The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food [NOOK Book]

Overview

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.
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The Omnivorous Mind: Our Evolving Relationship with Food

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Overview

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.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Nature
Whether we're obsessing over intricate recipes or daydreaming about chocolate, our minds are often focused on food...Allen uses this mental gustation as a lens on our biological and cultural past, through anthropology, food history and the experience of chefs. The result is a banquet. Ranging over food cravings and aversions, cultural preferences and diets, he serves up plenty of amuse-bouches, not least an unusual take on the global love for the crispy and crunchy.
New Scientist

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

Boston Globe

[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

Wall Street Journal

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

Prospect

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

Financial Times

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

Richard Wrangham
John Allen combines evolution and modern biology to produce a feast of fresh ideas about our eating habits. The Omnivorous Mind is a fascinating reflection on the deep meanings of food.
Smithsonian blog - Jesse Rhodes
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.
New Scientist - Catherine De Lange
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.
Boston Globe - Kate Tuttle
[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.
Wall Street Journal - Leo Coleman
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.
Prospect - Kathryn Hughes
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.
Financial Times - Stephen Cave
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.
Choice - A. P. Boyar
In this natural history of food, eating, and the mind, readers learn how cognition relates to the human experience of food and how eating shapes complex cognitive processes.
New Scientist - Catherine de Lange
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.
Smithsonian blog

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

Nature
Whether we're obsessing over intricate recipes or daydreaming about chocolate, our minds are often focused on food...Allen uses this mental gustation as a lens on our biological and cultural past, through anthropology, food history and the experience of chefs. The result is a banquet. Ranging over food cravings and aversions, cultural preferences and diets, he serves up plenty of amuse-bouches, not least an unusual take on the global love for the crispy and crunchy.
Library Journal
Research scientist Allen (Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Ctr., Univ. of Southern California; The Lives of the Brain: Human Evolution and the Organ of Mind) brings together the latest findings from neuroanthropology, cultural history, and evolutionary psychology to explore people's relationship with food and shows how it depends on ecological, technological, and sociocultural contexts. Ultimately, according to Allen, people not only eat but also think food, and how and what it means to do so are complex acts of biological and cultural significance. He concludes with a "Theory of Food," arguing that diet, in the broadest sense, is a complex cognitive ability, similar to that of language, easily developed when people are children but difficult to alter as they age. VERDICT Other books such as Martin Harris's Good To Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture have explored the topics of food and culture, but this title does so with a refreshing emphasis on the physiological and evolutionary aspects of our relationship with food. Recommended for readers seeking a better understanding of their complex relationship with food and its biological and cultural significance.—Jon Bodnar, Emory Univ. Lib., Atlanta
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674069879
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/30/2012
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 707 KB

Meet the Author

John S. Allen is Research Scientist at Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center and the Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 6: Categories: Good Food, Bad Food, Yes Food, No Food


Soft-boiled eggs

Beef liver aux fines herbes

Cold meat

Swiss cheese

—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.

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Table of Contents

Introduction I

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

Notes 273

acknowledgments 303

Index 305

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