Lockdown diary: Books they are re-reading and why- Our relationship with food

We eat as much with our minds as our stomachs

Lockdown diary: Books they are re-reading and why- Our relationship with food

Ranjona Banerji

The Truth: Like any proper Bengali pseudo intellectual worth her salt, I have a copy of TS Eliot’s Complete Poems by my side, and right now, I read Hollow Men and The Wasteland over and over again. But please, really?

You can see the fake signs all over my head by now. Between the motion and the act, falls the shadow. Nothing But The Truth: On my Kindle Unlimited subscription, an endless borrowing of free, easy-to-read “police procedurals” set in twee little villages full of vicars and flower shows or hard gritty cities full of drug dealers and serial killers.

I get through them so fast that I do not any more assimilate the differences between them and just jump to the next one and then rant and rave when they ask me to wait three days for the next in the series to become free. The Whole Truth: John S Allen’s The Omnivorous Mind has sat on my book- shelf, looking at me balefully, for some seven years now.

It came wrapped in plastic, which has not been removed. Keeps the dust jacket dust free, I suppose. I should have read it earlier, because half- way through, it is a fascinat- ing study about the human relationship with food. This is a scientific study if you will, using brain studies and anthropology to explore and explain how taste and culture define human food choices.

How much of what we eat and like to eat comes from our primate ancestry? How much comes from our hunter-gather- er past? Or from the change in eating habits with the advent of agriculture? What role does culture play in shaping our food and the tastes we crave or dislike? Why do humans eat such a large variety of foods and in various different ways than other mammals? In short, what is the composition of our omnivorous mind?

Allen is an anthropologist who focuses on the evolution of the human brain, but he wears his science lightly. This makes The Omnivorous Mind a delightful experience for the lay reader. The writing has a light touch, with enough humour to liven the subject but enough substance to give his findings bulk.

As I read on, I realise that perhaps I should not castigate my younger self for not picking this book up earlier. As food choices and food scarcity are both troublesome topics in these difficult times, an explanation of human evolution through food is perhaps the perfect lesson for us now.

(Ranjona Banerji is an independent journalist, who writes on politics, the media and does the occasional book review)

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