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Food has lost its story. Stripped of context, meaning, and reduced to its molecular composition, ancient recipes for health and joy long to be recovered.
Recipes are ancient prescriptions for health, loved and labored into being by our ancestors. Responding to necessity and a primordial desire to experience pleasure and satiety while doing so, those who came before us perfected their edible relationship to their land and their culture. The result: codified combinations of nutrients, tastes, smells, modes of preparation and sourcing, which we know as recipes, and without which we would not be here, alive today reflecting on the subject.
If food, as Hippocrates said, is medicine, knowing and applying the proper dose and combinations – the recipe – will make the difference between a food, a dish, being healing or harmful. In this sense, recipes are prescriptions. In fact, the first literal use of the word 'recipe' was in the 1580's when for the French it meant (and still means) medical prescriptions. Handed down initially through oral tradition, recipes contain information no less fundamental to our well-being and survival, than the DNA within our genome.
Recipes provide a set of instructions from our generational predecessors explaining with just enough specificity what ingredients and combinations are required to nourish our bodies, but open-ended enough to guarantee creativity and variation based on individual and regional preference (For example, there is no universally correct molecular weight for a "pinch" of salt ). Generally speaking, for a recipe to live on past its conceptual life, it must continue to produce pleasure on the palate and ensure deep, authentic nourishment. In fact, a good meal will poignantly activate all the senses, reminding us through the enjoyment of food, that embodiment itself is not just a physical thing. As C.S. Lewis said "You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body."
Consider too, that the method of preparation and the appropriate season for preparing were included in these prescriptions suggesting that those considerations – these stories - were as significant as the ingredients themselves. In essence, the purpose of these recipes has been and continues to be to orient us to the edible universe in a way that not only sustains and perpetuates our physical life, but produces a pleasure-mediated experience of being alive.
To say, then, that food has a cultural significance is shallow. More accurate would be to realize that food has – or had – a mythical significance. The association of turmeric, for instance, with the Hindu "golden goddess" Kanchani of healing and compassion makes logical sense when we know that the spice has been confirmed through scientific methodologies to be of potential value in over 600 disease conditions. Myth, we must remember preceded logic, was denied for hundreds of years by it, and is only now, albeit as of yet peripherally being confirmed through the scientific method.
And so, we ask the fundamental question: has the myth - the story - been stripped from our food?
The Greeks posited that mythos and logos are two channels of interpretation, two overlapping and interpenetrating leaves of reality. Mythos is the story. Logos is the language. The former refers to the direct lived-experience of a thought or a thing or a food, e.g. the mood or intention of a word, versus its strict form. We may identify mythos with a more phenomenological approach to understanding, as we are allowing the things themselves – the phenomena – to present themselves to us through lived-experience in their potentially infinite depth, before the reducing valve of reflection and prejudgment kicks in.
Conversely, the logos-governed or logical approach would be to decide beforehand what the essential structure of reality is to be experienced before experiencing it. For instance, we can not reduce the rapturous explosion of flavor (mythos) known as umami to the receptors on our tongue scientists now tell us are "responsible for the effect" (logos) – at least not without the type of experiential blood-letting that occurs when we try to explain away an experience into its constituent, molecular parts.
Logos is the code – often written – that we agree to use in order to make the transmittal of facts efficacious; it also lays claim to the essential forms of our experience, even though it will never fully convey what is there. 'Apple' is what we have agreed to call the round, red fruit. Where we run into trouble is when we realize we have ignored that taste, memory, smell along with the social context or commensality (the social symbiosis of sharing food) of the experience of eating the apple.
How did we procure this apple? How does the apple bring back 10,000 other associated experiences we have had connected with apples, real or imagined (including this Apple laptop we are writing on) when we experience it? And yet, how does this lived-experience compare with my telling someone who asks what we had for lunch,"We had an apple." Does the meaning transpose from my lived-experience (mythos) to the word (logos)?
So, is not the mythos as important in describing the thing itself as the logos? Could it be even more fundamental? The soul is, after all what animates this bag of enzymes which is the human physiochemical 'body' but which is itself not measurable through the trappings of empirical science? Despite such tragic dilution, we insist on transposing mythos to logos in order to pare things down and save time. In this translation, we gain efficiency but we lose so much more.
In postmodern society, we have dismantled and destroyed (and then reconstructed) many of these recipes with an arrogance typical of those who believe they can improve – in a few easy steps – the work of generations; substituting timeless 'folk wisdom' with an uber-strict diet of synthetic formulations. Feeling superior in our scientism, we are unaware of how our very souls lose animation and self-contact on such a faux diet exorcised of authentic desire and pleasure.