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.


October is domestic violence awareness month and when most people think of domestic violence, they imagine mostly female victims. However, abuse of men happens as well – in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. But some are taking it upon themselves to change all that.

Keep Reading Show less

At this point most reasonable people agree that climate change is a serious problem. And while a lot of good people are working on solutions, and we're all chipping in by using fewer plastic bags, it's also helpful to understand where the leading causes of the issue stem from. The list of 20 leading emitters of carbon dioxide by The Guardian newspaper does just that.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via International Labour Organization / Flickr and Michael Moore / Facebook

Before the release of "The Joker" there was a glut of stories in the media about the film's potential to incite violence.

The FBI issued a warning, saying the film may inspire violence from a group known as the Clowncels, a subgroup of the involuntarily celibate or Incel community.

Incels an online subculture who believe they are unable to attract a sexual partner. The American nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center describes them as "part of the online male supremacist ecosystem" that is included in its list of hate groups.

Keep Reading Show less

Since normalizing relations with Communist China back in 1979, the U.S. government and its companies that do business with the country have, for the most part, turned a blind-eye to its numerous human rights abuses.

In China's Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang, it's believed that over a million members of its Uighur population are being arbitrarily imprisoned and tortured in concentration camps. Female Uighurs in detention are being given forced abortions and subjected to sexual mistreatment.

Keep Reading Show less

The vaping epidemic is like a PSA come to life. A recent outbreak of vaping-related deaths and illnesses has affected people from across 46 states. More than 800 people fell ill, and at least 17 people died from vaping. In Illinois and Wisconsin, 87% of the people who got sick said they used THC, and 71% of people also said they used products that contained nicotine. Symptoms of the illness included coughing, chest pains, shortness of breath, nausea, and fatigue. We finally might now why.

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic believe toxic chemical fumes, not the actual chemicals in the vape liquid, might be the culprit. "It seems to be some kind of direct chemical injury, similar to what one might see with exposures to toxic chemical fumes, poisonous gases and toxic agents," Dr. Brandon Larsen, a surgical pathologist at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, said in release.

Keep Reading Show less