Food & Story - Throughout Time

Aug 8, 2017

This depiction of an early tribe's hunting reflects Wayne Hughes' thoughts on the role of food in survival and perpetuation of the human race.
Credit Smithsonian Virtual Tour / Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

I’m Wayne Hughes with a brief appreciation how we eat and its place in the hierarchies of food-taking, shelter seeking, reproduction.

Somewhere on the vast plateau, the tiny band of scantily-clad men, women and children knew from experience their stubborn tenacity was about to pay off.  Shadowing the herd since sunup, they had separated an aging bison bull from the throng and gradually worried him toward the sheer cliff.  He had turned to challenge them several times, but his deep-bred fear of the fiery sticks they waved and piercing noises they made prompted him to turn and flee until he reached the crumbling edge and plummeted to his death.

In a few hours, the small group of four or five families had reduced the two-ton animal to bones and hide remnants.  As always, their mission was to cut the meat in strips, hang it to dry over their fires and in the scorching sun.  But first, to feed, to replenish.

The fire that menaced their prey then made the meat more palatable.  Over the years, as they shared the bounty with their companions, a primal message arose again and again from their subconscious: eat all you can, for the next successful hunt may not be for days. 

And the circle repeats through millennia: food-taking, shelter-seeking, reproduction.  Regardless of how sophisticated the hunter-gatherer’s band, or the wealth accumulated, over and over those mandates strengthened, food-taking gradually becoming a ceremonial place in the group, the tribe, the community, the nation.

Basically, we celebrate with food in much the same way those buffalo hunters did, but more as an abstract way to honor all three priorities.  We believe, whether it’s an intimate family gathering or the massing of hundreds with a common purpose, that the meeting will be more successful if organized around a meal, symbolic as a religious ritual or as real as a table-groaning feast. 

Over two millennia, food-making has become the fourth hierarchy.  For many, from the individual connoisseur to those who’ve planned grand banquets for royalty, how the food is prepared and presented is as important as it’s taste or contribution to civilization.

And, as most teenagers know, food-taking can also delightfully informal.  Lifelong friendships, sometimes lifelong commitments, find beginnings with the ritual consumption of the ubiquitous hamburger, the eternal French fries and the ever-present soft drink. That ritual sometimes repeated often enough may lead to a decision to shelter together and then: well that’s a discussion for another time.