What do you get when an insurgent online food magazine (OK, it’s the one you’re reading right now) teams up with a respected museum of natural history and an innovative sustainable brewer? One possible result is a meal like the one that took place this Tuesday, tied into the Bell Museum‘s Hungry Planet exhibit and entitled “From Open Flames to Sous Vide: The History of Cooking in Five Courses.”
Though at first the combination of anthropology and fine dining seemed an unlikely marriage, the evening united devoted scientists and full-on food lovers for a dinner filled with food, facts, and frisee.
Chef Chris Olson (a cook at Meritage and the creator of Paired) presented five different dishes that illustrated the progression of human cooking, starting with a primitive raw tartare and ending up with a ultra-modern dessert. Biological anthropologist Greg Laden provided the running narration that tied the meal together, taking guests on an era-spanning journey by weaving together anecdotes of his time spent with African pygmies and insightful observations about nutrition and evolution. And brewer David Anderson (of Dave’s BrewFarm in Wilson, WI) provided an incredibly potable pale ale without hops, made in an ancient, herb-rich style known as gruit.
Amongst taxidermied animals, guests learned about the impact of the introduction of cooked foods (as symbolized by a roasted root vegetable soup) and interesting anecdotes including the correlation between prenatal morning sickness and the use of spice.
Following the soup with wild rice and roasted root vegetables, the menu turned to later and greater discoveries, such as the preservation of food with salt, smoke, and cultures. Our salad course embraced two of these advances, surely among two of the greatest discoveries on Earth: cheese and bacon (well, technically lardon, but they have a similar background).
The main course reminded us of the birth of grain (barley), the simplicity of the roast (meat placed near fire) and the creation of hybrid vegetables (in this case, broccolini).
With dessert, Olson dove into the realm of modern gastronomy, bringing to our plates the health-conscious graham cracker (devised to subdue sexual excitement in the 1800s by the Reverend Sylvester Graham, Olson informed us), pineapple sous vide, a pretentious cherry foam, and the humble Hostess favorite, the Twinkie.
The evening ended with Laden’s observation that modern humans dine in a way totally alien to even our recent ancestors — always questing for new tastes and exotic influences. The Bell Museum dinner was no exception: in the process of symbolizing older, simpler ways to prepare and eat food, Olson entertained his diners with novel combinations and bright, clean flavors.