Differentiating Fundamental and Experiential Meals
Fundamental meals get to the very core of why we eat; they are humanity’s original meal.
In order to sustain the internal metabolic processes that keep us alive, all heterotrophic systems, including humans, must take in material from outside ourselves.
While modern food systems have made this process easier than ever before, the task of finding and consuming food products suitable to our needs has been a constant and ongoing struggle for humankind for all of history1. In fact, most of the early tools created by humans were devoted to capturing and processing materials used for food2, with some researchers going so far as to suggest that the most significant periods of human cognitive evolution were spurred by periods of food scarcity3.
For most of human history, our relationship with food has been essentially transactional with the vast majority of our time being devoted to searching for and consuming materials that contained the molecules needed to maintain our internal metabolic processes in the most efficient way possible1. It is from this basis then that we can broadly define an early type of meal, a meal type that is eaten for the primary purpose of satiation rather than for cultural or other purposes: a fundamental meal.
Fundamental meals have taken innumerable forms throughout history, shaped and constrained by forces as varied as politics, geography, technology, and religion4, but always grounded in their primary purpose of providing the essential molecules required for life in the most efficient way possible. Fundamental meals get to the very core of why we eat; they are humanity’s original meal.
While fundamental meals are necessarily ancient, as humankind evolved food systems and technologies that allowed larger, more complex societies and civilizations to emerge, so too did novel meal types imbued with cultural significance beyond pure nutritional satiation. As human societies and culture complexified, the consumption of food increasingly became associated with rituals and performance, with examples as varied as religious sacrificial offerings to demonstrations of social status4.
While the new significance bestowed to nutritional consumption was as varied as human culture itself, we can broadly define these experiential meals as any type of meal consumed for which the purpose is not primarily satiation. And owing to this departure from the primary purpose of fundamental meals, experiential meals are often composed in such a way as to create a hedonistic, rewarding experience for the eaters, often containing excessive amounts of fat, sugar, or other gustatorily stimulating ingredients. Often consumed in groups, these meals and their constitutive elements create and reinforce a shared experience that while perhaps not strictly physiologically healthy, helps reinforce important social bonds and create cultural connections. In this way, experiential meals often serve a vital role in human societies.
However, while the evolutionarily later experiential meal does play an integral part in complex human interactions, fundamental meals in some form still remain the primary source of nutrients for the vast majority of humankind.
1. Brüssow, H. (2007). The quest for food: a natural history of eating. Springer Science & Business Media.
2. Plummer, T. (2004). Flaked stones and old bones: biological and cultural evolution at the dawn of technology. American journal of physical anthropology, 125(S39), 118-164.
3. Mattson, M. P. (2019). An evolutionary perspective on why food overconsumption impairs cognition. Trends in cognitive sciences, 23(3), 200-212.
4. Laudan, R. (2013). Cuisine and empire: Cooking in world history (Vol. 43). Univ of California Press.