You are what you eat: the deep roots of food culture

You are what you eat: the deep roots of food culture

It is a saying we all know well, but we underestimate the many ways it is true, especially from a historical perspective. Moreover, if we tweak the phrase slightly, we can gain even greater insights into the relationship between food and society.

"You are what you eat," is literally true. Our body cells are made almost exclusively of what we eat, drink, and breathe. Stuff goes into the body, stuff goes out of the body, and the part that remains, is the body. This simple observation spawned a variety of beliefs about man's creation.

Maize constituted the major part of the ancient Mayan diet, so it shouldn't be surprising to learn that they believed the gods made humans out of maize, but only after trial and error. The gods first tried to form man out of mud, and then they tried wood. Only after they made a human out of maize were they happy with their creation.(S2) The funny thing is, in some ways, the Mayan legend is true for Americans. For every 100 atoms of carbon in the typical American body, 69 of those atoms were ultimately derived from corn. Little of this comes from direct consumption of corn, but instead through corn by-products in processed foods and, since most livestock in the U.S. consume corn, through meat.(G3)

Figure 1—Ancient Sumer

Since most of the food we eat is ultimately acquired from plants, and plants grow out of the earth, man is essentially a product of the earth. Thus it shouldn't be surprising that a number of creation-stories have the gods making man out of earth. Stories from ancient Sumer said that man was created when a goddess kneaded clay, placed it in her womb, and later gave birth to the first humans.(S3) Ancient Greeks believed that Prometheus molded a shape of man with mud, which became human once the goddess Athena endowed it with a soul and the god Eros breathed the spirit of life into it.(L1).

Figure 2—Ancient Greek Creation-Story

The Christian Bible states that man was created from, "the dust of the ground."(G1)

If you are what you eat, you want to be careful about what you eat, right? Let's look at how some familiar religions viewed foods.

Out of Eden

Figure 3—Garden of Eden

For Jews and Christians (and in many ways, Muslims), humans are creatures fallen from grace, living in a sinful world. Because the original sin is said to pervade our bodies, it should not be surprising that we eat a sinful diet. Think back to the Garden of Eden, before Eve was tempted with an apple. What did Adam and Eve eat? They ate fruits and nuts exclusively, by one interpretation. Vegetables and meat both involved killing, and there could be no killing in paradise, right? So fruits and nuts were the food of choice because eating them didn't involve the death of anything. Other interpretations might have Adam and Eve also eating vegetables, especially since the "beasts of the earth" were allowed "every green plant," which presumably would have involved foods like broccoli. Note also that the animals in Eden were vegetarians. If there were tigers, they ate soy-burgers! Yet regardless of the interpretation, the humans and animals in the Garden of Eden were undoubtedly vegetarians.

Quotation 1—The menu in the Garden of Eden

Then God said [to Adam], "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food."
Genesis 1:29-30. The Student Bible. New International Version. Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids, Michigan

So as humans left paradise, they had to leave the Garden's diet. Being sinful, humans ate a sinful diet, which suggests the phrase, "You eat what you are." But man was still expected to minimize his sins. This expectation is probably the reason that Kosher diets allow eating animals that are vegetarians, like cows and sheep, but not pigs, that are omnivores. They thought, if we cannot be vegetarians, we should at least eat animals that are. If you eat what you are, and you want to attempt a sinless life, the Jews thought it best to eat foods with the least sins. This thinking is probably why Jews and Muslims can eat beef, which is a herbivore, but not pigs, which are omnivores. The rules dictating what they could and could not eat seem to be guides as to which animals are closest to being vegetarians.(A1,S1).

