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Published: Tuesday, 10/9/2012

Fired up about history of food


The geniuses at the Royal Society have come up with an attention grabbing list of the 20 most significant inventions in the history of food and drink.

I mean “geniuses” both literally and sarcastically.

First the literal meaning: The Royal Society is England’s national academy of science. Its members — they’re so impressive they’re called Fellows — include the finest scientific minds of the United Kingdom, and around the globe. Founded in 1660, it is the oldest scientific organization in the world.

Its Fellows have included Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Ernest Rutherford, Albert Einstein, Francis Crick, James Watson, and Stephen Hawking. Also Dorothy Hodgkin, whom I had never heard of before, but who turns out to have been a seriously major chemist (she used X-ray crystallography to map the structure of penicillin, insulin, and vitamin B12, winning a Nobel Prize for her efforts.)

These days, the society boasts some 1,500 members, more than 80 of whom are Nobel Laureates. So when I call them geniuses, I’m not just fooling around.

Except I am, sort of.

A group of the Fellows (a gaggle of Fellows? a flurry of Fellows? a ship of Fellows?), including one of the Nobel Prize winners, was charged with the task of picking the 20 most significant inventions in the history of food, from mankind’s beginnings until today. And its list, as you would expect, is very smart.

No. 1 is refrigeration. Not just the refrigerator, though the benefits of a machine that can keep food cool through any kind of weather are huge. But this topic also includes ice, which has been used as a method of preserving food since prehistoric times. The necessity of preservation is obvious, and so is the need for keeping food safe in other ways, which explains the list’s second and third items, sterilization and Pasteurization (considered together) and canning.

The rest of the list includes the oven, irrigation, the threshing machine and combine harvester, baking, selective breeding, grinding and milling, the plow (or as they Britishly spell it, plough), fermentation, and the fishing net.

Also, crop rotation, the pot, the knife, eating utensils, the cork, the barrel, the microwave oven, and frying.

Not a bad list, as lists go. Until you get to the sarcastic usage of “geniuses.”

These geniuses didn’t even include fire? Even if they consider fire a natural phenomenon and therefore not a man-made innovation, they could certainly list methods of creating or maintaining fires — torches, flint and steel, or even matches.

Fire is No. 1 on my list. It is the heart, the essence, of virtually all cooking. And one theory I find compelling suggests that fire directly led to mankind’s evolution.

The idea is that when early versions of man only ate raw foods, they needed jaws that were fairly massive. But once man learned how to cook food, he did not need as much effort to eat it. The jaw grew smaller and so there was more room in the cranium for the brain to grow.

One of the inevitable online commenters suggested that fertilizer should also be on the list, and I absolutely agree. It could certainly take the place of the microwave, which has not nearly had the impact on mankind that fertilizer has had. One has made it possible to grow enough food for almost everyone in the world and has helped move us from an agrarian society to an industrial one. The other is helpful for reheating leftovers.

And if the fishing net is on the list, then I say room should also be made for the spear or the bow and arrow, or even the gun. Throughout most of man’s history, the way people acquired meat was through hunting.

But what do I know? I’m not a genius.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.

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