expedient for those who looked after the fire and those who were out hunting to be connected to each other.”
THE MEAL IS LOVE AND RESPECT
We found out how to divide the work, and how to share the food and give it to each other. We learned to orient ourselves in relation to each other and we got to know each other. Cooking using fire civilised man and the meal became a gathering point of everyday life that has lasted throughout time.
“We offer each other food at a meal, even if we haven’t made it ourselves, and I think there is something very fundamental in that. It shows love, kinship and community,” explains Ole Mouritsen and tells how in some cultures food is used as gifts and that food has a symbolic meaning.
“There is a respect for each other in a meal, but also a respect towards the gift of receiving food, which we’ve forgotten to an extent, because today food in our society is readily available and plentiful. We don’t appreciate it in the same way as we have in the past, where the daily bread was what it was all about. Because it was our livelihood,” says Mouritsen.
A WHITE TABLECLOTH SETS THE STAGE
However, we can do something about the decline in respect for food and the meal. Ole Mouritsen also believes that the prelude to a meal can be important for a sense of community: “By talking about what to eat and helping do the shopping, by being included in a meal you create an opening for the meal to turn into a community.” In the same vein, for example, the table setting can help define the framework for the meal:
“We’ve always put a white tablecloth on the table in my family when we’re going to eat and yes, it often has to be changed when you have children. The white tablecloth sets the stage for what is going to happen next. And I can see that my children, who now have small children of their own, also put a white tablecloth on the table. A framework has been set and they can be different from day to day, but the white tablecloth is a part of us. Others perhaps use a silver spoon or a particular candlestick,” says Ole Mouritsen and suggests that it might sound a bit ostentatious, but the white tablecloth just has the function of emphasising a fixed and recognisable framework and at the same time creating an atmosphere.
Mouritsen believes this kind of action creates continuity and that generally it is a good word to associate with the meal scenario: “In addition to the meal having characterised us as humans, the meal creates continuity for the individual throughout life, but also for the family and through the generations,” he explains, even though the meal as a gathering point looks set to lose its position.
A record number of people live alone today. The small unit, the family, which in the course of time came together by the fireplace, have each gone their own way. This means that many eat alone.
“It’s pure brutal Darwinism, where the strongest wins. On a long-time scale, half a million years ahead, if it makes any sense at all to talk about so far in the future, you can easily imagine that those who have chosen the single life will not survive. This doesn’t mean that they die from one generation to the next. But, if the shared meal has an evolutionary function, it will in the long-term eradicate those who live alone,” says Ole Mouritsen. However, he says that the research has a more contemporary focus, which examines what the meal does to us over several generations. One example is that the way we establish communities around the meal can be related to lifestyle diseases:
“It has always been a mystery why people in Mediterranean countries have traditionally had fewer lifestyle diseases than others. Some talk about the healthy Mediterranean diet. But if you go through the various elements of this diet, they are not in themselves any more or less healthy than what we eat, or what others eat. However, in Mediterranean countries the meal is what the day is all about, it’s a tradition that you gather at the meal, you cook it and everyone eats together,” says Mouritsen. And it is apparently this powerful food culture that is crucial for a well-balanced diet, which ultimately gives a healthier life.
In spite of the knowledge that food culture creates healthier lives, the odds are stacked against the meal. It seems that today, the meal is something that you simply have to get over and done and out of the way:
“The evening meal today isn’t an absolute thing, it’s something you don’t take seriously. Often people don’t eat at the same time, because it’s more important to get to football, or whatever it may be, than to cherish the community around the meal. And this not only applies to the community where we eat together, but also to cooking it together and how we follow it up afterwards. For many, the meal has become something that has to get over and done with and out of the way. It’s become a stop on the way from one thing to another,” he says about the trend of food in passing. “Food culture is rapidly changing and we must be aware that if we forget community during the meal, then we may also remove ourselves from some of what characterises us as human beings.” And with that Mouritsen makes a major case for cherishing the meal for the sake of culture, for health, for the community ... for the sake of mankind.
Published by HOUNÖ
Text: Journalist Lousin Hartmann
Photography: Moment Studio
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