Cuisine and Language 9: Can We Reconstruct Dead Cuisines?

Linguists have developed ways to reconstruct dead languages like Proto Indo-European, the language from which many of the languages of western Eurasia, including Celtic, Latin, Sanskrit etc are descended.  Not the whole language perhaps.  But lots of words and some idea of the society they represent.

Pretty nifty.  So how do they do it?

Linguists rely on the theory that changes in sounds tend to be systematic.  The case of Proto Indo-European is the most famous with some 5000 words now established.  Especially impressive is that linguists can make predictions that have been confirmed when new inscriptions have been discovered.

So the question is are there systematic changes in cuisine or in elements of cuisine?  Do tastes change in systematic ways? Is it possible that there are general human preferences for soft, sweet, warm, crunchy, salty foods?    Could we thus make predictions (or better retrodictions) to earlier cuisines?

And could we confirm these retrodictions using residue analysis, for example?  A long shot, but wouldn’t that be something?

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2 thoughts on “Cuisine and Language 9: Can We Reconstruct Dead Cuisines?

  1. Ken Albala

    IT sure would be amazing, but are shifts in cuisine ever systematic? They seem completely arbitrary and capricious. New ingredient here, another technique there, following movement of peoples and ideas. I guess language changes in comparable ways when people interact, but never has the whole syntax, grammar and vocabulary overhauled, as it has been several times with cooking.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Well, we’ve not really been looking in a theoretical way at how cuisines change. I suspect we will need to distinguish two or three different kinds of change as your comment indicates, Ken. There are the small constant changes, not sure they are that arbitrary or capricious because they have to fit into the larger structure of cuisine. There are big changes when whole cuisines are replaced or transformed out of recognition–and doesn’t that happen with language too? And maybe there are general taste preferences. There do seem to be widespread changes toward sweeter, saltier, softer, warmer and more formed (cooked rice or bread or pasta over mashed roots). Not sure if this is enough. But it’s fun to play around and see how far these analogies will take us.

      Your 13th book, by the way! Congratulations. But when do you sleep?


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