Of course, meat is no longer considered a sinful food by most Christians. We are talking about our ancient ancestors and what they believed, not the morals of our age. Most Christians today believe it permissible to eat all foods derived from animals, including meat. One of the justifications for this is in a revelation to St. Paul in the Book of Acts of the Christian Bible (though this is not without some controversy, and there are other justifications than those in the Book of Acts). In the Middle Ages, a number of heretical sects arose (I say heretical from the view of the Catholic Church). These sects encouraged not marrying, not having children, and not eating meat. So when one particular person during the Medieval Inquisition was accused of being a heretic, he attempted to prove his adherence to Catholic Christianity by saying, "I am not a heretic, I have a wife, whom I love, I have children, I eat meat...(S4)

Figure 4—Torture during the Medieval Inquisition

A kindred story exists in the Zorastrian religion. The one “uncreated spirit” named Ahura Mazda created the sky, earth, and humans, providing an ideal life where there was happiness and abundant food. Humans had easy access to clean water and fruits unprotected by skins or thorns. One could acquire food from animals without having to kill them (I assume this means the humans consumed dairy but not meats). The end of this sister Garden of Eden came when evil entered the cosmos, after which humans had to kill animals for their meat. For these and other reasons, ancient Zorastrian’s often avoided meat and were charged with being good stewards of their cattle.(L3,S4)

Think of the eastern religions who believe in reincarnation. Believing one to be a former animal, and knowing a cow or bird could be an ancestor, many of these individuals consider meat consumption akin to cannibalism, so it is not surprising that their preferred diet is vegetarian.

Figure 5—The Dalai Lama as of 2013

Quotation 2—A Buddist view of animals

Each dog, cat, fish, fly, and human being has at some point in the beginningless past been our mother and shown us love and kindness. Such a thought should bring about our appreciation.
—The Dalai Lama. 2001. An Open Heart. Little Brown and Company: NY, NY. Page 120.

What I find interesting is that many cultures believe gods and spirits also need earthly food. Ancient Sumerians believed that long ago the gods ate grains and meat, while humans ate only grass and water. Because the gods could never satisfy their appetite from the food they made themselves, they gave man domesticated animals and crops to raise for both himself and the gods. Only then, with the regular, sacrificial offerings of food to the gods, did they ever feel full. If man and god eat the same foods, and if you are what you eat, then men and gods are made of the same substance.(S2)

This is for my homies

The earliest religions probably included ancestor-worship,(F2) where descendants would occasionally leave aside some of their food in respect for the dead—something referred to as a libation—as if their ancestor spirits needed the food. Some Africans have maintained the libation ritual. When President Obama first visited his relatives in Kenya, while sitting at the eating table they deliberately dropped some food on the floor of their apartment, presumably for their ancestors.(O2)

If you think about it, the practice is still alive in America. Rappers today periodically say they are, "pouring one out for my homies," where libations of malt liquor are poured on the ground in respect for dead friends. Such practices are referenced frequently in Hip-Hop music, like DRS's 1993 song and video Gangsta Lean. The sacrifice of food and drink for gods and spirits is a widely-observed practice, and is done even among those who do not believe the gods or spirits actually consume it.

Video 1—Gangsta Lean by DRS.

Consider the following logic that might help explain libations. If you are what you eat, and humans are to exist after they are dead, for them to be the same entity in the afterlife, then man and spirit must consume the same food and drinks. Yes, sometimes we take the "you are what you eat" to absurd lengths, even when we know they are absurd—but taking things to absurd lengths is what humans do best!

Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are

Figure 6—Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)

Consider a phrase slightly different than, "you are what you eat," written in 1825 by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are." This statement speaks volumes about food's role as a marker of identity. Today you can often tell a person's political affiliation by the foods they eat. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes, "Liberals sometimes say that religious conservatives are sexual prudes ... But conservatives can just as well make fun of liberal struggles to choose a balanced breakfast-balanced among moral concerns about free-range eggs, fair-trade coffee, naturalness, and a variety of toxins, some of which (such as genetically modified corn and soybeans) pose a greater threat spiritually than biologically."(H1)

When I showed this quote to a liberal friend he replied with wit, "And conservatives don't care what they put in their bodies as long as it is quick, convenient, and cheap!"

We will return to these two observations later, but for now let's look at how food in history was used to mark social identities. In particular, we will see how views on meat can take many different forms, according to the time and place of a people. First, consider the ancient world.

