Artichokes are in season and are abundant on the shelves of Spanish greengrocers, but not in the Portuguese ones. Biotechnology professor José Miguel Mulet, 50, was going to board a plane for Lisbon from Valencia to give a conference when he noticed that his Portuguese host, with whom he was sharing the flight, had checked in a box of artichokes. It turns out that he loved them, but he told her that in Portugal people were unaware of them and it was very difficult for them to find them. The Muslims were also crazy about it and, in fact, they were the ones who introduced them to Spain. But since Portugal was under Arab rule for less time, its consumption did not settle in the west of the Peninsula. This is how Mulet explains it in his new essay we eat what we are (Destiny), where he reviews the history of food from the origins of humanity to the arrival of fast food. Each dish tells a story and Mulet has made an exhaustive compilation of those that have most influenced humanity.
Ask. It is becoming easier to find any dish anywhere in the world. Does it put the culinary identity of countries at risk?
Answer. I don’t think so. If you go to a Spanish restaurant in any country, you know where you are by the way it is seasoned or presented. Local particularities have not been lost and never will be. Despite the fact that the world is globalized, the local cultural substrate continues to be maintained. The paella outside of Valencia will never be the paella of Valencia and that can be applied to any dish.
Q. What is the food that best defines society so far in the 21st century?
R. Right now veganism is very fashionable and it will be good for our health to eat more vegetables. On the other hand, the sushi and the kebab in many European countries, such as Spain, they have already arrived in the 21st century. So I think this century is being that of oriental food. This probably has to do with China’s economic influence. In other words, when the United States loses weight and China gains it, Asian cuisine becomes much more popular and is the one that now dominates the fast food.
Q. Can food trigger social changes?
R. Many wars are for food and for control of resources. The famous Punic wars between Rome and Carthage were to control all the granary that was in North Africa. To control food is to control power, so there are many cultural and social changes associated with food.
Q. Why are expensive foods successful?
R. There are foods that are status symbols. The coffee at Starbucks is much more expensive than at any coffee shop in general, but sure, you’re buying style. You go to Starbucks and you feel, I don’t know, like Pretty Woman in Beverly Hills because of all the atmosphere they’ve been able to create. In Valencia we put saffron on everything and for a long time it was synonymous with luxury, so eating something white was for the poor. You see it with children in schools: you can’t send them with an apple or a banana, you have to put the Actimel that has the most colors outside because if not, what are they going to think, that you can’t buy Actimel?
Q. He posturing with food is also not new.
R. Now you just have to get on Instagram and it’s everywhere, but It had already existed for a long time. In Roman literature we have examples where this was mocked. In the satiricon, where Trimalchio’s banquet scene appears, what he is doing is ridiculing someone for the banquet he gives. The same happens in Don Quijote of La Mancha, at Camacho’s weddings, who basically is telling you that he was a nouveau riche, pedantic, and that’s why he gives a banquet with all kinds of food and luxuries that the writer is making fun of.
Q. Are you eating worse and worse?
R. We are increasingly eating more fat, more sugar and there is more and more childhood and youth obesity. But it is also true that we have better food every time because there is more variety and quantity to choose from. Another thing is that the choices we make are not always the best.
Q. How irrational is there in that choice?
R. We eat instinctively. There is nothing worse than going to the supermarket hungry because you end up buying what has the most fat and sugar and what is least convenient for you. Besides, they deceive us a lot with the messages of “rich in iron” or anything, and maybe it’s a chocolate bun. This happens, above all, with food intended for children. You let yourself be attracted to that when it really is a food that is not recommended at all.
Q. It says in the book that beer is the mainstay of cathedrals.
R. In medieval cities, when the population increased, hygiene problems also increased because there was no water purification, which is why cholera and typhus were very frequent. These epidemics decimated the population. However, when the use of beer became popular, as it has a process in which water must be boiled, alcohol is a preservative and hops too, they discovered that drinking beer was much safer than drinking water. People began to have a tool to deal with epidemics and populations grew. And in larger populations, works such as Gothic cathedrals could be undertaken.
Q. And do we owe the great consumption of Spanish pork to the Inquisition?
R. In Spain they ate a lot of pork because there was a persecution of the Jews and you had to prove that you weren’t. So, any dish, even the ones that weren’t traditionally served, began to have a lot of pork added to it to show that you weren’t Jewish. From there, the culture of pork consumption that we have today is created. Today, Spain is the main producer of pork in Europe, it is present in all popular cuisine and there are places, such as the Basque Country, where the pork derivatives that carry beans (blood pudding, chorizo, bacon…).
Q. Instead, the chicken became a sacred animal.
R. For very ancient civilizations, yes, because it was a new animal that came from Asia and that had the habit of singing to the sun at dawn. Ra, who was the sun god, was the supreme god in Egypt, and suddenly the Egyptians had an animal that would stare at the sun and sing. That caught their attention a lot, so they considered it sacred. Chicken did not begin to be consumed until the final days of the Roman Empire.
Q. Have we forgotten what it is to go hungry?
R. In western countries yes. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world they still go hungry. In addition, hunger is now different because it is no longer just counting calories. It may be not having a balanced diet and not getting all the nutrients. Therefore, it must be appreciated that having a full fridge is still a small miracle.
Q. Does it make sense to be nostalgic for how our grandparents ate?
R. Our grandparents ate what they could. Their food has been mythologized when, first, it would not have passed any current sanitary control, which is why food contamination was so frequent and that a baby dying of diarrhea was something relatively normal. And second, if you take your grandmother and take her to a supermarket today, she won’t want to change. For a long time humanity has aspired to have the whiter bread the better because it was a symbol of better quality. Now a hipster he wants the blackest bread the better when, curiously, if he were given it to exchange for that of a poor man from the eighteenth century, he would take the loaf of white bread and run.
Q. Is there food at risk of disappearing due to climatic effects?
R. There are always foods that are at risk of disappearing due to a cultural issue of overexploitation. The Romans used the silphium (a wild herb that was used as condiment and for medicinal purposes) and from the 3rd century AD any mention of it disappears. It was such a popular food that we know it exists because they even made coins with its image. There are people who have eaten animals that no longer exist. The piñonada (a mixture of toasted pine nuts and honey) or the codonyat (something similar to a citron jam) no longer exist as they were made in the Middle Ages. Surely many dishes will disappear due to climatic or cultural conditions or due to the regressions that we make to biodiversity.