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Note 4: Dressing the food

Part of archaeological research is dedicated to understanding societies by reviewing their eating habits. And the way we do this is by finding material evidence. Ceramic forms, their context and analysis tell us stories around the table and help us understand the dynamics of human groups that sat at the table.

By the way, here we are talking about non-specialized societies. Many studies suggest that they understand work without separating it from leisure. This is what allows that there is little specialization, that all people are able to dedicate themselves to almost everything.Let us now think of another example, a stew or a soup. We cut the ingredients, throw them into the pot and cover them with water until they are cooked, ready to eat. In this case the work is more specialized: the result may taste different in each house, depending on who prepares it.

Photo: Gustavo Vivanco

Then, the design of the tableware is completely opposite to the one used to arrange llama meat on a shared table. Each person has a deep, medium-sized, deep plate to hold liquid food. Here the plating is orderly, and happens one after the other. Although a family may share the moment of consumption of the stew, individuals do not need to interact with each other to consume it. Here there are people specially dedicated to cooking. We would be facing the beginnings of what we know as work and we can confirm it through the ceramic evidence.

In the analysis of this type of issues it is important to detect all those factors that make up culture. The fact of having a more solid or more liquid diet, a deep or flat dish, or sitting at a round or square table has interesting cultural implications to be recorded. The change in consumption patterns tells us the cultural importance we give to one act or another and to understand why we have ‘Sunday dinnerware’ or dishes that we use exclusively on Christmas Day.

It is therefore more important to think about the how than the what. Ingredients and techniques are transformed with trends and schools, but our special tableware, our ways of consumption, that we inherit from generation to generation and can define us as a society.

Photo: Daniel Silva

Marc Cárdenas
Mater team author

Archaeologist and Gastronomist Marc Cárdenas was born in Barcelona. He is an archaeologist and gastronomist with a focus on the study of food as a structuring element of social and cultural events. He has worked on research projects with the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the CSIC-IMF research center. He studied cooking at the Basque Culinary Center, where he worked at Restaurant Compartir and Hispania Brussels. His interests are linked to transmit, from an alternative didactic, the importance of food and its environment. With Mater Iniciativa he carried out a bibliographic review of Moray from an archaeological point of view.

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