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Food for Thinkers: Traces of the Future

From dried fish bones in Qatar and early descriptions of the tomato in English cookbooks to the difficulty of reconstructing historical kitchens.

I admit it. I'm completely overwhelmed by the incredibly quality and quantity of posts written by so many of my favorite writers for Food for Thinkers week.

So, as I count down the last hours of the week (at least here in Los Angeles), here are a handful more tasty treats for your delectation.

We'll start in the past, with Colleen Morgan at Middle Savagery, a professional archaeologist who "encounters food at its least appetizing—as the discarded remains of past peoples." Her post, "Digging Up and Eating Fish in Qatar," describes the painstaking work of picking up every last "tiny, translucent fish bone" scattered in the sandy remains of the clay-lined fire pits.

Incredibly, in order to assemble a reference collection of Gulf fish bones, one of Morgan's team members is "eating her way through the selection available at the local fish market."

She selects the fish, photographs it, carefully guts and prepares the fish for cooking, cleans, collects and dries every tiny bone, then curates them in boxes labelled with their taxonomic name. Shark, bream, hamoor, and dozens more had been carefully selected, cleaned, and served up to hungry archaeologists, who made note of their relative tastiness and ease of cooking.


Counter-intuitively, the diets that Morgan's team are documenting are probably closer to the kinds of things we might be eating in the future than to our contemporary diet:

People in the past ate an incredible array of foods, prepared in interesting and sometimes unlikely ways. If we can draw out this past knowledge, we have more resources to confront modern problems relating to disease, sustainability, and poverty.

Meanwhile, Tom Nealon of the antiquarian food blog, Cruditas, and the used and rare bookstore, Pazzo Books, traces the way the explanations given about a food's origins in historic cookbooks—whether true or not, and, more often than not, they are the latter—invariably tell a deeper story about a culture's beliefs, prejudices, and assumptions. Nealon exposes the culinary imperialism underlying European descriptions of the "accidental discovery" of mole poblano ("How could the natives have possibly come up with something this delicious? It must have been luck!"), as well as the warring instincts to both appropriate and avoid the foreign that are revealed in John Gerard's 1597 description of a tomato.

"'I rather wish Englishmen to content themselves with the meate and sauce of our owne country then with fruite and sauce eaten with such perill,'" Gerard complains—before going on to "claim that the tomato is descended from the golden apples of the Hesperides, i.e., it had supposedly been a European ingredient all along."

Nealon's post, "De Condimentis (8): Food History," published at Hilobrow, is an enjoyable reminder that the stories we tell about food often say much more about ourselves than the ingredient or dish in question.

Moving onwards to consider food's past as reconstructed in the present, Kitty Sutcliffe, the erroneously named Boring History Girl, bemoans the lifeless offerings of kitchens at most cultural heritage sites:

Often when I visit cultural heritage locations, be they royal palaces in the UK, imperial complexes in China or the ruins of Roman cities in Italy, I am drawn, as a food person, to the kitchens. […] Often I am left cold. Freshly cleaned floors, so different to mine with skins of onions mixed in with little piles of spilt sugar and pebbles of cat food. If I'm lucky there might be a wax cast of something that might be a kipper. Or is it supposed to be cake?


Why not, she asks, pipe in cooking smells, at the very least? Better yet: "Make the most of it—make it edible." You can read Sutcliffe's suggestions for serving Roman takeout and Tudor mincemeat at the appropriate locations in her charming post, "The Way to a Good Tourist's Heart is Through Their Stomach."

Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?

Follow the conversation all week here at GOOD, join in the comments, and use the Twitter hashtag #foodforthinkers to keep up to date.

Image: Photo by Alexis Pantos, via Middle Savagery.

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