I read an article by an Oxford professor on the history of food, which has great significance for Forest Park foodies. So what did the professor identify as the first big breakthrough in food? No, it wasn’t pizza. It was the invention of cooking.

Cooking didn’t just make food tastier, it completely changed society. Prior to fire-cooked meals, hunters consumed whatever they killed right on the spot. They were loners, like the guys you see sitting in a diner reading a newspaper. But when the hunters started carrying the carcasses home to be roasted over the communal fire, we had what you’d call the family dinner, complete with bad table manners.

The next revolution in eating was the development of agriculture. Farming was much tougher and riskier than hunting — which made the historian wonder why humans took it up in the first place. The work was backbreaking and, if the crop failed, the farmer starved.

The professor explained the rise of agriculture with the “beer theory.” He reasoned that people didn’t mind sweating in the fields all day, if they could sit around at night and drink beer. To support his thesis, he noted that 40% of the ancient Sumerian wheat harvest went straight to alcohol production. The beer theory also goes a long way toward explaining Forest Park.

People weren’t satisfied, though, with just having warm meals. They wanted flavor, too. They traveled great distances and fought wars just so they could spice up their dishes. They pretended they were on a “Mission from God” during these spice wars by calling them “Crusades.”

Aside from war, no one revolutionized food more than Christopher Columbus. When Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the place that had potatoes was called Peru. Back then there were no tomatoes in Italy, no rice in America and no cheesy potatoes in France.

The “Columbian exchange” completely changed cuisine. Transplantation of the potato led to a population explosion in Northern Europe, particularly Ireland. The failure of that crop ultimately led to a lot of Irish people living in Forest Park.

I just finished reading a depressing book titled, Paddy’s Lament, about the great famine in Ireland. It wasn’t a potato famine as much as a “policy famine.” The policies of the British government caused the Irish peasants to become completely dependent on the potato.

When the crop failed, Ireland still had plenty of meat and grains but these were shipped to England rather than being used to feed the starving population. This is why half my family ended up leaving Ireland and settling in Chicago. The other half was doing too well in Ireland and had their property confiscated for being “rebels.” But I digest.

Now, we’re in the fast-food revolution, though the popularity of takeout peaked about 2,000 years ago in Rome. Most Roman citizens picked up dinner from street vendors but couldn’t heat up the leftovers in a microwave.

The invention of the microwave was a regrettable development, the professor believes, because it allows family members to eat solitary meals at odd times. It threatens to send us back to the pre-social days, when the hunter wouldn’t share his supper.

Because food isn’t just for nourishment. Dining is a social custom that brings us together. It bridges the gap between different cultures. These cultures have given Forest Park a rich and varied menu: Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Thai and Parky’s.

Finally, the professor advises us to relax and enjoy meals with our families. That’s sound advice because eating dinner together makes for a tight-knit family. Plus, the diner I like only serves breakfast and lunch.  

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.