MY FAVOURITE HEADLINE on a food or drink story from this year (so far) appeared in The New York Times Sunday Review section in mid-March: “How Beer Gave Us Civilization.” It tops an intriguing piece by American author and psychiatry professor Jeffrey P. Kahn, who explains that a research team at Simon Fraser University has added credence to a 60-year-old theory that “some early humans grew and stored grain for beer, even before they cultivated it for bread.” Complimenting Mexican anthropological studies of teosinte (the ancestral grass that became domesticated maize), the SFU researchers analyzed the beer-brewing potential of stone fermentation cones and other tools from the remains of Natufian peoples in the Eastern Mediterranean (circa 10,000 years ago).
Kahn’s takeaway is that our ancestors’ booze prototype could have unleashed a suite of essential human characteristics. Whereas our ingrained social constraint made early humans “cooperate, prosper, multiply” and survive by giving “structure and strength of our primeval herds,” those first sips of fermented grain or fruit may well have helped trigger our senses of “exploration, artistic expression, romance, inventiveness and experimentation – the other human drives that make for a vibrant civilization.”
Alcohol has certainly flourished as an enabler, buoyed by a long tradition as a political, trade and religious deal-sealer. Given the title of Kahn’s 2012 book, Angst: Origins of Anxiety and Depression, it’s appropriate that he also links the beer-before-bread theory to our modern-day dark sides. “Today, many people drink too much because they have more than average social anxiety or panic anxiety to quell – disorders that may result, in fact, from those primeval herd instincts kicking into overdrive.”
What makes Kahn’s perspective fascinating is actually quite simple. Whether we baked dough or drank booze first is fairly inconsequential. Far more important is the idea that a slight intoxication could unlock critical parts of our caged behaviour – or incarcerate the once-free minds of those prone to alcoholism. It is the idea that incremental acts matter.
Once inside our bellies, the innate benefits of organic, slow-cooked, local food over hyper-manufactured meals from abroad may be obvious. The choice between them is an undeniable vote for one of two entirely different ways of living. In a similar vein, we know (albeit vaguely) how liquid courage can help us break out of our shells or that too much of it can lead to something we’d rather forget. Yet we probably don’t think enough about how such phenomena play out in whole communities or societies. Unfortunately for many, access to the ingredients that make or break a healthy diet (and a therefore fuller life) often hinge on whether there are more neighbourhood grocers than fast food franchises nearby, or if there is even a safe source of drinking water.
We are what we eat, or perhaps more precisely, what we put into our bodies determines what we’re made of. And in 2013, with more dysfunction, complexity and opportunity in our food systems than ever before, the choices we make every day when we eat and drink will gradually decide if our future generations evolve to become stronger or weaker.
This issue of A\J forages the next frontiers of food and drink. Taarini Chopra forecasts the unsettling trajectory of genetically modified alfalfa, which could change Canada’s farming sector forever. Emily Van Halem explores Ontario’s budding world crops movement. Ralph Pentland and Chris Wood explain the heinous neglect of water supplies in First Nations communities and how chemical contaminants have jeopardized our sexual health. Kyrke Gaudreau travels to the Israeli desert to discover that scientists and vintners are working on a formula to control the flavour of wines in the age of climate change. And Klaus Pichler’s intimate portraits of decayed food offer a bleak (but strangely beautiful) glimpse at what the global north wastes while the global south starves.
We hope this crop of stories feeds your mind and fuels your next step forward.
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