Ever since we developed the ability to throw a spear and harvest plants mankind has relied on the wisdom of our ancestors to guide our food choices, assess quality and utilise best practice when growing, rearing and preparing food. Archaeological findings indicate that for millennia our traditional food culture remained largely unchanged. This is not surprising. Understanding the rituals of food (rearing, growing, preparing) was a need not a hobby.
For 99% of the population best and safe practice was based on an unwritten, rock-solid, oral code. It was a thread stitched from one generation to the next which over the years formed a vast, patterned cloth.
The only way to survive was to learn how to stitch the thread, understand the patterns and pass the know-how on to the next generation. The patterns formed by the uninterrupted thread formed a vast data bank of knowledge based on years of experience, experimentation and intuition that all could master not just the elite, the learned or the very skilled. To this day experts deem traditional practice best practice.
Famine, bad harvests, food shortages and wars troubled populations eager to feed their family and the wider community. In this period people talked about “food”. The concept that anyone should feel obliged to describe food as “real” would have sounded about as absurd as does the suggestion today that we wear “real” shoes, breath “real” air or live in “real” houses. Of course food is real – what else should it be? Marble? Mankind worried about wasting away from famine, plagues and fevers not from cancers, diabetes or heart disease.
The nature of food during the classical period
All traditional foods are natural foods and for that reason earlier populations worshiped and feared nature in equal measure. The gods of nature were petitioned to prevent famine, pestilence or wars. That is not to say that food was static or that mankind did not dabble in nature to produce more pleasing results. Thus, einkorn was encouraged to morph into spelt, spelt into wheat, low-protein wheat into high-protein wheat etc. The introduction of new world foods to the old world and old world foods to the new world marked a major shift in the diet of many. North and South American native populations ate pork for the very first time and European populations enjoyed potatoes, maize and tomatoes for the very first time.
Either way, the changes occurred over a gradual period of time allowing the metabolism of local populations to adjust to the changes in the food that were taking place – and nature ambulates forward at the speed of a donkey tasked to walk in circles around the mill stone. Never at the speed of light.