Linguists group languages into families and subfamilies. Is it possible to do the same with cuisines? What would those families and subfamilies be? For a linguist, language families are related in just the same way that the human families are: they have a common ancestry. It seems entirely plausible that groups of cuisines have developed from a common ancestry.
Take a simple example, the cuisines of the Pacific Islands. These cuisines depend on one cooking method (the underground oven), half a dozen ingredients (taro, breadfruit, yam, coconut, fish), have little in the way of storage or fermentation techniques, and have a meal that consists of cooked pounded starchy stuff with a relish of fish or coconut. They are found from New Guinea to Easter Island, from the South Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands in the North Pacific.
In recent years, linguists and geneticists have established that the peoples who settled this vast stretch of the earth’s surface set out from (probably) New Guinea as early as 1000 BC and that settlement was essentially complete by 500 AD.[i] Since almost none of the islands they settled has anything edible except fish, the only reasonable assumption to make is that the cuisines have a common origin in New Guinea and owe their similarities not to similar resources given by the environment but to a common heritage spread by human migration.
It seems highly probable that one could establish other such family groupings: the maize cuisines that started in Mesoamerica; or the rice-fish-coconut-tamarind cuisines that depends heavily on processing coconut and sugar palms, drying or fermenting fish, using tamarind as the souring agents and so on that ring the Indian Ocean, or the cuisines of modern western Europe. Is it possible that we can see traces of an Indo-European Cuisine by the otherwise curious distribution of milk drinkers in India, parts of the Middle East, and Europe and its colonies?
Of course cuisines can diverge and reconverge more easily than human families. Roman Cuisine leaves different traces in Christian and Islamic Cuisines, these converge in (say) Medieval Europe.
I’m also touching here on the controversial Renfrew-Bellwood hypothesis about the co-spread of farming and languages. Huge issues. Just one quick comment. Language speakers don’t begin by spreading farming. They begin by wanting to preserve their known ways of making food (something cooked). They have to farm to get the raw materials.
This may all be a bit enigmatic. I will happily expound at length but I want this to be a blog post not a Ph.D. dissertation.
[i] Geoffrey Irwin, “Human Colonization and Change in the Remote Pacific,” Current Anthropology 31 (1990), 90-94; Peter Bellwood, “The Austronesian Dispersal and the Origin of Languages,” Scientific American (July, 1991), 88-93; Patrick Vinton Kirch, On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2000). For cuisine, see Nancy Pollock, These Roots Remain (Laie, Hawaii: Institute for Polynesian Studies, 1992).