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The History of Asking Your Neighbors for a Cup of Sugar

Borrowing from neighbors was once a commonplace practice, part of the web of relations we once had with those who lived within close...

Borrowing from neighbors was once a commonplace practice, part of the web of relations we once had with those who lived within close range.


Until the industrial revolution brought affordable modern technology—with it quick transportation and eventually the gleaming grocery store—acquiring kitchen supplies was a less frequent affair. In ancient times, hunting, gathering, and foraging were communal practices. And it wasn't long ago that many cultures, especially rural ones, still relied on weekly markets, traveling salesmen, and the growing of their own goods. But living in relative isolation also meant more contact with your neighbors because one of them probably provided your weekly dairy needs and another milled wheat for flour or grew pears you exchanged for apples.
Advances in technology, while convenient, have erased many food-based reasons for interaction with our neighbors. In fact, in pre-modern Europe, food and cooking brought neighbors together quite intimately by necessity; many homes had no ovens or only small hearths that were not big enough for bread baking and simultaneous cooking. (If you think having four stovetop burners, a microwave, a toaster, and an oven isn't a luxury, imagine just one heat source for all your cooking—and bathing—needs). Many communities relied on communal ovens and neighbors regularly left their breads or stews to cook over several hours or even overnight. Traces of this practice still exist in North Africa, Latin America, Europe, and elsewhere.
The early rise of cities meant easier access to supplies, but neighbors lived in such close quarters—think tenement buildings or row houses—that there was a constant exchange of goods and services across the yard or through criss-crossing streets. Before the rise of the big box store era, knocking on a door and asking for that extra cup of sugar or dolling out surplus tomatoes from an abundant yard garden were part of the rhythms of life.
Was this all idyllic? Did neighbors always readily share their supplies, generously give up their remaining dabs of butter, or leave room for a neighbor's occasional extra loaf in the communal oven? Obviously not. With the design of our sprawling cities and our reliance on modern technology and industry in so many parts of the world today, most of us no longer need to interact with our neighbors to source ingredients or cook our food, but this social distance is only a recent phenomenon in human history.
Sugar image from Shutterstock\n

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