Food for Thought: Fire, Doritos, & a Very Bizarre Pepper

Christina Bueno teaches the History of Food and Drink at NEIU

Christina Bueno teaches the History of Food and Drink at NEIU

Christina Bueno is a professor at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago where she teaches The History of Food and Drink. Here she considers: how cooking with fire made us into humans; the crunch of the Dorito; and eating organic foods.

We talk about how fire and eating cooked meat made us into human beings, which is the argument of a book by Richard Wrangham. Humans are the only ones who know how to manipulate fire and that changed our bodies. Our guts became smaller, and our brains got bigger. A lot more energy went to our brains and our guts shrunk because it was a lot easier to digest things because we cooked them.

Published by Basic Books, 2009

Published by Basic Books, 2009

And then there’s the social component. People developed social skills by sitting around a fire and having to share rather than the biggest guy in the group just grabbing the biggest piece of meat.

If we have controversy, it’s about the ethics of eating animals. What we ultimately come down to is that what you consume is a very personal issue because it becomes part of who you are. And people will say “well I don’t want anyone telling me what I can or cannot eat or that one thing is ethical or not.”

And the same thing happens with soda. You know that whole soda controversy in New York over the mayor trying to pass an [anti-soda] law? Should people be protected from eating certain foods? We get the students who say “you should eat whatever you want and the state shouldn’t get involved.” So it’s this very libertarian approach.

But, the state tells us to put seat belts on and that children shouldn’t smoke.

We talk about the food industry and how they get us addicted to junk food. We learn that everything about the Dorito is there for a purpose, even the crunch. The people in the food industry who make this stuff have everything down to a science, even the sound. It has to be the right amount of crunch. They test it in these little machines. They crunch the Doritos.

They manipulate fat, sugar, and salt in every product we have. It’s manipulated in a way that we have this thing called “mouth feel”— we feel satisfied eating it if you have just the right amount of salt for the sugar to kick in.

It becomes touchy when things like Whole Foods pop up. People say “Well, I’m poor and I can’t do that.” Is it more expensive to eat higher quality food? How can you get around that? Are people like Michael Pollan elitist in their messages about how we should all eat organic?

There is this idea that it’s expensive to eat well. Is that really true? Well, broccoli is still cheaper than buying a box of Captain Crunch usually. And then students will say “who wants to eat that?” And it’s like okay, well out taste buds have been transformed in a way where we think the Captain Crunch is good and the broccoli isn’t. We’ve been trained to think that tastes good.

Whenever I can, I bring things, but I’m always afraid that somebody will die. One class, the spice people brought this thing called Sansho pepper. So I bring it to my class all the time. It’s a spice they use in Chinese food and it stings your mouth when you eat it, and it makes you salivate. It’s a very bizarre pepper.