“Jeez! It looks like a burn victim. You will not be able to make this one look nice”. She was staring over my shoulder at the picture of a baked sheep’s head that I was busy editing.
It is a picture that we are all familiar with – the good old smiley. Fresh from a slow oven its skin is peeled back and it is showing its teeth. A grin or a smile depending on which side of the nose-to-tail divide you stand.
Yet, it is a picture that provokes immediate and very opposing responses. For some, it is a picture of a delicious meal. For others, it represents nothing tasty. Rather repulsing, they might think.
Her comment stayed with me for much longer than what it should have. After all, it was a joke. Yet it got me thinking. At what point did we stop seeing the Smiley as food, and started seeing it as something distasteful?
We human beings rely very much on our culture to find our way with food. It is the collective knowledge that tells us what is food, and what is not. What tastes nice and what not. What is poisonous and what is safe to eat. What should be cooked before eating, and how we should cook that particular ingredient. Where to find our food, and how to preserve or how to plant or grow it.
Our food culture keeps us save and gives us guidance. We do not have to invent everything from scratch. Take our Smiley as an example. I learned the traditional way of cooking a sheep’s head from my grandfather, just as he learned from his elders.
Following tradition, my grandfather used to cook his sheep’s head in a hole in the ground. First, he’d make a fire in the hole and when the fire had burned out, he’d remove most of the coals, put his sheep’s head (skin, hair and all) into the hole.
Then he’d cover the hole with corrugated iron and make a fire on top of that. The head would bake for several hours until it was so soft you could peel off the singed and charred skin to get to the juicy, sweet meat. Looked awful, but tasted sublime.
Just last week, I decided to do a little experiment. I bought a few common, well-known processed food items from a supermarket and set out to see what’s in them. Baked beans, 2-minute noodles, tinned corned meat (bully beef), and French polony were among the items.
The first thing that struck me was the ‘best before’ dates: the tinned baked beans would be fine until October 2015 and the tinned meat until 2017! I was in awe. Who would want to eat meat that has been around for five years? Or beans that last at least three years?
Given that neither product would last this long in its natural state, we have to give ourselves at least some credit for our ingenuity to make food last that long. So how do we do it?
Of the 12 ingredients listed on the baked beans label I recognized only a few: small white beans, cane sugar, tomato paste, water and salt.
With the 2-minute noodles I did less well. Here I recognized wheat flour, vegetable oil, sugar and onion. A miserable four out of more than 20 ingredients listed.
It took me nearly a full day to make any sense of the remaining ingredients: the food additives.
Ever heard of or cooked with E1401, E952, E950, E150A, E110 or E124? Not a numbers person? Let’s see how far you get with their names: Modified maize starch; Sodium cyclamate; Acesulfame k; Caramel; Sunset Yellow; Ponceau 4R. Not much better, is it?
Would it help if I tell you that the last three additives are food colourings known as azo dyes? That azo dyes are synthesized from aromatic hydrocarbons from petroleum? That Sunset Yellow is currently banned in Norway and requires a special warning on labels in the European union because it is deemed a category 3 carcinogen and is currently being phased out?
Or that Sunset Yellow itself may be responsible for causing an allergic reaction in people with an aspirin intolerance or that it has been linked with hyperactivity in young children? That Ponceau R4 is considered carcinogenic in some countries, including the USA, Norway, and Finland? It is currently listed as a banned substance by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Perhaps most important, I should tell you that this vile cocktail of synthetic products are served to you every time you open a tin of baked beans.
The packet of 2-minute noodles contained 17 ingredients with E-numbers. One of these is Potasium chloride [E508] commonly used to make fertilizer but also used in medicine, food processing and scientific applications.
Given its severe effect on the cardiac muscles of humans, it is given as the last of three drugs that constitute execution by means of lethal injection.
What started as a quest for ingredients ended as a lesson in food chemistry and food microbiology. But I have learned a valuable lesson. In the modern industrial food chain, we no longer have control over our well-being if we consume vast amounts of processed foods.
We have no food culture to guide us, and for knowledge we have to rely on biologists, journalists, doctors, and dieticians for we no longer recognize or understand what we eat. Our food traditions, taboo’s and recipes are useless in guiding us in what to eat, what is good or bad for us, and ultimately what is poisonous and what is not.
But all is not lost. Our last defense may just be the good old Smiley and the local food traditions it represents. But then, we have to choose to eat with full consciousness.
For those with guests who can’t stand the sight of a cooked Smiley, here is a traditional recipe for a sheep’s head pie. Straight from the Karoo and from the 1950’s. And while you at it, make this fresh pineapple chutney to go with it.