- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
An authoritative...guide to the ways in which humans eat with their minds as much as their stomachs. This includes the relationship between food and memory, language and diets, and the importance of categorizing foodstuffs...Anyone curious about the human condition will welcome the diversity.
— Catherine de Lange
[Allen's] lucid, careful examination of how we think about food (as well as how our brains receive input about food, whether we're actively cogitating about it or not) is a welcome addition to the growing bookshelf exploring the brain, about which we know more and more but never, somehow, enough.
— Kate Tuttle
In The Omnivorous Mind [Allen] explores our biological equipment for taste and the ways in which each culture builds a unique cuisine upon a shared cognitive blueprint...Allen admirably conveys that our varied taste is both what makes us human and what marks each of us as an individual.
— Leo Coleman
John S. Allen's The Omnivorous Mind is a clever and original take on how we think about food. Allen is a research scientist, which means that he's less interested in the cultural history of food—how the pickle migrated from Eastern Europe to New York, for example—than he is in hard appetite. Allen's approach involves the intriguing, if inconclusive, results that come from peering at brain scans and noticing which bits light up when we're asked to think about different foods. Some of his best conclusions involve mapping current food preferences onto the long march of evolutionary biology.
— Kathryn Hughes
In The Omnivorous Mind, neuroscientist John Allen takes the long view of our eating habits, tracing their development through the evolution of our species. He expands on the increasingly widespread view that "the obesity epidemic that is occurring in developed countries throughout the world is ultimately a result of placing bodies and minds evolved for one environment in one that is wholly different." The emphasis here is on "minds," as Allen convincingly argues that our capacious brains have been profoundly shaped by the need to ensure a steady food supply. The reward pathways in our grey matter therefore compel us towards the sugariness that denotes ripe fruit or the fattiness of high-energy meat. But this system honed to extract the most calories from an unforgiving environment leads us badly astray when it is placed in a land of plenty. There is, however, hope. Our eating habits are rooted in our physiology but they are, nonetheless, also mediated by the culture in which we grow up. This is evident, for example, in the case of taboos, in which different cultures frown upon the consumption of some perfectly good foodstuffs, such as pork (as in Judaism or Islam), beef (in India) or insects (most of the western world). Allen astutely compares this to learning a mother tongue: we are all born hard-wired to acquire language, but which language we learn depends on our culture. Similarly, we are all born ready to acquire ideas of what counts as food and how to get it, but which food ideas we acquire depends on our upbringing. Applying this to the obesity problem, Allen argues we can shift our food culture towards a lower-calorie model, emphasizing more sophisticated pleasures than the salt/sugar/fat hit provided by a culture of pizza and ice-cream. This is like switching to a second language: it is not a simple decision but involves a great deal of effort and mental readjustment. Indeed, he claims, many diets fail because they underestimate just what a radical step it is for us to change these imprinted eating patterns.
— Stephen Cave
There's lots of terrific information about why we like crispy foods and how food drove evolution...[A] substantial tour of human history by way of the dinner plate.
— Jesse Rhodes
Chapter 6: Categories: Good Food, Bad Food, Yes Food, No Food
Beef liver aux fines herbes
—Menu of September 1, 1870, Battle of Sevigny, Auguste Escoffier
In the late 19th century, Auguste Escoffier became 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 (1870–1871). In his memoir, Escoffier describes in great detail the lengths he went to 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 circumstances. In addition to the basic military stores of tinned meat and fish, Escoffier raided the countryside and village markets for sources of fresh meat, poultry, eggs, vegetables, and herbs. Suckling pigs were obtained and quickly converted into pâtés, which he called les pâtés du siège de Metz after the pivotal battle of the war.
Cooking and coping with the privations of battle could not have been easy for Escoffier. Yet, it is clear that he managed to maintain his sense of what a meal should be, despite the conditions. The menu above, one of several battle meal menus he provided in his memoir, is a manifestation of the mental template for “meal” that Escoffier carried in his mind. The reality was a meal composed of eggs obtained locally, left over beef and liver from the previous night’s dinner, herbs collected on the go, and some cheese. More than likely, it was not served elegantly, in courses, but on a single tin plate. Yet, for Escoffier, it is clear that the four separate components of the meal could be categorized into courses: a starter, a salad, a main, and a cheese course/dessert.
For Escoffier, this exercise in categorization was part of what made this collection of edibles a meal. In recording this and other wartime meals in his memoir in formal menu form, Escoffier raised them to a higher level than simple military grub. He put these humble repasts on equal footing with the extraordinarily complicated meals he later prepared for royalty and other celebrities. Escoffier retrospectively fashioned these simple menus to show that he cared about and put great thought and effort into his wartime cooking. Although he was limited by raw materials and primitive conditions, he did not abandon his principles or his training. He did not stray from his mental template of a meal.
One of the basic categories that all humans employ is that between food and non-food. No one eats everything in the environment that can be consumed and digested by a human. It seems to me that Escoffier is an example of taking this distinction one level higher: he makes it clear that he provided food for his men and not simply fuel. Escoffier’s battlefield cooking endeavored to go beyond mere sustenance, despite the wartime conditions. Escoffier worked to turn the results of his foraging into a cultural product, a creative expression of his mind, rather than leave them as a collection of nutritive substances. Central to this act of re-classification was classification itself, in placing the different foods into their ordered places in the menu.
1 Crispy 8
2 The Two-Legged, Large-Brained, Small-Faced, Superomnivorous Ape 40
3 Food and the Sensuous Brain 74
4 Eating More, Eating Less 108
5 Memories of Food and Eating 149
6 Categories: Good Food, Bad Food, Yes Food, No Food 186
7 Food and the Creative Journey 221
8 Theory of Mind, Theory of Food? 255