Eat Like A Caveman

Paul Gauguin, Two Tahitian Women, 1899, detail.
When Paul Gauguin wanted to get away from the ills of modern life in the 1890s -- get away from the economic crash that had ruined him as a stockbroker, get away from the hectic life of the city, get away from his wife and kids and all the responsibility and drudgery and regularity that they represented, get away from a world of manners and mores that chafed his more-than-healthy ego and fueled his messiah complex -- he went as far as he could. He traveled a long distance geographically, yes -- to Tahiti, a French colony at the time, the other side of the world, quite literally -- but he traveled even further in time. He traveled to a place where he thought he could find a primitive way of life: a way of life caught in a distant past -- even a paleolithic past. The remnants of the Stone Age, millions of years after the fact. An original and natural and honest and unvarnished and savage and pure way of life, one ruled by instincts and drives rather than social pieties and hypocrisies. One that had not yet been ruined by corsets and money and art schools. To him, that's what Tahiti represented.

Fernand Cormon, Cain, 1880
It wasn't Eden that he sought -- the place before the fall, where Adam and Eve lived in an ideal realm of plenitude and innocence -- or at least it wasn't that entirely. He wanted the violence and the sex as well as the innocence. When Fernand Cain, a painter in Paris, imagined the moment when Cain was exiled with his tribe to a life of perpetual wandering for killing Abel, it was a distopic and barbaric vision (so different from Gauguin's fantasies) of cavemen and cavewomen, like those who'd made the rock paintings at Lascaux that had been discovered only a few years before. The primitive and the paleolithic -- two sides, perhaps, of the same coin, Gauguin's focused on how much we moderns have lost, Cain's a grim reminder of how much we've gained.

It's hard for me, a student of the 19th century, not to feel we're re-living the 1890s right now -- and here I don't mean the 1890s of the Moulin Rouge and Gay Paree, of decadence and gas lights -- but this other one. The 1890s of Gauguin, where people fantasized about escaping the modern, where they were convinced that if we could just go back, if we opted out, if we revived old ways of doing things, if we became primitives ourselves, we would be healthier, happier, stronger, more in touch with our bodies and our natural world, kinder, more empathetic. We would be more in touch with our animal selves. In a good way. God knows humanity hasn't had a great track record so far.

So, in this "1890s: The Sequel," we find ourselves turning to evolution -- pop evolution, let's say -- to imagine our way out of the messes we've gotten ourselves into. The problem, we tell ourselves, is somewhere along the way our fancy clothes and iPhones and interwebs and white bread and butcher counters have lulled us to forget that at root we're just cavemen dressed in fancy clothes and pretending to be modern.

Confused about changing gender roles in the wake of feminism, especially now that women are making more money than men and have taken on more forceful roles within families? Don't worry your thick-browed heads about it! Evolution tells us that men are the dominant, promiscuous spreaders-of-seed and that women are the clingy, passive, child-bearing-and-rearing homebodies -- no use fighting our essential natures! Oh, and by the way -- if women object, we've got a set of evolutionarily sound techniques that will work around her overly-rational, unnatural feminist ideas and tap into her vestigial caveslut self. (I once had a guy -- on a first date no less -- sketch out this logic of seduction on a cocktail napkin. It seemed to involve armies of anthropomorphized spermatozoa, and led him to conclude that acting like an Alpha dog would make me weak in the knees.) Feeling stiff and fat because you sit at a desk all day and don't even walk to the next cubicle because, hey, email? Is that job of yours -- the one that used to, a generation ago, require you to put in forty hours a week but now requires sixty -- making you feel weak and pale and unhealthy? Let's devise exercise programs that mimic the skills you'd need to outrun saber-toothed tigers and hunt wooly mammoths and climb trees to escape danger! Even better -- let's do it barefoot! If it was good enough for the Stone Agers, it's good enough for us. There is even an emerging field of art history called neuroaesthetics to help explain how art works by examining our evolutionary brain -- we appreciate the Mona Lisa because it triggers in our eyes and grey matter the same sort of signals we needed to negotiate the brutal world we lived in back in the day. I mean, really really back in the day.

Better yet, let's eat like cavemen, too. The paleo diet -- the "latest thing" among health-conscious hipsters on both coasts even though it's been around since the seventies -- is premised on the idea that we are eating things that our original, uncorrupted, Stone Age ancestors wouldn't have, despite the fact that our genetics have not changed substantially since that time. As a result, proponents say, we suffer diseases of civilization, of affluence. So: yes to meat (luckily not necessarily stuff you have to hunt yourselves -- grass fed and organic will do), fish, eggs, fungi, and certain fruits and vegetables, but no to legumes, dairy, grains, processed carbs, sugars, because those are the product of agriculture, and agriculture was the beginning of the end of civilization.

The paleo diet, then, wants to turn back time -- not that different from the "eating like your great grandmother" diet promoted by people like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman. Marlene Zuk calls it "paleo-nostalgia" -- just another phenomenon in a historical moment in which we all seem so desperate to live outside our own era. The only difference is that this particular nostalgia stretches back not to remembered, ancestral time but to time immemorial, time unrecorded. An even better site for our fantasies than our great-grandmothers' kitchens, because who's going to tell us we're wrong? (I mean, other than scientists, who are pretty firm on the idea that the paleo diet has not an iota of evolutionary truth behind it.)

