Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A little introspection is a dangerous thing

Part of my job revolves around the concept of Traditional Knowledge: The way indigenous communities are the initiators and owners of ideas and lifestyles. TK could mean the way a specific type of plant is used by a small people group, or the way another group manages their lands or livestock.

It is a heavily contested field, legally, as indigenous communities fight to protect their right to be compensated for the use of their resources and knowledge.

Which makes me wonder about invention and discovery. Who was the first person to discover that milk could be transformed into cheese, and that cheese would go well with pizzas? “I’ll have a, er tomato sandwich, please” does nothing for me. What did people call a bad joke before cheese was invented? A milky joke? You can churn up milk and wrap it in muslin, add a bit of rennin and maybe a dash of lemon juice, and there you have cheese. Or you could add all sorts of other stuff, leave it on a cool shelf for a year and you have stinky cheese. Who decided that that would go nicely with water biscuits after the coq au vin?

And wine- we have indications that it has been around for thousands of years, and yet it seems an odd discovery. Fermented (rotten?) grape juice. Some insane primitive sitting on his rough-hewn stool, deciding to drink some rotten grape juice, and eat lumpy milk which has been lying around for a year? He deserves to be compensated for that act of bravery. Traditional Knowledge? Traditional Insanity.

King Henry I of England was said to have died from a surfeit of eels. Anyone who can eat so many of the hideous fish deserves to have a life-threatening experience. Who decides that eels look tasty? A surfeit of fillet steak? Sure. Eels? Nope. Leave ‘em to the taster.

I defy you to wander around your local supermarket and look at the food (Note: Push a trolley, put some stuff in, or you’ll be followed by store security). Think about the long road, the endless timeline that has brought those packaged boxes to your corner of the world. Imagine the wealth of discovery, even the ill-guided, sometimes fatal, mistakes which led to food being available to you.

Right now, I’m tasting some wine, and it seems alright. Presently, I may have some cheese-flavoured chips. Between the two foodstuffs, I am spanning the whole of Europe, possibly even the Americas and the Middle East. I feel wiser and more knowledgeable already.


  1. Fascinating.
    Like how they came to the conclusion that the little snack-packs should contain only 3 TUC biscuits.
    Ahem. I spose thats not quite what you meant... but the only other thing I could think of was the freaky stuff you see in the Chinese shops!

  2. Supposedly, the pivotal moment in the civilization of makind was a certain type of wheat or grain that eveloved to no longer self-disperse its seed in the wind; it forced man to cultivate the seed, plant and harvest instead of just wandering around gathering things.

    I am something of an intuitave cook; I experiment with things I have around and see how they turn out (usually its good!) I am guessing people with similar *adventurous* personalities/palates helped develop interesting comestibles over the centuries.

  3. @angel: No! That's exactly what I meant. I get distracted by the way food is produced and marketed. And the way different cultures have differently developed palates. Fascinating.
    @brandy101: I'm glad pumpkins and coconuts don't disperse in the wind.
    It takes a special talent to mess with ingredients in the kitchen, knowing that the family may go hungry as a consequence.


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