The Omnivorous Mind

The Omnivorous Mind: our evolving relationship with food

JOHN S. ALLEN
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 266
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jbtbd
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  • Book Info
    The Omnivorous Mind
    Book Description:

    In this gustatory tour of human history, Allen suggests that the everyday activity of eating offers deep insights into our cultural and biological heritage. Beginning with the diets of our earliest ancestors, he explores eating’s role in our evolving brain before considering our contemporary dinner plates and the preoccupations of foodies.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06473-7
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Anthropology, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-7)

    It is late August, and I have two compelling tasks at hand. First is finishing this book. Second, and in need of even more immediate attention, is reducing the several pounds of zucchini-like tromboncino squash in the kitchen to dice so that it can be turned into a preserved relish. This is my own version of an age-old human dilemma—what to do with an excess of food. Should I share what I can’t eat, and with whom? Should I save it for later, and if so, how do I preserve it? Fortunately, I do not have to worry about...

  4. 1 CRISPY
    (pp. 8-39)

    We have all at one time or another been drawn to the allure of the crispy. Mario Batali runs high-end restaurants featuring wonderful (and often expensive) reimaginings of regional Italian dishes. At restaurants of this kind, the word crispy may be a bit too blunt to appear in menu item titles, but it can always be casually mentioned by the server when describing a dish or reciting the specials of the day. We do not go to fast-food restaurants for a personalized, subtle, or sublime dining experience, so there is little cause for restraint in these establishments; crispy is freely...

  5. 2 THE TWO-LEGGED, LARGE-BRAINED, SMALL-FACED, SUPEROMNIVOROUS APE
    (pp. 40-73)

    Animals such as goats and pigs might have reputations as natural garbage disposals, but as this anonymous nineteenth-century commentator pointed out, we humans do a pretty good job of eating an extremely wide array of foods. As a species, we have a basic biological proclivity to forage widely, to avoid specializing on a certain category of food. On top of this biology, however, culture makes us selective, dictating which foods we use and how to prepare them. The combination of cultural innovation and a biological predisposition toward generalized diets results in an almost infinite universe of foods associated with the...

  6. 3 FOOD AND THE SENSUOUS BRAIN
    (pp. 74-107)

    Perhaps as a nation Americans are a bit less taste-blind today than they were some seventy-five years ago. The romance of the TV dinner has passed, fast food is widely acknowledged to be rather less than a mixed blessing, and consumers increasingly look for some hint of quality or nature even in the most highly processed packaged foods. America is now a land of celebrity chefs, food-oriented game shows, an expanding network of farmers’ markets, and more cookbooks than one could cook from in a lifetime.¹ Yet at lunchtime the drive-through lanes of the local McDonald’s or Wendy’s overflow with...

  7. 4 EATING MORE, EATING LESS
    (pp. 108-148)

    Over the course of evolution, from jungles to deserts to mountains, humans have faced all manner of challenging environments. One might think that an environment in which an abundance of food and calories is readily available at all times of the year with minimal physical exertion would not be particularly challenging. Yet in the urbanized, developed (and developing) world, just such an environment is now widely seen as being quite hazardous. The issue is not survival—making it through childhood and reaching adulthood is the norm these days—but long-term health.

    The modern food environment has precipitated a “global epidemic...

  8. 5 MEMORIES OF FOOD AND EATING
    (pp. 149-185)

    Whenever I eat the French cake-like cookie known as a madeleine, I am immediately transported back to a freshman comparative literature class I took at Berkeley. We gathered that warm spring day on a lawn bordering Strawberry Creek, and the instructor brought us madeleines to help us understand how they served as a mnemonic launching pad in Proust’s Swann’s Way. Beyond the madeleines, I don’t remember all that much about Swann’s Way. I don’t remember the instructor’s name, but I do recall that there was a young woman in the class, a friend of a friend, whose boyfriend was a...

  9. 6 CATEGORIES: GOOD FOOD, BAD FOOD, YES FOOD, NO FOOD
    (pp. 186-220)

    In the late nineteenth century, Auguste Escoffier become the embodiment of the complexity and sophistication associated with classical French cuisine. He promoted and popularized this vision of French food primarily through the kitchens and dining rooms of the Ritz hotel chain. Many years before, however, the young Auguste Escoffier served as an army cook during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). In his memoir, Escoffier describes in great detail the lengths he went to in order to make sure that his men, and especially his officers, were able to enjoy as high a standard of cuisine as possible under the trying...

  10. 7 FOOD AND THE CREATIVE JOURNEY
    (pp. 221-254)

    In the 1950s, Japanese researchers started to provide sweet potatoes and other foods to a troop of macaque monkeys living on a small island off the coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s major islands.¹ They did this initially to habituate the monkeys, to make them more comfortable with human observers so that their behavior and habits could be more easily studied. Over time, however, it became an experiment to examine how the monkeys transmit knowledge and learn about food. One of the monkeys, a young female nicknamed Imo (otherwise known as 111), was seen dipping sweet potatoes into the...

  11. 8 THEORY OF MIND, THEORY OF FOOD?
    (pp. 255-272)

    I have so far managed to avoid drawing from the well of Brillat-Savarin’s gastronomical aphorisms, but I could resist no longer. Although Brillat-Savarin may be the epitome of a very French sort of gastrophilosophy, he makes it clear that he sees the art and pleasures of eating as a human universal. The universal importance of food and eating should be obvious to everyone. What we eat, how we eat, and even why we eat—all of this comes effortlessly to us. At least that is our perception. Knowledge and habits associated with food and eating come to us as naturally...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 273-302)
  13. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. 303-304)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 305-319)