Food Fundamentals

The story given as the ‘beginning of archeology’ makes me a little hesitant. I was interested to learn how the categories of the ‘Ages’ were originally developed, but I expected something a bit more….scientific? Does anyone else think it’s weird that our chronology of early civilization is based off a government employee with no education on the subject deciding to categorize artifacts, saying “Yeah, that looks about right,”?  To be fair, Anthony goes on to list genuine historical criteria for determining chronology later in the article, but I thought I’d start with a comment on his introduction.

I especially liked Anthony’s section on food as cultural identity. It actually reminds me of Diamond (doesn’t everything remind me of Diamond?) – not in a comparison of subject matter, but in a question of fundamentals. Anthony writes:

“Long ago, before all these modern conveniences appeared, getting food determined how people spent much of their day, every day: what time they woke in the morning, where they went to work, what skills and knowledge they needed there, whether they could live in independent family homes or needed the much larger communal labor resources of a village, how long they were away from home, what kind of ecological resources they needed, what cooking and food-preparation skills they had to know, and even what foods they offered to the gods…wealth and the political power it conveyed were equated with cultivated land and pasture.”

Isn’t this exactly what Diamond contends? I think his work sees a bigger picture – concerning energy within a total environment, but I would say Anthony’s opinion on the importance of food in early history and culture should influence how we think about Diamond’s work. It would seem that not just any resources conferred technological dominance and power to cultures and people, but those specifically pertaining to the efficacious production of food. And this isn’t a coincidence; water and calories seem to be the most fundamental needs of a human. Diamond is all about the fundamentals: what were the ancient causes of certain societies’ (Europe’s) historical dominance over other peoples? However, I think we can reach a deeper conclusion. Anthony’s section on food, beyond the opening paragraph, carries an implication that food is such a good indicator of history and culture because it is so fundamental to both. My point is: I want to qualify Diamond’s ideas. I don’t think he went deep enough. I think a society’s ability to provide for its people outweigh other ‘energy’ factors. For example: silkworms provide a means of production within a society. They’re a useful domesticate. This doesn’t however, dictate that a society creating silk will have the means to become superior to its neighbors. Chickens, on the other hand, are a better domesticate, because of their higher caloric content. Cows are even better, as you can both eat them, and use them for labor in agriculture. Doesn’t it make sense that the fertile crescent was the center of early humanity if you consider they developed agriculture and grain cultivation?

I’m not sure I’ve actually broken new ground on any of this – we’ve touched on similar issues in class before. But I really took to the quoted paragraph and Anthony’s “What Did They Eat?” section. Regardless, I think this is something worth revisiting if class discussion heads in its direction.

Seven Goats, One Human

Bulliet would have a field day with this. Goat Song is probably the most quaint, quiet, romantic thing I’ve ever read. It just oozes idealized affection for nature, long walks in the woods, domestication, and self-reflection over quotes pulled out of Walden.
On a personal level, I enjoyed Goat Song; I’m a boyscout, I have a soft spot for nature, particularly when romanticized in the fashion Kessler does, with quotes like “Wind rakes the trees. Clouds float shadows through the grass…I’ll open that tome again and find this day again inside its rind: the aromatic grass, the leaves, this wind.”

This book was a little difficult to tie in to the rest of our readings, as Kessler doesn’t really seem to have any sort of secret motive to convert his readers to a way of thinking. Most other readings make some sort of claim that I can rage against and explore, but Goat Song is easily the least incendiary thing we’ve read.

With that said, I feel we can make a decent discussion out of comparing this to Bulliet’s perspective and thinking. Kessler starts with a quote pretty early in: “A story about what it’s like to live with animals who directly feed you. I tell of cheese and culture and agriculture, but also of the rediscovery of a pastoral life. Rediscovery because the longer I lived with goats the more connections I saw to a collective human past we’ve since forgotten, here in North America at least.” Bulliet actually starts with something fairly similar as well, as he hearkens back to past years where everybody was a farmer, and moves on to discuss the First World’s break from animal slaughter. Now neither of these summaries have any real assertions to them, but I’d like to think Bulliet would look fondly on Goat Song. I’m moving in to speculative territory here (because I’ve yet to figure out Bulliet’s actual viewpoint on most of what he writes about), but the idea of a ‘rediscovery’ seems to fit quite nicely into Bulliet’s model of a domestic and post-domestic world being fundamentally different. In fact, that’s what Kessler seems to imply throughout the reading. Everything seems to move in this direction toward a more primal, fulfilling life, as if the domestication era had some secret of the universe that the post-domesticate world forgot. And while Bulliet never actually gives an outright affirmation toward the farms and lifestyles of his boyhood friends from Indiana, there certainly seems to be a sense of fondness and nostalgia (which I might consider similar to our ‘paleo nostalgia’) around those idealizations. And although I certainly don’t want to discount such nostalgia as uncritical and idiotic (as I have never experienced a domestic lifestyle and frequently feel a sense of longing for a similar world), it would seem prudent to be wary of such romantic thoughts. Domestic nostalgias aren’t backed by the same pseudoscience (or legitimate science) as paleofantasies are, but we shouldn’t take the breezy descriptions by Kessler (and Bulliet) at face value. I’m sure there are plenty of downsides to living in a domestic world, even if Kessler chose to omit them.

I think I can say a few things about Diamond’s ideas pertaining to this writing as well. While Diamond’s work is firmly rooted in science, I expect he as well would be fond of hearing Kessler allude to experiencing a ‘collective human past.’ Such a reference seems to support ideas of domesticates as the original ‘technology,’ and (if we are to follow Diamond’s theory) feels very European. If Europe became the dominant continent partially due to superior domesticates, then mustn’t nostalgia for such a ‘past’ be rooted in Europe?

That all may be a little circular and roundabout, but I think I’ll have a better chance of making my point in class anyway.