Table piled with food

Book review: ‘Delicious’ by Rob Dunn and Monica Sanchez

Image credit: Alexander Oganezov/Dreamstime

The evolution of flavour, and how it made us human.

“Tell me what you eat – and I’ll tell you what you are.” I was reminded repeatedly of this dictum, coined by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, an 18th century French lawyer and the author of the first ever book on gastronomy, ‘The Physiology of Taste’, while reading ‘Delicious’ (Princeton University Press, £20, ISBN 9780691199474)

Rob Dunn and Monica Sanchez, both American academics, start their discussion of the paramount importance of food flavours and taste in human evolution by quoting Eric Schlosser, author of the bestselling ‘Fast Food Nation’: “The human craving for flavour has been a largely unacknowledged and unexamined force in history.” Dunn and Sanchez seem to be in full agreement, yet the aim of their own book is to take this idea further – from simply acknowledging the importance of food flavours to understanding their history, biology and nature.

Indeed, why is it that we always crave the staple comfort foods of our childhood and their inimitable tastes and aromas? In my case, that would be the pungent earth-like smell of Russian black rye bread and the steamy titillating fragrance of freshly cooked Ukrainian borscht, to name just two. And why is it that terminally ill patients, with most of their feelings and reflexes gone, often still preserve – right until the moment of dying – their senses of taste and smell?

In their search for answers, Dunn and Sanchez travel back in time to the origins of human civilisation. Using the principles of biological stoichiometry – an “obscure science ” (in their own words) that studies the correlation between pleasure and nutrition – they show that not just our  human ancestors, but most mammals too have always been guided first and foremost by “deliciousness” while choosing their foods. “In this way, the pleasure of deliciousness was central to human evolution,” they conclude.

But how does that basic animal hedonism work? And how did it happen that it has attained such importance in human development?

Well, according to ‘Delicious,’ to satisfy their quickly developing taste buds and noses, ancient prehistoric humans kept hunting more and more efficiently for the tastier and tastier morsels. The need for more sophisticated hunting weapons resulted in not only new technical developments “and even ultimately science,” but gradually in “communal sharing” and refinements of speech and language.

If, to paraphrase a jocular and not-too-PC expression, the way to a man’s heart lies via his stomach, we can assume it was that very stomach (in conjunction with the nose) that has shaped and defined technological progress.

My favourite chapters included ‘On the Origin of Spices’ (another brilliant pun – ‘Delicious’ is resplendent, perhaps even somewhat oversaturated, with them), from which I learned among other things that humans started using food flavourings and seasonings long before the peripatetic merchants of Venice brought them to Europe from overseas. Spices have been found in a 60,000-year old Neanderthal hearth at Dederiyeh cave in Syria.

 ‘The Art of Cheese’ - on the history and technology of cheesemaking, includes a beautiful epigraph from Edward Bunyard’s ‘The Epicure’s Companion’: “Cheese is milk that has grown up.” In the same chapter, Dunn and Sanchez describe a Spanish household where the home-made cheese, the Cabrales, is seriously regarded as a fully-fledged member of an extended family, alongside their friend Jose, his mother, brother, cousin and second cousin.

I can easily understand this kind of personification, because I was always of the opinion that cheese is one of the products of human labour (alongside wine, olive oil and a couple of others) that possess not just distinctive smells and taste, but also memories. A good mature cheese ‘remembers’ the juicy grass of alpine meadows, the warm rough tongue of the cow, the damp darkness of the cellar, where it had aged, and the loving touch of the human hands that made it...

The obvious conclusion one can arrive at on turning the final page of this fascinating, unusual and truly ‘delicious’ (in more than one sense) book is that food, with all its tastes and flavours, having made us all socially, linguistically and technologically advanced, has also become an inseparable part of our souls. Effectively, it has made us all what we are – humans.

Here I can’t refrain from quoting the authors’ concluding sentence: “We sit together and make sense of the world one bite at a time”.

Bon appétit!

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