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Bread And Butter: The Role Of Food In (All Of) History


Sometimes people make suggestions for topics for me to cover in this food segment— everything from a neighbor who makes r eally good pie to the science behind digestion. Often these suggestions are problematic for one reason or another, but I hate to ignore them completely. 

Recently, my teenage son Leo suggested that I report on “the role food has played in history.” 


“All of history?” I asked. 


“Yes,” he said. 


Okay, so here it goes.


In the beginning, there was forbidden fruit. It might have been a fig, or a pomegranate, or even wheat. Until in the fourth century A.D., when Pope Damasus ordered the scholar Jerome to translate the Hebrew Bible into Latin and he made it into an apple, to be funny. But it stuck.


But before the beginning, there was the Homo habilis whose ancestors had to spend an enormous amount of time chewing just to extract enough calories to stay alive. One day one of them found an animal that had been killed in a grass fire and gave it a nibble. After that, they used fire on all their food to kill germs, destroy poisons, and make things more digestible. They called it cooking. Because of this, over the next few thousand generations, their jaws shrank and brains grew and boom, we had humans.


Then Natufian women in southern Syria invented farming which led to writing, math, and organized religion.


Once we figured that stuff out, we tackled fermentation and got drunk.


Then 7000 years ago, someone in Croatia stored milk for too long in a bag made of a goat’s stomach and noticed that it got chunky. They tasted it and thought it was pretty good, so they called it cheese.


In 800 BC the Greeks introduced olive oil to the Mediterranean.


And in 1135 King Henry I of England died, supposedly from indigestion caused by eating moray eel that had gone off.


After a while, people wanted to spice things up so they established trade routes for cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, pepper, turmeric and salt between the east and the west. Columbus landed in America looking for this stuff. People started trading other things. Potatoes went from South America to Europe. Tomatoes crossed the Atlantic and found a home in Italy. Chili peppers went from South America to India. They also traded things like silk and ideas and diseases.


Which led to war. And to get better at war, Napoleon invented canning.


During the 1600s sugar began to really boom. It accounted for a third of Europe's entire economy, and was the engine of the cataclysmic movement that brought millions of Africans to the Americas as slaves. Britain lost its 13 American colonies to independence in part because its military was too busy protecting its sugar islands in the Caribbean from other invaders.


In 1828 the word “cupcake” was first mentioned in a cookbook by E. Leslie.


Eventually railroads and steamships began moving food across countries and continents in days rather than months, and people could eat oranges in the middle of winter in places like Utah.


A drink was invented in 1886 by an Atlanta pharmacist at the Pemberton Chemical Company. Originally touted as a tonic for ailments, it contained cocaine from the coca leaf and caffeine extracts of the kola nut, and was called Coca Cola; the cocaine was removed from the formula in 1903.


And in 1895 cold cereal was invented in New York because people at health resorts were tired of eating hot oatmeal on hot summer days.


Then in 1909, two German scientists named Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, discovered how to chemically create nitrogen fertilizer, which revolutionized farm production and fed millions of people who would have otherwise starved to death. But Haber is also considered the "father of chemical warfare" for his years of work developing and weaponizing chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I.


Then, in 1961 Julia Child published “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”


But most of the world ignored it, because they were still adjusting from World War II when shortages and rationing introduced processed foods like margarine and gelatin into American diets.


After a while, tuna noodle casserole became a thing. And then it wasn’t a thing, thank goodness. Fondue became a thing. And then a scientist producing combat radar equipment noticed the candy bar he had in his pocket had melted and invented the microwave. Pizza pockets became a thing.


For a while, cake pops were popular, but people soon realized they didn’t taste very good.


And in an attempt to keep feeding the ever expanding population of the world, some scientists created genetically modified foods, and that made other people really mad.


And suddenly we had Asian fusion and wheatgrass shots and infused foams and goat-cheese blackberry ice cream.


And there you have it, the role food has played in history. and Leo can’t ever say that I don’t listen to his ideas.