IN THE AUTUMN OF 1940, barely a month after the victorious Nazis goose-stepped their way down the Champs-Élysées before the ashen-faced French, a group of teenaged boys in southwestern France stumbled upon a discovery that would change our understanding of early humans forever. The famous Lascaux Caves, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, contain thousands of wall paintings dating from the late Stone Age. Among them are beautiful depictions of horses, bison, ibex, aurochs, and other ancient animals that our neolithic forebears either regularly hunted for food or interacted with.

While the significance of these beautiful and ancient images extend well beyond the subject of animals for food, they do illustrate something very intrinsic about the psychology of our early human ancestors. Namely, food and story-telling have been intertwined in the human imagination since our earliest beginnings.

It should come as little surprise that images of food and eating are plentiful in the oral storytelling of all human cultures. As a vital necessity, the search and production of food, whether it be hunter-gathering or sedentary agriculture, would have pre-occupied all pre-modern human communities. It stands to reason that food might be a convenient metaphor for harbouring all kinds of meanings with which to populate a great story.

Food in oral storytelling tends to fall into one of two categories: The first is the use of food as a metaphor or other narrative device that harbours special meaning, such as the apple in Snow White.

The second category is the use of an origin story to explain a core food or food preparation process. In Iban legend, the discovery of ginger was made by a hunter of old who, while wandering deep in the forest, comes across some orangutans practising what appears to be herbal exfoliation with a strange-looking root. Startled, the primates drop the tuber, which the hunter finds to be of great value as a medicinal salve for his pregnant wife and for flavouring food.

In one of the oldest and most famous stories, which manages to combine both an origin story with food-as metaphor, a fruit lies at the heart of a tale of human folly and damnation. The biblical book of Genesis relates how Eve, and then Adam, were tempted to taste the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, thereby earning their swift ejection from paradise into the wider world. In contrast to Eden, where food and board is freely provided, humans now have to earn their living through painful toil and hard labour. Here the fruit becomes a symbol of mankind’s propensity for temptation, the folly of blind desire, and of our fall from grace.

The later story of Snow White, made famous by the brothers Grimm, again takes up the image of the apple (long equated with the original forbidden fruit due to it being a homophone for the latin word for evil – “malum”) as an object of temptation as well as death. The sanitised Disney version, with which you’re probably most familiar, has omitted some of the less-edifying and more illuminating elements of the story. In the original tale, Disney’s wicked queen-stepmother is in fact Snow White’s birth mother, driven by sheer jealousy of her own child to attempt filicide. Furthermore, the Queen’s instruction to her huntsman, to bring back Snow White’s heart, is for the specific purpose of eating it to preserve her own beauty. These excised elements bring a guttural, cannibalistic edge to the story, as well as a dark obsession with youth and beauty that still resonates today.

Cannibalism, one of the greatest taboos in most human cultures, gets an unusually good airing in many folk tales. Like other taboos such as incest, patricide, and fratricide, what is unmentionable in polite society may be told as bedtime stories instead. And so we have the gruesome story of Hansel and Gretel, whose resident witch has enough patisserie to build her house (plain old bread in many variants), but whose own palate is partial to the flesh of young boys. This story is especially rich in food-related imagery: it contains famine (which drives the children’s parents to abandon them), abundance (the witch’s fantastical gingerbread house), a morbid take on livestockrearing (fattening Hansel for slaughter), as well as homicide (the witch gets pushed into her own oven).

In another Grimm tale with a cannibalistic bent, Red Riding Hood is a thinly-disguised morality tale about the dangers of young girls talking to strange men, whose appetites may or may not be epicurean, but are always carnal.

The link between eating and health or immortality appears is a recurrent theme in Chinese lore. In the tale Journey to the West, a mischievous Monkey breaks into a celestial garden and eats the sacred peaches cultivated to grant immortality to the gods. Aghast that this base creature has upset the social hierarchy and gained access to the exclusive club of immortals, the gods attempt to subdue him with all of heaven’s artillery but to no avail. None can put the genie back into the bottle. Having developed a taste for immortality, they could hardly be surprised that others too might want to join the club.

In the tale Journey to the West, a mischievous Monkey breaks into a celestial garden and eats the sacred peaches cultivated to grant immortality to the gods

Journey to the West may have been compiled during the Ming dynasty, but the idea that eating certain substances, such as celestial peaches or elixirs might bring immortality, has great antiquity. Qin Shihuangdi, the first Emperor of China, was evidently an ardent believer, to the point that he may have inadvertently killed himself by consuming all manner of elixirs purported to make him immortal. A man obsessed with life eternal ended up poisoning himself in his very quest – it’s a very human story.

Fruit and seeds have long been used as metaphors in stories for a host of human concerns: life and death, fertility and barrenness, temptation and desire, good and evil, and many, many more, offering piercing insights into the human psyche. We’re reminded of Persephone, scraping her pomegranate seeds; of Saturn devouring his offspring in blood; there’s Jack and his blossoming beanstalk, a humble peasant’s food pointing the way to unimaginable riches; of Rapunzel, whose father is forced to pilfer from a witch’s garden to satisfy his pregnant wife’s craving.

One Indian tale relates how a pregnant beggar woman, in great need, steals a mango from a king’s garden. Having witnessed this, a guard slays her in a moment of fury; dying, she gives birth to a boy clutching a mango seed. Overcome by remorse, the guard adopts the lad as his own, who becomes a great hero in time. Poverty and privilege, parental sacrifice, guilt and redemption, are neatly sketched out within a single narrative.

These days, you’re more likely to encounter stories about food through celebrity chef programmes, or through food blogs. Sumptuously filmed and photographed, they capture in minute detail the hiss of steak in a pan, the spit and crackle of cooking flames, and the dewy crunch of fresh vegetables, all accompanied by friendly banter. At the very end, there’s always a dinner party in a nice home for family or friends, or a very clever facsimile of one; it’s all very middle-class, familiar, comforting.

What these players have cannily grasped is that media programmes about food have transcended mere cooking demonstrations; they fill a void vacated by the loss of the age-old custom of preparation and partaking of food in a communal setting. In premodern times, food preparation – and storytelling – was out of necessity a family or community ritual. Food needed many hands to prepare, and group storytelling or singing may have helped to pass the hours of hard graft.

The modern age might have freed many of us poor, time-constrained denizens from the drudgery of food production (Grabfood, anyone?), but it’s also left a void in our collective memory. Despite the convenience of pre-prepared meals and food delivery services, we still feel an innate need to watch food being prepared before our eyes, and to have at least a semblance of social contact while doing so, even if it’s only provided by the soothing TV tones of the latest celebrity cook.

Even if we only occasionally prepare food or tell stories together today, there’s at least one consolation: our daily speech is still peppered with nuggets from an earlier age of food storytelling: be fruitful and multiply, being the apple of one’s eye, sour grapes, being in bad taste, being rotten to the core, winnowing out the chaff, crying over spilt milk, counting one’s chickens before they hatch. These are just a few pithy sayings out of a vast lexicon. But whenever we cite them, we bring to mind those ancient stories that our ancestors used to tell about food; around a fire, in the flickering dark of a cave, in a hut, in a deep forest, or under the stars.

When he was four, Alan’s parents signed him up for a storytelling competition. The experience schooled Alan in the fluidity of reality, and he has been making up artful confections ever since.

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