Michael Pollan has been focusing our attention to what is on our table for some time now (the body of his work is listed here). It is probably a good idea: whether we verbalize it or not, when those huge anhydrous ammonia trucks pass us on the interstate, the thought that rattles through the mind has a kind of duality to it: “There goes the fertilizer truck with the death labels on it… should we be eating food that is juiced up with this stuff?… should we be feeding tomorrow’s generation with this stuff? It’s probably okay, right? I mean, they wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t okay… right?” We live on an industrial planet — or, more accurately, a planet industrialized by humanity (that’s us). But it wasn’t always this way.
This last weekend I thought about that as I prepped a flank steak (from a cow grazed on grass, the way cows have done throughout the forests of the Mediterranean region for ages). After letting the chunk of meat sit in a bath of spices, beer and lemon juice for a couple days, I decided to cook the flank steak paleo style, placing the chunk of meat directly on the hot coals. This in turn got me thinking about any number of archaeological digs where just a bit of charcoal surfaces, and is oh-so deliberately collected (usually it is placed in aluminum foil for storage). On a dig, the charcoal is saved. But this technical description often stops there, and that is where the mind really picks up and is left to wonder. That charcoal, buried under one stratigraphic layer after another, possibly provided a source of heat and fire for a small or large family thousands of years ago. Perhaps they grilled a chunk of bison or elk on this fire, placing it directly on the coals? Seems like one possible and reasonable idea. Here is some audio-video from that winter night of grilling:
Archaeologists should feel comfortable whipping up flank steaks directly on hot coals for any number of tasty reasons, and it also answers the call that Ian Hodder issued over 20 years ago in a post-processual statement (I blogged it here once, and below are his remarks in full, pulled from “Interpretive Archaeology and Its Role,” 1999, American Antiquity, Vol. 56, No. 1, page 9).
…new theories and the new ways of writing them often serve to make archaeological texts more obscure and difficult for anyone but the highly trained theorist to decipher. How can alternative groups have access to a past that is locked up both intellectually and institutionally? Subordinate groups who wish to be involved in archaeological interpretation need to be provided with the means and mechanisms for interacting with the archaeological past in different ways. This is not a matter of popularizing the past but of transforming the relations of production of archaeological knowledge into more democratic structures.
Alternative groups, such as flank-steak-charring cooks, should be brought into the broader archaeological discussion. There is the study of the past, but there is also the applied anthropology of trying to recreate some semblance of a paleo meal, but today.