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Eating and talking about it November 25th, 2018 by

Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist, explains in a recent book about food that people perceive just a handful of basic tastes with our tongues: bitter, sweet, salt and sour. But our nose can sense many thousands of distinct scents. When we exhale, our nose smells the food in our mouths. Taste in the mouth and aroma in the nose combine to form the endless variety of flavor.

Other creatures cannot savor their food this way, because only humans have a glottis (vocal chords), covered by a flap that opens and closes to let air pass between our throats and our windpipe. This allows only humans to breathe in and out of our mouths, which is why we can speak (and unfortunately, why we can choke to death as well).

In all fairness, animals seem to enjoy their food, too. A dog will beg for a pancake and chickens get excited when they find a fat grub in the moist earth, but people go much further. As Richard Wrangham explains, humans have been adapting to cooked food at least since Homo erectus times. Cooking allowed us to evolve smaller guts and larger brains, which made speech possible.

And of course, one of the favorite topics of conversation is food. Whether it is fish curry in Bangladesh, millet and groundnut sauce in Uganda or chicken and tortillas in Guatemala, humans will sit down together to eat and talk, and sometimes to laugh.

Animals communicate, but only humans speak, compulsively spinning little stories for each other. Certainly discussing food is at the heart of the human experience. Whether eating, cooking or producing food, there is always something to say about it.

Further reading

Herz, Rachel 2018 Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science behind Our Relationship with Food. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. 352 pp.

Wrangham, Richard 2009 Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. London: Profile Books. 309 pp.

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