A little of what you fancy…

Figure 1 from United States patent #1,773,079 ...

Figure 1 from United States patent #1,773,079 issued to Clarence Birdseye for the production of quick-frozen fish. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My wife regularly asks me a question such as what do you fancy for dinner tomorrow night, which seems a bit like asking me where I want to go on holiday the year after next. I simply don’t know. I can tell you what I feel like now or whether I liked what I just ate but asking me what’s going to tickle my culinary fancy tomorrow is a bit of a stretch.

I can’t imagine there were too many such conversations in the Neanderthal household. Back in those days, what you ate came down to what you could grow or catch. If you fancied something meaty it came down to whether you could run faster than this evening’s dinner. Once the nasty business of killing was out of the way, you had to peel your meal – removing any fur or feathers. Before fire was discovered, having rare meat was not a choice, it was a necessity. I don’t think I’d have lived too long unless a met a particularly feisty cave girl.

With bartering came a lot more choice. Instead of doing everything yourself, you had the option of sharpening your neighbour’s axe in exchange for a chicken or hiring out your feisty cave girl for something more exotic in return. No-one really moved around that much, so communities were still restricted to what lay within easy reach.

With more mobility came more choice still. Knowing that rarity breeds value, smart people with orchards went to where there were no orchards and exchanged their goods. As transportation technology evolved, foodstuffs could be moved further and further. Unfortunately, most food has a shelf life and perishability determined how far they could travel. Salt became the preservative of choice or food was cured or pickled in some way.

People eventually worked out that keeping foods cold helped to keep them for longer. In the beginning, there were no artificial cryogenics available, so large blocks of slowly melting ice in cool rooms had to suffice. Once the humming white box in the corner had been developed, there was no stopping us. Everything was frozen from vegetables to meat and a whole new selection of sweets became available for the first time. Legend has it a certain Captain Birdseye realised on a polar fishing expedition that food frozen quickly tasted so much better than the stuff that was left in the icebox to cool down on its own.

Of course, now that the other side of the planet can be reached in a mere 24 hours, pretty much any delicacy from anywhere in the world is available in a choice of high street supermarkets all year round. Ecologically, this is a disaster. There is every chance that if you choose the right (or wrong depending on your point of view) choice, the carbon footprint of your evening meal could be several thousand tonnes. All this explains why our fridge and freezer are rammed full of a multiplicity of ingredients – hence my wife’s insistent question!