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THE CROFT / Dani Weiss shows how the process of grappling with the great questions of the universe can be likened to learning about the world through food, breaking down concepts like culture and mathematics with the familiarity of what sits on our plates.

By Dani Weiss

THE CROFT / Dani Weiss shows how the process of grappling with the great questions of the universe can be likened to learning about the world through food, breaking down concepts like culture and mathematics with the familiarity of what appears on our plates.

The infinite nature of the cosmos lends it a greatness that is practically inconceivable to us. For me at least, it is simply impossible to think of anything being that big. When we are children, concepts like maths and algebra hold this same type of incomprehensible complexity, but unlike the universe, maths is much easier to break down into smaller, more familiar pieces for us to understand. Positioning larger concepts in the realm of the familiar brings the metaphysical to the level of the physical, allowing for a scope that we can come to terms with. 

My year-three self was first exposed to the ability to learn through food when our already well-adored maths teacher, Mr Turner, was teaching us about fractions; seeing it was a concept we were struggling to understand, he decided to turn to a more palatable method for our young minds to digest: that of a chocolate cake.

©Nationaal Archief via Unsplash

Whilst I am sure he didn’t intend to set out to teach us about the greater concepts of financial greed and gluttony, retrospectively my interest was in getting the biggest slice, and thus the biggest fraction. Mr Turner had set out to teach us how to accurately divide, but looking back I am sure there was more than one lesson there. At the time, I saw the intention as teaching us how a round chocolate cake could be cut up, divided, and shared to give us all an equal amount (if we calculated our divisions properly). Something about this fairness resonated in our young minds. I was particularly dedicated to making sure no one else got a larger slice than me. So, I was keen to make sure that I - and everyone else in my class - got their calculations correct.

Though it may be reaching to claim that physicists like Brian Cox could explain all the workings of the universe through pie, learning through food, eating, and cooking holds a unique position as the only global language that doesn’t require translation; it allows us to break down large abstractions and distant concepts, and put them in the familiar frame of our own plates.

Understanding food systems - processes of exchange, trade and seasonality - allows for a better comprehension of our vastly complex and confusing world. Our human nature drives us to want to learn, and we can incorporate this through what is arguably the most important choice we make: what we eat. 

Moreover, fundamental to the process of eating is the socialising that comes alongside it. Intercultural connections are constantly formed through our experience of food, with travel driven by a desire to taste the world’s best pizza from Naples, or the best pho in Ho Chi Minh, or the best tapas in San Sebastian. Through making these mighty pilgrimages to the food sites of the world, we inevitably learn about the cultures, the people, and the customs of these places. We are driven by a desire to taste, but we take away far more in the expansion of knowledge of a new culture, one that we may not otherwise get to experience. 

©Leila Sparks

So, whilst I was first exposed to the concept of learning through food in the very literal sense of a chocolate cake analogy, my world view has expanded in step with my palate. 

This summer, I had the privilege of taking a cooking class in Sicily, in which we learnt about why we should and shouldn’t use particular ingredients, and why the dishes that we made were popular in that region. Common to many regional dishes, the pistachio ravioli we made was traditionally the ‘dish of the poor man’, and through these basic ‘poor man’s recipes’, we were able to learn about the experience of those who are often written out of the history books. The world’s favourite dishes are poor man’s food.

From Caribbean curries being heavily influenced by Indian flavours, to Britain’s national dish being Chicken Tikka Masala, what we eat reflects who we have encountered and where we have come from, painting a picture of the world’s migration patterns. Learning those recipes allows us to learn about those cultures, and in turn our minds are not only enhanced by new flavour combinations, but also by intercultural experiences.

So, whilst your alphabetti spaghetti may not spell out Pythagoras’ theorem or the poetry of the greats, nor can it truly explain quantum physics, food serves as an emblem of how we can break down the vast concepts of the world into bite-sized pieces. The experiences that we get from exploring, experimenting, and engaging with new tastes allow us to better understand our world and each other.  

Feature Image: Nationaal Archief via Unsplash