Ancient Greeks and Romans took particular pride in being "civilized," and part of being civilized was producing food through agriculture, especially grain production. Bread was seen as the food of choice for a civil, honorable, and strong society. This was a stark contrast to the German barbarians to the north, who loved to hunt and consume large amounts of meat. About 80% of calories consumed by the Greeks were from grains, and as they settled colonies around the Mediterranean (like frogs around a pond, Plato once said) they would always establish wheat, vines, and olives. Roman soldiers' main food was bread, and when they listed the many reasons for their superior military, bread was among them.(M1)

Figure 7—Roman soldiers

Later, when various German tribes conquered the western part of the Roman Empire they brought with them a meat-loving culture. For the Franks, Goths, and Vandals, a man's greatness was signaled by his ferocity in battle, his yearn to hunt, his consumption of beer, and the amount of meat he could eat in one sitting. As we will see, this attitude towards meat would remain strong in Western Europe. Europeans would later immigrate to North America, where love of meat would be taken to an even higher level.

Reveal your greatness by the food you serve

Today, food is a political issue, but in the past, few people would have had any political affiliation because most of the population would have had few political rights (at least in the democratic sense). Therefore food from the Medieval Age to the modern age served instead to signify social class. Nobles, the clergy, and peasants could be distinguished by their income, their dress, their houses, and importantly, their dinner table. You could tell a person's income almost exclusively by the percent of their income spent on foods made from grain, which was mainly bread and porridge. Jesus' comment that "man cannot live off bread alone," was so profound because bread (and its poorer sibling, porridge) was so prevalent, and constituted the majority of the diet of the poor. His statement meant that man needs more than earthly food for true "living."

If one was able to rise through the social classes through the accumulation of wealth, it was considered imperative that others recognize this ascent. Announcing one's ascent was performed largely by hosting banquets and dinner parties where wealth was made evident in the variety of valuable foods served. There would be no gruel, of course, and if there was bread, it would be white bread, enhanced with sugars, fats, cheese, and the like. It would not be simple bread, but dishes like pastries. There would be lots of meat, and preferably much of it from birds.

What's so great about birds?

The audience may find it surprising that bird meat was valued more than beef, when today chicken is a poor man's meat, at least compared to beef. There are two reasons for this concept. One, only in the last century have we learned how to produce chickens at less cost than beef. Even until the 1950's, chicken was considered a rarity, usually reserved for Sundays. Then chicken prices fell, and chicken became a regular at the dinner table. This reduction in price was achieved by breeding more efficient birds, growing more nutritious feed, and keeping the birds inside a barn.

Quotation 3—Chicken? On a Tuesday?

Twenty years ago broilers sold for 65 cents a pound, and fried chicken was a treat for Sunday dinner...Now chicken is cheaper than hamburger...
—Mobley, Ralph D. [Interviewee]. Interviewed by Jules B. Billard for the 1970 National Geographic article, "The Revolution in American Agriculture." Page 158.

The idea of bird meat being inexpensive and available to everyone is a very new idea. Centuries ago the poor rarely ate birds, not just because they were more expensive, but because it seemed to violate the natural order of Providence. An order described as: The Great Chain of Being.

The Great Chain of Being

People thought about plants and animals as existing on something called the Great Chain of Being, a hierarchy of life forms that provide food. The general idea was that everything consisted of (in order of lower to higher life forms) earth, water, air, and fire. This concept meant that food obtained from inside the earth was of a lower form than food acquired from the water. Next came animals that breathe air, and finally animals that flew in the air, namely, birds. There was even a category for fictitious animals like the Phoenix.

Figure 8—Great Chain of Being (1579)

Carrots and onions formed in the earth, and so were considered the lowest of forms. Spinach, whose edible parts were above the ground, was one rung higher. Fruit hanging from trees was even higher in the air, so apples were superior to spinach.

Plants were always grounded in the earth and so would always be the lowest of foods. Water was superior to earth, and so fish existed higher in the Great Chain of Being than carrots, spinach, or apples. Land animals lived both above the ground and the water, placing them in the realm of air and earning them a high placement on the chain. The only thing higher than a land animal (ignoring the Phoenix) is one that can actually fly in the air, and that was why birds were considered such higher, nobler forms of food. That belief, in conjunction with the fact that they were more expensive, made them a signature dish of the rich, noble households.

