Searching for Life, Sustaining Life: The Rise of Food History

News dropped this week of NASA’s “discovery” of a new planet outside our solar system, described by scientists as the “closest twin” to Earth found to date. If you haven’t heard the details just yet, a planet dubbed Kepler 452b was discovered using the planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope. The newly found planet is about 60 per cent larger than Earth, which places it in a category of planets called super-Earth. Early reports suggest that the found planet is rocky and, very excitingly, may have an atmosphere similar to our own and fully capable of holding and producing water – the bloodline of life as we know it.

NASA researchers said at a news conference yesterday that Kepler 452b orbits a star similar to our sun at a distance similar to the distance between the Earth and the sun. John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate in Washington, referred to the planet as the “closest twin, so to speak, to Earth … that we’ve found so far.” He added that the planet is more like a “close cousin” because of its larger size, which is, according to estimation, five times the mass of the Earth and double the gravity. Yet the planet is estimated to be less than twice the diameter of Earth, which is why scientists believe it may have a rocky surface:

“That’s substantial opportunity for life to arise, should all the necessary ingredients and conditions for life exist on this planet,” said Jon Jekins, the lead Kepler data analyst at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field. According to Jekins, planetary geologists and atmospheric scientists estimate that Kepler 452b has a thicker atmosphere than Earth, more cloud cover, and is likely to have “very active” volcanoes.

The news out of NASA is sure to gain widespread attention over the coming weeks, which provides us the perfect oppurtuntiy to reflect briefly on a growing subfield of history that has the ability to provide related (yet different) answers to questions of life and the human condition: food history.

Definitions are inherently fluid, so take this with a grain of salt. But food history is currently an interdisciplinary subfield of the wider historical discipline that examines every aspect of food and the impact of food on the human condition. Some historians are interested in the history of a particular cuisine, while others purport to study the cultural, economic, environmental, and sociological impacts of a particular food or group of foods. By this (admittedly large) definition, food history is distinct from the more traditional subfield of culinary history, which focuses primarily and almost exclusively on the origin and timeline of specific recipes and the relating societal impact.

To the food historian, food represents a vital cultural element that enables us to “see” the past by reflecting social and economic structures of society throughout a short- or long-term frame. In this sense, food history has the ability to present an enticing buffet filled with fantastical events and contradictory facts. Although food historians tend to shy from traditional modes of representation, a significant number of websites have popped up recently that offer varying insights into food history. From timeline websites to online museum displays to a History Network featured titled “Hungry History,” which offers succinct history lessons based on recipes from around the world or antidotes from the personal food histories of recognisable figures. Have you ever wondered what President Lincoln ate for dinner at the White House before heading to Ford’s Theatre on the evening of his fatal shooting, 14 April 1865? Perhaps not, but an online repository dedicated to preserving tidbits of food history (pardon the pun) seems to be  an effective method of reaching a wide audience who might otherwise have but a semblance of interest in history.

Let’s face it, food is on our minds every day. As humans, we must eat to survive and today, perhaps more so than at any other point in our collective history, do so many of us have access to such a wide and diverse culinary experience. Where did you purchase your last meal? Did your food come from a local grocery store or did you eat at one of your favourite local establishments? Have you recently travelled or plan to travel solely for a food-related experience? Perhaps you just returned from a vacation where you had the pleasure of trying a completely new (to you) cuisine. The mere fact that so many of us take food for granted in our everyday lives speaks to the edible reality of our humanity.

As NASA and other space agencies or scientists continue to search for life beyond Planet Earth, so too must we collectively continue to search for the source of life on our planet. Food history also has the ability to provide insight into the origins of our species, a lesson that we should not take lightly.