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Cooking, from Heaven to earth

Food and hospitality are basic ingredients of our daily life as individuals, but they also are sacred sources of collective pride.
What is the point? Food and hospitality are basic ingredients of our daily life as individuals. But they also are sacred sources of collective pride. To solve this paradox, and know how different peoples can or cannot get along together, we must first clarify the connection between this world and the other world. We shall begin with an analysis of the great narratives that give identity to a people and connect the two worlds. In a number of narratives about Creation
our planet is a replica of Heaven: hence, mortals try to cook as immortals do. However, these two realms have different culinary practices. There is also a gap between heavenly rituals and the ways we prepare and share food on this earth. Why is it so? Admittedly, cooking and hospitality among humans translate the codebook of recipes adopted by our creators. However, and this is contradictory, in most cultures human beings have no access to heavenly meals or drinks. Adopting rules of commensality among immortals is also forbidden to them. Where does this boundary between the two worlds come from? In several foundation stories, humans are chased from Paradise.
As shown on this painting attributed to Rubens and Brueghel, in the Garden of Eden every creature lived peacefully and Nature was friendly. This contrasts much with the depiction of Prometheus’ punishment when expelled from the Olympus. Because he taught humans how to cook he was condemned to feed an animal with his own body (as depicted in another Rubens’ work). In Japan, Amaterasu, the Sun, taught humans to grow rice. Because of this, she was forced to leave Heaven and escape her sister Earth’s anger, before shining again. In a Sumerian myth, a shepherd named Dumuzi (Semitic Tammuz, or July) loved a bipolar goddess, Inanna (or Ishtar).
For his sin, he was condemned to spend winters in the Underworld, the season during which there were no crops. In these four narratives, something is stolen or hidden from paradise, or from earth, in order to make humans and their Creator(s) less unequal. However, even after the cosmos was put upside down by transgressors, he gap between the two worlds persisted. In the primordial and celestial world, food was made of smoke, a remote ancestor of molecular gastronomy. Drink helped in Heaven was called nectar, a precious liquid that humans tried to copy in making alcoholic beverages. (such as wine, beer and sake). The only bridges between the two realms were cereals on the one hand, and cooked meals on the other hand.
Cereals were from the earliest times considered as sacred staples (as here in Ancient Egypt and modern Thailand). Hence they had to be prepared according to specific rites and recipes, as if food was our creator(s) gift. Since crops depended on pollination, it soon became a major duty of the Kings (here, in Assyria) – as a premonition of what a future world could be without bees.
Let us now address our second point: How was this world eventually freed from Heaven? Once upon a time, cooking for guests was the privilege of the creator(s) while the rest of creation was simply vying for survival. There was, first, the delicate and abundant food helped to selected guests who were gently chatting together, as the gods did in Olympus when they had Ambrosia; or Amerindian Gods drinking cocoa - two sources of immortality. Compare these delicacies to mere sources of calories, when eating for survival was the fate of all mankind.
This image shows an ordinary family diet in the European Middle Ages: men and women are chewing bread, cut crosswise, as as sign of gratitude to the Creator. So far humans had learned how to till the land, how to make fire and cook. They now learn how to invite guests and have them taste their own recipes. This was the beginning of a competition to serve the most delicious meals (as shown in this phantasmagoric representation of a royal banquet). Contrary to immortals, they developed taste and started to rate cooks. Eventually, show off and demonstrative expenses had to be be punished by “sumptuary laws”. In ancient Athens law prohibited Truphé, or excessive consumption, which could lead to hubris, or human arrogance.
This was the end of the original hierarchy between heaven and earth at the time they both belonged to the same undifferentiated world. Now, dream teams of good cooks and inspired housemaids would replay the first fight among immortals to prevent conflicts through appropriate dining rituals. But they would do it in their own terms.

In this video, Yves Schemeil discusses the mythological origins of cooking and hospitality across cultures.

As you watch the video, consider:

  • Why do you think so many cultures attribute the origins of food and drink to the gods?
  • What does this tell you about the importance of hospitality as a human practice?

Share your thoughts with your fellow learners in the Comments.

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The Politics and Diplomacy of Cooking and Hospitality

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