Eat according to your class

People took this Great Chain of Being seriously. It wasn't just that people with more money tended to buy better foods. In some areas, it was against the law to consume luxuries beyond your social class, and this included food. This situation meant that a peasant who suddenly came into riches could not immediately buy fancy clothes and throw lavish dinner parties. In Renaissance Italy, these laws could be surprisingly specific about what could be served, how many dishes could be served at a time, and how many guests one could invite. It was even against the law for a person of nobility to be seen eating too poorly.

People thought it morally right that the nobles ate distinguished foods. This belief preserved what people saw as the natural order of the world. The Renaissance citizens of Florence expected their leaders to gorge themselves on partridges and fowl, because it demonstrated that the leaders were maintaining a proper social order. If your leader ate poorly, then he was weak, and an invasion or civil war loomed. The Carolingian Empire built by Charlemagne (8th and 9th centuries) came to an end with the rejection of Guido, after which an archbishop of Metz remarked, "No one who is content with a modest meal can reign over us," (M2, p. 180). Particularly large fish would be reserved for the local rulers, not with an attitude of resentment, and not just because they anticipated a handsome price, but because doing so was part of an objective theory of the universe's order. Doctors prescribed different diets based on the patient's social strata, and they would assert that peasants should consume largely vegetables, not just because they were cheaper, but because they were biologically suited for the peasant. A famous Italian saying goes, "He who is used to turnips must not eat meat pies."

Quotation 4—This was also true in the ancient world

In the ancient world, the widely held humoral theory and theory of correspondences ensured that most individuals were culinary determinists, believing that what you ate made you what you were in strength, temperament, intelligence, and social rank.
—Lauden, Rachel. 2013. Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History. University of California Press: Berkeley, CA (USA). Page 50.

So in a sense, food differed by social class, not just for economic reasons, but out of obedience to Providence. Just as horses and goats ate similar but not identical diets, the poor and the rich were destined to eat different foods. People didn't just subscribe to this view of food as symbolism. They believed the nobles were nobles and the peasants were peasants because of the food they ate. It wasn't just symbolism, but biology. Birds were considered superior creatures, and it was by consuming birds that nobles became so refined. This thinking makes it seem like a poor man could climb the social ladder by eating fowl, but remember, the poor man was destined to not eat fowl, people thought, so to try this trick would be to defy Providence. Providence decided that the rich would eat more meat, and it was the consumption of that meat which made the rich superior. So the saying, "you are what you eat," still held true, but you did not get to decide what you ate. That decision was up to the Fates.

And of course, what is true in one culture is not necessarily true in another. Many Native Americans took pride in their ability to go without food for extended periods, as it demonstrated their potential to survive a food shortage. The Iroquois especially discouraged gluttony in eating, and threatened to their children that if they ate excessively, a mythical monster would arise to humiliate them. Spartan children in ancient Greece were also discourage from eating excessively, and part of their training as a youth was to teach them to endure hunger.(C1,L3)

Take your earthly world and shove it!

Figure 9—Medieval Monks

The order of that earthly world was partly defined by food, as we have seen, so one who wanted to renounce the world could simply renounce established rules of eating. Most monks rejected meat, because it was a symbol of violence and sexuality. The church also sought to force people to follow its austere diet through ritual fasting, lent, and various holy holidays.

Insulting the meat

Meat doesn't have to separate people into lower and higher classes. It can also be used to enforce equality.

Today, bands of Dobe in the Kalahari Desert continue a hunter–gatherer lifestyle, living very similar to our ancestors before the rise of agriculture. They especially value meat, though it constitutes only 30% of their diet. The men may hunt for days to bring home meat, and when they do, they share it equally among everyone. You might think the women would act grateful when the men return from a successful hunt, loaded down with as much giraffe meat as they can carry. They do not. Instead they perform a ritual called "insulting the meat," where they complain about its poor quality regardless of its actual quality. One person may lament that it isn't very fatty, and another that there isn't much to go around. These expressions of ungratefulness are performed so that the hunters do not think themselves superior. It is as if the Dobe understand exactly how easy it is for food to create social inequality, and they swing far in the other direction to make sure it doesn't.