This is the thing: there's nothing wrong with the paleo diet as it's practiced now -- it's not any crazier than Atkins, or South Beach, or Weight Watchers, or any other regimen that people embrace because they think it's the most "natural" thing for our bodies -- just as there's nothing wrong with doing Cross-Fit training or running in toe shoes. But the accumulation of all those things signals something important, namely our need to believe the theories behind them. It's the need that should give us pause. Because, as in any idealization, it's a need based on a kind of blindness: the cavemen were no more perfectly suited to their environments than we are now. That's why they evolved. There was no starting point to evolution, really, and unless we want to start eating like one-celled organisms we're going to have to face the fact that the here and now, while it can and should learn from the past (and even from the future), is where we're stuck. Evolution has no origin, and it doesn't have a reverse button, either.

Because the alternative is getting of our metaphorical boat to Tahiti, like Gauguin did, and discover that all those problems we thought we were escaping are still there, clinging to us like an unwanted stench, the women in modest dress rather than bare-breasted in grass skirts, the savages speaking French and saying their prayers just like the Jesuits told them to, the ports full of smoke-spewing vessels, the food out of cans. He told himself, perhaps, that he was discovering the primitive -- that he was becoming primitive -- even though he was only there because it was a colony, and had been for a while, even though he had to ask his friends in France to send him books from the libraries there on the lost Tahitian language and religion and customs, even though he had to train his villager hosts (and eventually, string of underage wives) to "recover" a past that they had never known. He made this primitive past in his own image, to satisfy his own desires, to justify his own need for escape.

Korean-Style Pork Belly with Radish and Onion Salad
Serves 4

1. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the following ingredients: 3 TB Korean soy-bean paste, 1 TB honey, 1 TB minced garlic, 1 TB grated ginger root, 1 tsp canola oil. Add 1.5 lbs pork belly, cut into 2" chunks. Rub marinade into meat, and let sit on the counter while you make the other preparations, at least 30 minutes.

2. Make the salad: Toast 2 tsp sesame seeds on a dry skillet. Using a mandoline or Kyocera slicer (which I adore), slice half a medium red onion to make slivers, and then slice about 8 red radishes, topped and tailed, to make thin rounds. In a small serving bowl, combine 1 TB soy sauce, 1 TB sugar, 2 tsp unseasoned rice wine vinegar, 1 tsp sesame oil, and 1 crumbled dried red chili or dried red chili flakes to taste. Add vegetables to dressing and toss to combine. When ready to serve, sprinkle toasted sesame seeds on top.

3. Make a fire: you can either do this on a charcoal grill or in the oven. For the grill, you may want to soak some bamboo skewers in water so that you can string the meat like kebabs; makes the grilling marginally easier. Heat your charcoal and push it to one side of the grill before putting on the grate and rubbing it with a little canola oil. For the oven, preheat to 425 degrees; line a sheet pan with aluminum foil  and place a rack on top, or line a broiler pan with aluminum foil.

4. When your fire is hot, cook the meat: on the grill, you'll put the meat directly over the heat, moving it to the cooler part when it starts to char to complete cooking; it will take around 25 minutes total. In the oven, roast for around 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 325 degrees and continue cooking for another 20-25 minutes.

5. Serve the chunks of meat sliced, with butter (Boston) lettuce leaves and radish and onion salad alongside. Place slices of meat and some salad on a lettuce leaf, fold up, and take a bite. No utensils required (or allowed).


Anonymous said…
"(I mean, other than scientists, who are pretty firm on the idea that the paleo diet has not an iota of evolutionary truth behind it.)"

The link to "hells-ditch" post that you refer to in the bit quoted above is a satire/spoof. Neither the scientists nor the event described are real.

Don't worry, you're not alone; a lot of people who really really want to believe the paleo diet has no scientific underpinnings got hoaxed in a moment of rampant uncritical confirmation bias, including and one of their "investigative journalists".
Hmmm. Can't figure out who or what it's spoofing -- it's not like the scientists "quoted" were saying anything that hasn't been borne out by actual scientists writing on the issue. Just in case, though, I've changed the link to this piece in Scientific American:
Nandia Vlachou said…
That Cormon painting did capture the imagination of a lot of people. It was copied and admired by at least two Portuguese painters who went to Paris to further their studies. I'd like to think that what they saw in it was less its technical mastery but that it represented in such a lively manner a time for which there was no visual relics. I think that's why movies like 10.000 BC still get made. There is a fascination and curiosity about that period, that's simultaneously our past and outside history. But I think you rightly stress the need to live outside our era as the most crucial matter in all these nostalgic revivals.
Navtia (sorry for the transliteration -- not sure if I got that even close), thanks for the background on the Cormon painting. It's always one of the works I spend endless amounts of time looking at when I'm at the Orsay.
Nandia Vlachou said…
I shamefully admit that I do not even remember seeing the painting in Orsay! Was it always exhibited? I haven't visited since 2005 (and I don't know why google insists in displaying my name in Greek, although I have no account in Greek! it's Nandia:) )
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