Why me? Of neolithic genes and sweet-tooths
Give me a choice between a tournedo and a chocolate praline, and I’ll go for the praline. Plant a lobster in front of me, and chances are I’ll still go for the praline – not always, but most of the time. Tempt me with gorgeous salmon sandwiches or a Swiss roll and I’ll be sinking my teeth into the roll.
Why, one wonders, have I been given the sweet-tooth in the family? Why can’t I, like my mother, shine up at the thought of vegetable soup? Why do carrot sticks to nothing for me compared to a chocolate éclair? (Although seriously: anyone who prefers a carrot stick to an éclair probably has issues of their own…)Why me?
“It’s the cavewoman in you,” second son would probably say. “You’re a prime example of a survivor in a neolithic society, going for the sweet & fatty stuff.”
Fantastic. Only problem with that is that I do not live in the Stone Age. I am not subjected to irregular food supply, I am fortunate enough to know today that I will eat tomorrow. In short, that cave-woman gene of mine fills no purpose. Well, it does in the sense that it is also this gene that makes me go “eeek” at spiders or snakes, and we all know such an approach to these dangerous creatures can save your life. Hmm….
Back to the food issue. Stone Age people had no chocolate. They had very ittle sweet stuff beyond honey and berries. No one baked a Swiss roll over the open fire, no one vacillated between apple crumble and toffee pudding. Poor them. The last few years, it has become something of a thing to eat “Stone Age”, which means nuts, roots, more nuts, fruit, meat, fish. No dairy – our cave-dwelling ancestors had not got round to taming cows and such yet. No bread – we were eons away from the first mill. Yes, they ate the grain, but directly from the husk. Nom nom.
Anyway, the Stone Age diet is supposed to be good for you, leading to longevity and health. Hmm. Stone Age people didn’t live all that long, did they? Oh right; this is where my gene comes in. You see, our neolithic forebears had a really healthy diet – assuming they found food. But quite often, they didn’t, and this is where those members of the clan with a propensity for over-eating and scarfing down whatever sweet stuff they could find came into their own. Those extra layers of fat could be the difference between death and survival, between bearing a child and remaining barren.
Obviously, a higher share of “sweet & fat” loving people than the “I adore carrots” made it through the neolithic period. (In which there weren’t any carrots, so that was something of a bummer…) And as history of humanity picks up speed, pretty soon we start seeing desserts on the menu.
Sometimes dessert was just a fruit. Sometimes, said fruit was shared between him and her, the beta version of the Lady & the Tramp meatball scene. Sometimes, said fruit was a pomegranate – an ancient symbol for everything erotic and beautiful – and I really, really want to meet that loving couple who fed each other pomegranate seeds without permanently staining their linens. In actual fact, I’d like to see the fair maiden who managed to eat this fruit daintily and “stainlessly”. I would also like to point out that in my book, a pomegranate does not qualify as a dessert – not on its own. (Sprinkled on a pavlova, yes)
The ancient Greeks must be admired for much, and from a dessert perspective, they did bring a new dimension to things. Sesame pies, honey and yogurt, small baked goods, often containing dried fruits, and, of course, that elegant combo of fresh cheese and honey, preferably sprinkled with nuts. Note the appearance of dairy products. We are approaching a point in time where there will be cream to whip, and what would strawberries be without whipped cream, hey?
So the Greeks gave us cheese and honey, and the Romans gave us ice cream.Okay, not so that your run-of-the-mill person suffering from a sweet-tooth ever got to taste such a delicacy, but it still existed, as did the spira (Danish pastries before the Danish even existed) and an assortment of souffles and puddings. The Romans knew their desserts, people, but most of these toga draped gentlemen and their palla covered wives opted for fruit – waistline issues, seeing as already these our Latin-speaking forebears were struggling with the consequences of the Neolithic Sweet-tooth Gene.
As we all know, the Roman Empire was over-run by the barbarian hordes led by Alaric. These hirsute peeps were more in the mead & meat category than in the dainty dessert group, but I bet you their ladies did not say no to a honeyed wafer or two (or three, or four – that’s what happens with such things: one starts eating and they just take you over!)
However, in the turbulent time that followed upon the collapse of the Roman Empire, people often had more pressing concerns than planning their menus – such as staying alive in a world where the agricultural efforts had been rudely interrupted by nomadic Germanic tribes. Fortunately, the Dark Ages were not quite as dark as people make out, and sometime between the 6th and 8th century AD, the Western world saw the introduction of sugar, this thanks to the Arabs who were more than inordinately fond of this sweet stuff that went so well with filo pastry and pistachios.
Sugar was a luxury. My sweet-tooth ancestress living in a Viking village somewhere to the north of where I live today, probably never even tasted it – but she’d heard of it, had maybe even met someone who’d tasted it. With sugar, the art of desserts exploded to a new level. With sugar, one could create confections and marchpane, candy fruits and petals. I bet many a pastry cook wept happy tears when presented with a sugar loaf – a commodity so precious it was kept behind lock and key. It sure beat parsnips as a sweetener!
By now, man had progressed in leaps and bounds from than ancient existence in a cave. Now there was sugar and cream, honey and nuts, fruits and berries, eggs and flour. There was marzipan and nougats, there were meringues and pastries, and one could almost believe Dessert Nirvana had arrived. But one major ingredient was still missing. Yup. Sadly missing. Fortunately for all us dessert maniacs – but not at all for the mighty Aztec civilisation – a certain Hernán Cortés would soon set things right. Ladies and gents, I give you that elixir of all things sweet and wonderful – chocolate.
In the late 16th century, chocolate became available in Europe. Not, I hasten to add, a chocolate that bears any resemblance to what we call chocolate. No, the drink the Spanish explorers brought back from the court of Montezuma was bitter and frothy, something of an acquired taste. But if you drank it early in the morning, it was supposed to be invigorating, and the Spanish were all for invigorating stuff, now that they had a continent to conquer.
Someone came up with the brilliant idea of combining chocolate with sugar – and a tad of cream, and suddenly chocolate as we know it was in the making. Chocolate fondants, chocolate cakes, chocolate mousse – the Neolithic lady up my family tree would have done cartwheels.
And so here we are, in a world where things that are sweet and fatty are constantly available. We sigh happily, and in the depths of our DNA that Neolithic Sweet-tooth Gene prods us into action. Eat, it says, eat, eat, eat – you never know when next you will see food. The “I adore carrots” people nod and pick up a carrot. The rest of us dive for a Snickers – or spend our lives fighting the urge…
I fight the urge – most of the time. But sometimes I cave before the cave-person in me. I am weak, I tell second son, a victim to my mitochondrial baggage. Second son snorts – he is not fooled. He rarely is. But happily, second son can be bribed – after all, he has his fair share of that ubiquitous and utterly indestructible Neolithic Sweet-tooth Gene. So: chocolate cake, anyone?