Tell me how you eat and I'll tell you who you are

We have considered the phrase, "You are what you eat," as well as the phrase, "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are." We could also add the phrase, "Show me how you eat and I'll show you who you are."

Plutarch wrote, "We do not sit at the table only to eat, but to eat together," and indeed, how we eat with others is an expression of our social relationships.(M2) Everyone knows that King Arthur and his knights sat at the round table to demonstrate equality, but the tales of King Arthur are probably fiction. The round table does exist in many Muslim eating traditions, also to express equality, though instead of using a round table they sit on the floor.(A1) Other societies use long, narrow tables for the deliberate purpose of creating inequality. One knew their social standing by how close they sat to the noble at the head of the table. Ancient Celts mixed inequality and equality in how they ate. When they feasted to celebrate a military victory they sat in a circle, but the order in which people took meat, and the cut of meat they received, was determined by their rank in Celtic society.(L3)

Figure 10—King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

While eating etiquette has always existed in some form in 17th century France, it arguably became more important than the food itself. How people ate indicated their place in the social pecking order. Before the 17th century, meat and spices were more expensive, so the rich would demonstrate their wealth by serving foods with large amounts of meat and generous portions of spices on everything. By the 17th century, both became cheaper, especially spices, so even poorer households could use sugar and cinnamon. The aristocratic response was to seek something else to separate the classes, and thus emerged a complex set of norms about how nobles interacted with each other, including their table manners. Now, the only way to mimic the rich was to spend time at the court of Louis XIV and learn the rules, but if you were not rich, you would not have this opportunity. The separation between the nobility and everyone else widened, and this custom spread to all the other European courts, from England to Russia, and lasted for centuries. It was during the age of Louis XIV when Europeans started using forks (Persians had used them a millennia prior), and guests started using napkins to wipe their hands instead of the tablecloth.(A1,D1,Z1)

Figure 11—Louis XIV of France (1638-1715)

So show me how a European ate 200 years ago and I'll tell you whether they were nobility.

Figure 12—Setting a fancy table

You can tell what period an American lived by how they ate. The tradition of eating together with your family at a table in the evening is a modern invention. Before the Industrial Revolution, Americans ate their largest meal around noon, and it wasn't the social event that it is today. But as the Industrial Revolution kept the primary worker away from the home for most of the day, it was only possible to interact with your family in the evening, and so evening meals became the special event that it is today.(C1)

Figure 13—The quintessential family dinner

You can't make this stuff up

In ancient Greece, members of the Dionysian cult would demonstrate their religious devotion by tearing apart the flesh of a live animal, and then eating it raw, believing the body of Dionysus was present in the flesh, and his blood was in the wine they drank. Scripture from this cult states, "He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood will not be made one with me, or I with him, and he shall not know salvation." This verse probably sounds family to many Christians.(A1) The idea of food being the substance of a god has a long history. Why did they do this? Dionysus was the god of many things, including wine, ritual madness, and ecstasy. So, I guess if you want to curry the favor of Dionysus, you would get drunk and go mad.

Figure 14—Dionysius, god of wine and ritual madness

There are no modern equivalents to the Dionysian ritual that I know of, and I can only think of two examples where a culture eats fresh, raw meat from a mammal. In Ethiopia they eat the raw ground meat of livestock immediately after slaughtering;(P2) and there is at least one African tribe who, after shooting an elephant, reach inside its ear to eat its brain while it's still warm.(A1)

Whether we look back a century or a millennium, food is seen to serve complex roles in human culture. This article deliberately avoids discussion of historical or contemporary America, because that subject is covered in the next lecture.

Related material

A Perennial Plate video demonstrating the importance of Maize in Mexican culture.


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References for these article are in the article You are what you eat: American roots of food culture.