Monday, February 16, 2009

Brain Food

As I have noted, if someone were to make a top five list of Paisa weekend activities it would probably look something like this:

5. Eat really delicious food
4. Spend time with friends
3. Visit with family
2. Chill at a finca
1. Party at your finca, with your family and friends, celebrating someone's birthday with lots of meat.

Guess what I got to do last weekend?

Alina's good friend Nati was celebrating her 25th birthday, and I was invited to join in the festivites at Nati's aunt's finca, about 30 minute outside of Medellin. After a great deal of vehicular logistics and last minute food shopping, we drove out of the warm, rainy Medellin night and into the mountains, finlly turning off of the autopista onto a dirt road that in turn deposited us at the threshold of Nati's finca.

Immediately, various male members of the party began clustering around the makeshift barbecue grill, blowing on the coals, and offering advice. Nati set to work reassembling the stereo and selecting appropriately festive music. (By morning, the neighbors had all been serenaded by a mix of the best of the 90's and Colombian Cumba.) The devastatingly seductive aroma of chorizo and toasting arepas slowly overshadowed the scents of the campo so that we all began eyeing the grill hungrily and hefting our forks. Candela, the neighbor's curious puppy, waited patiently beside the coals in the vain hope that something dreadful would call us all away and provide her with a window in which to feast. As we passed the bowls of steaming, cripy chorizo from person to person (there were not plates enought for everyone), a mug of mate--a caffeinated herb beverage--passed behind. I was more than content.

The food for these asadas (barbecues) is appropriately simple: arepas, chorizo, some cuts of beef, some butter, salt, and lemon juice. Upon my return to Medellin, I was savoring a different, though surprisingly apropo sort of culinary delight, my new book Feast by Martin Jones. Feast traces the uniquely human tradition of sharing food from Homo heidelbergiensis to the present day and disects the way that food sharing has shaped human culture just as human culture has shaped the experiene of sharing food. Only in humans, Jones relates, do groups not only hunt together but also share the fruits of their labor with extended groups of family and friends. Within the other branches of the animal kingdom, eating is a speedy event and the presense of other creatures is usually a challenge or a threat. But we humans not only tolerate the presense of others of our species at the table, we invite it. We build elaborate rituals around the sharing of a meal, tell stories, sing songs, pray, linger as the night grows deeper.

Shortly after returning from the finca, I happened to be reading about Neanderthals and how the development of stable family groups with hearthfires helped us grow a brain (and with it a real food culture). Food cooked with heat not only tastes sweeter and is more aromatic (a result of a chemical reaction that produces "Amadori products"), it is also easier to digest, as the fire has already broken down many complicated molecular chains into smaller pieces. Fermentation does much the same thing, coincidentally. Cooking with heat renders many toxic raw foods (of both plants and animals) suddenly nutritious, which allowed the human diet to expand and diversify. As humans no longer needed the endlessly regenerating teeth of a shark nor the four stomachs of a cow, we could care for the very old and very young (both of whom need soft, easily digested food) and use that extra caloric energy to grow a bigger brains. Our digestive equipment got smaller even as our brains got bigger. And what did we need that bigger brain for? The neocortex is a part of the mamal brain the size of which corelates with familiar group size and complexity of social interaction. We humans have a neocortex the size of which suggests a "friend" group of 150-200 people (think of your average Christmas card list). This larger group size was necessitated by the demand for greater social cohesion the better to survive in a swiftly changing world.

Which brings us back to the finca, where I sat happily munching away on arepas and chorizo and working hard to grow a bigger brain. I am a product and a producer of the same food culture that has existed for more than 40,000 years. It's manifestations are many and varied, but pretty much all (I'm convinced) are worth sampling.

1 comment:

Alexandra said...

Dude, I learn SO much from your blog! I look forward to checking in on it during my lamely-anti-social-sitting-at-my-desk lunch break. :)