I’m reading two very interesting books right now; Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and The Third Plate by Dan Barber. Both have been incredibly thought provoking in the way I think about how we got to this industrialized food world.
Today, too much of the food we eat is produced for consistency and yield, not health and flavor.
In Sapiens, Yuval talks about the first agricultural revolution around 8000 BC and the domestication of grains like wheat. However, he makes a point that it was not humans who domesticated wheat, but rather wheat that domesticated us.
The word domesticate comes from the Latin word domesticus, meaning “belonging to the house.” Wheat was technically the first major crop that was “domesticated,” or cultivated for food. It was the start of the agricultural revolution. However, there is a strong argument that it was humans that were the domesticated ones, the ones now belonging or having to live in the house.
Prior to growing wheat, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers who lived among small groups and roamed around finding, hunting, and collecting food. While the hunter/gatherer lifestyle was difficult, uncertain, and often unpredictable, humans were consuming nutritious and balanced food to live, grow, and sustain their populations.
So why did we move to farming and agriculture?
Well since I wasn’t there, I’m speculating. It seems like once we figured out we could produce wheat for food, and do so on a much more predictable and massive scale, the uncertainty aspect of feeding our bodies vanished. We didn’t have to travel far and wide to find food.
Growing wheat allowed us to settle down and begin spending time on other things that helped society to advance (leisure, artisanship, etc.). But growing wheat is hard. It required intensive human interaction and manual labor. In order to grow and harvest wheat for food, farmers had to be closer to their crops. They had spend the time and energy to learn about, protect, and produce it.
It was a cycle. Farmers were able to stay put because they had access to more calories (not better calories, just more). Now they could afford to have and feed more children, which led to more help on the farm and increased production of wheat.
While wheat has all the nutrients you need to survive, it does not carry all the nutrients you need to thrive. People were malnourished, so as the population increased, so did the demand for more diverse calories. This led to the real revolution in agriculture where more crops were harvested for yield and not flavor.
That was 10,000 years ago. What does it have to do with today?
Today, we still produce for yield and not flavor. That’s why many of the breads, crackers, and processed foods are jacked up with fats and sugars. It’s the only thing that gives the calories flavor.
We’re getting much better, but if you remember when whole wheat, whole grain, or even more recently, gluten-free bread was gaining traction in the healthy eating movement, it tasted like cardboard. They were awful.
The same goes for fruits and vegetables.
For example, broccoli…
It is August and certainly not broccoli season. Broccoli is a cool season crop. But people still demand it, so the stores have to find a way to supply it. That means Big Ag farmers are not looking for ways to grow the best tasting most nutritious broccoli. Instead, they are trying to figure out ways to make broccoli that will grow year round and sustain it’s shelf life on it’s way to the supermarkets in the dead heat of summer.
The result… broccoli with 0 taste. I had some of this tasteless broccoli last weekend and I couldn’t believe what I was eating was actually broccoli. It tasted like dry salt and pepper… (Sorry HEB, that shit sucked.)
On the flip side, I bought some Komatsuma (a Japanese mustard green) from Agua Dolce on Saturday, and the flavors were so bright and fresh that I didn’t even have to cook them. A little olive oil, salt and pepper and voila! a delicious side dish.
I keep coming back to supporting local farmers and farmers markets but this is again another reason why.
Many local farmers who are not doing business with larger retailers don’t have the pressure to produce what the supermarkets demand. Instead, they can practice regenerative agriculture, feed the soil, and grow crops that will thrive. They can produce and harvest seeds for taste and nutrients, not just yield.
The point of this post was to provide some thought provoking ideas based on the history of how certain foods get to your plate. Want the best tasting food? Get it from the best farmers, using the best practices, who harvest in the healthiest soil.
You don’t need to be a chef to make great food taste great, the farmers and the soil will do that for you!
3 thoughts on “Man vs. Wheat”
Great post, Alex. It seems to me that wheat has been replaced by corn in the U.S. Whether it is the corn we feed to our cattle, blend in to our gasoline, or engineer into our cereals, yogurts, or toothpaste – it seems clear that corn has domesticated the people of the United States, just like wheat domesticated our ancestors. Michael Pollan argues this in one of the chapters of the Omnivore’s Dilemma – a must read if you have not already checked it out.
I also love the point out you make about seasonal eating. Bringing awareness to the masses that having all types of produce year round is bad for the sustainability of our planet AND leads to an inferior taste to our food is a one two combo that I hope continues to gain traction, and shapes the way grocery stores supply their shelves.
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Thanks Peter! Completely agree about the corn. Michael Pollan’s book is next on my list, I’m looking forward to reading it. Have you seen his netflix series Cooked?
Cooked is epic! The “Air” episode got me into baking and working with flour, which has led to Pete’s Tortillas. The idea of getting enough nutrients to live indefinitely from a loaf of bread (real bread, not the industrial stuff you allude to above) is fascinating to me.
You are going to absolutely love T.O.D…