How Humans Forgot How To Eat

When food culture became consumer culture, it all went to shit

The body horror of modern eating. Artwork by Tony Johnson, based on the movie Pan's Labyrinth

You are what you eat, and today we don't know what to eat. Ergo, we don't know who we are. The global food environment has become so uprooted, refridgerated, and transported that cultures haven't had time to adapt, leaving individuals adrift.

Hopelessly, we count calories, turning every meal into a math problem. We hear about countless studies, making the whole exercise calculus. We have replaced culture with science, community with capitalism, and needs with wants. Nothing adds up, and it's exhausting. We have somehow forgotten how to eat.

The Confusion

Once we just knew because we knew. Cuisines are cultural knowledge. As Stephen Le said in his book 100 Million Years Of Food, “traditional cuisines are products of exquisite culture, symphonies of flavors and complementary foods that arose from the mistakes and insights of generations of eaters.”

For most of human history these decisions were also physically constrained, by time and place on Earth. You weren't going to be cooking with palm oil where there was none and you weren't going to be having strawberries in winter. There weren't so many decisions to make.

Now cultures are flattened into consumer culture and food comes from what dipshits call Father Profit as much as Mother Earth. We have replaced localized community knowledge with global capitalism and environmental limits with limitless desire. Our ability to eat has vastly outstripped our ability to understand what the fuck we're eating, leading to the culinary confusion and body horror of today.

Everything is a choice now, and we're always choosing wrong. For millions of years our first choice was just left tit or right tit, but now it's breast milk or formula. Then do we just keep drinking milk forever? Is it cow milk, goat milk, cat milk, or whale milk? Raw milk, UHT milk, skim milk, or whole milk? What about oat milk, soy milk, almond milk, or coconut milk? What's the environmental impact? Why am I farting so much? Nobody fucking knows, and there's certainly no one answer for everybody. We've become mammals that can't figure out milk. Such is the confusion.

Food is complex everywhere, but over generations those complexities had been melded into cuisines, into culture, into religion even. The questions were answered on an ancestral level and you could sidle up to a plate of whatever your mother made the same as sidling up to her breast. Nobody knew exactly why it was good for you, but everybody just knew.

These weren't just cultural adaptations, entire genomes adapted, conferring the ability to process milk in northern India, or seaweed in Japan. This was all in some relative statis until the most flavor-deprived motherfuckers in the world decided to stir the pot. Until colonialism.

The Colonialism

Colonialism was the rape that led to the birth of the modern world. Its strange fruits permeate our cuisine in mostly unconscious ways. In Sri Lanka we think of chilli and sugary tea as being quintessentially us, but they're foreign. Chili is from South America, processed sugar emerged out of the slave trade, and tea was a colonial cash crop. Globally we talk about Swiss chocolate, Italian coffee, and British tea, but none of these products are from there either. These are all fruits of colonial rapaciousness.

Violent invasions moved goods and people across the globe, forever altering and intermingling our cuisines. This happened so long ago that cuisines have had a chance to sorta adapt. The cultural consciousness has had time to think, after recovering a bit from the rapes, abductions, and destruction of people themselves.

Colonialism's heir capitalism, however, moves even faster and the cultural brain is completely short-circuited again. Processed food moves much faster than our ability to process food. Today we're just mouths and rectums attached to global supply chains, trying desperately to insert a brain into the process.

The Capitalism

The trouble with capitalism is that the generational processing of the community has been replaced with the processing of the market. Markets have no sense of balance, make no accounting for the Earth, and are always focused on growth. Of course our waistlines are increasing.

While in most places native food cultures have survived and coexist with consumer culture, in places like America the destruction was almost complete. As Sean Sherman of the Sioux Chef said, "In Manhattan, you can go out for anything. If you want Peruvian food, if you want northern Japanese food, you can pick it, but you can't get the food of where you actually are."

The result is that you get these capitalist food deserts, where cuisine is reduced to commodities, where you fill your body up right next to your car. It's honestly a hellscape. Just look:

Interstate exit in Pennsylvania USA, via Reddit

Where I grew up, in Ohio, we ate at strip malls like this all the time. I guess you could call it a food culture, but it was really consumer culture that happened to be selling food. We could have been buying shoes or CDs or magazines, the market didn't care. In that place we went from diets locally calibrated over thousands of years to diets completely out of time and place.

The Category Error

That leads us to today, wondering what the fuck to eat. We've made this into a personal failing but it's really a societal collapse. Consumer culture tells us to eat, shames us for getting fat, and makes money on both ends. We're like motherless children and Father Profit is, neglectful, abusive, and mean.

Today individuals are turning to science for answers, but that's also a dead end. What science, and what questions? There's no coherent theory of nutrition, a thousand different variables, and millions of studies. It's just more shit to be confused about. Everything is either causing or preventing cancer, sometimes both. Complicated studies become simple headlines about magic berries. It's all commodified to sell us diarrhea tea (and more insecurity). Even food science is highly processed and usually unhealthy for you.

The one thing that's kinda known is that things were less fucked up in the past. As Le said in his book: "The principal argument of 100 Million Years of Food is that a plethora of health woes have surfaced in contemporary times due to our alterations to our ancestors' diets, lifestyles, and environments." He continues, "Eat traditionally and eat what your ancestors ate."

However, there's still another problem here. We, as individuals, are incapable of unfucking this. The very concept of a persona diet is a category error. Eating is really a social activity. Cuisine is cultural consciousness; it's our social intelligence adapting to an environment over many generations. This is a fantastic amount of information processing and we're expecting individuals to do this by themselves. It's an impossible task. Of course we fail.

The point is not that you forgot how to eat. You never knew. You came out eating whatever your mother put in your mouth and you were supposed to grow into a culture that also cared for you. Instead you grow into a consumer culture that couldn't care less. And so we're lost, motherless children in Candyland. We have access to everything we could want, but have no idea what we need. When we ask questions we get a pile of disconnected scientific literature. When we get it wrong we're judged and shamed. But it's not our fault. The stomach remains a child.

Hence the core insight is not any particular diet tips for you. Eating requires a culture, a community, a real connection to life on Earth itself. The core insight is that we've got to stop eating with our "I's" and start eating with "we".

This is written after reading the book 100 Million Years of Food :What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today, by Stephen Le (Buy/Borrow)