Friday, June 6, 2008


On Wednesday I went to a lecture at the Royal Institution by Heston Blumenthal. I probably wouldn’t have gone except I took my wife who is a food technology teacher, although I did have a vague interest to hear him & see how he came over as a speaker. The lectures last an hour, with a half hour after for questions. Unfortunately Heston’s hour consisted of playing a recording of one of his TV programmes (the Christmas one), pausing it & commenting on it. I hadn’t seen he programme before, but even so found the whole thing a bit of a disappointment, and something of a cop-out by Blumenthal; although it was a novelty to taste frankincense I could have done with a lot more talking (his presentation lacked polish & rehearsal, too). My wife saw his main development chef talk at Reading and thought he was far better as a speaker (and probably does most of the work at the Fat Duck, too).

Far better than this was the RI lecture I went to on Monday, Feast: why humans share food by Martin Jones. Admittedly the speaker, Martin Jones, is the first George Pitt-Rivers Professor of Archaeological Science at the University of Cambridge, and presumably has had not a little practice at lecturing, and has given this talk on earlier occasions.

The subject was why humans, unlike other mammals, use meal times as a social activity, and used various disciplines within arachaeology (including palaeoanthropology, archaeobotany, archaeogenetics, & the archaeology of food) to provide some answers and a lot more questions. He explained how, at Boxgrove, the flint scatters from knapping can be plotted in three dimensions to the extent that it can be determined where the knappers sat, how their legs were arranged and at what point they got up to stretch their legs & sat down again. The subject was brought right up to date, and was followed by an extremely interesting Q&A session - the audience for this lecture asked much more intelligent questions than at Blumenthal’s (“why can’t I get a table at the Fat Duck?” was an example there).

At last we get round to the book connection: following the talk I bought Jones’ book, also called ‘Feast: why humans share food’ (Oxford University Press); although I’ve only had time to get about a third the way through, I’m enjoying it very much too, as much as the lecture but in a different way. I find when I read a book by someone I have heard speaking I hear their voice in the text – people usually seem to write in the style in which they speak. And I’ve also bought his earlier book ‘The Molecule Hunt: Archaeology and the Hunt for Ancient DNA’ (Penguin), which I have put aside for later in the year.


Jane Badger said...

The stuff about flints is fascinating. However do they determine that someone got up? And how long it was before they sat down again?

Your post made me think too about eating as a social activity. With my own dear teenagers at the moment, much is being said, but unfortunately not much of it is verbal. Body language there is in screeds.

Looking at my animals eat (much less stressful) I am struck by how my hens use eating to reinforce their social structure: bantams at the top, hen at the bottom.

bagot books said...

With the flints they map exactly where each fragment is (in all three dimensions. When they plot this on a screen you can see leg-shapes. They take all the pieces of flint and reassemble them into a nodule so they know in what order they were broken off, and can then add a fourth dimension (time) to the plan. This enables them to work out how the knapper moved their legs while sitting in the same place, they can find parts of the same nodule in a different place & work out that the knapper actually got up & moved somewhere else. And in excavations of more recent times they are examining what was cooked in pots - they can extract material at a molecular level from within the pottery.
Much of the social stuff we do when eating (like facing each other) is seen as aggressive in other species, and most species won't share food with anyone unless it's their young offspring, but the social structure thing is still there - the more formal the dinner the more so - people even have special clothes reserved for the function.

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