The Conqueror’s Diet


One of the best books on food I’ve read doesn’t have a single recipe.   It’s Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.  You’ve probably already read it; it was first published in 1997, and I’ve picked it up a couple of times since.  This isn’t a book review, but initially, Diamond had me when he referred to history as an onion, to be carefully peeled away layer by layer.

One of his first questions is “how did a small group of 168 Spanish conquistadors successfully conquer a large, well-organized Inca empire with an army of 80,000 soldiers, millions of subjects and a well-organized system of economics and government?”  He suggests the factors in Francisco Pizarro’s success were “essentially the same ones that determined the outcome of similar collisions between colonizers and native peoples elsewhere in the modern world.”  And the answers are, of course, more than hinted at in the title of his book.

Steel, of course, enabled the invention of firearms, armor and other now-necessities of warfare.  Germs have been often used deliberately as a weapon of war:  think putrid animals flung directly into besieged cities or into water supplies, and in later times, the intentional distribution of smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans.  Germs have also been inadvertent weapons:  Diamond shows how domesticated animals first provide a route for infection, then later help afford immunization to their humans.  Most conquered societies had few or no domesticated animals (apparently dogs and guinea pigs don’t provide the same amount of natural inoculation as do pigs and cows).  And the change in how food arrives at the table (step one:  invent, then build a table), evolving from hunter-gatherers to farming, i.e., consuming domesticated plants and animals.  Diamond says:  “food production provided the indirect perquisite to the production of guns, germs and steel.”

Diamond claims that the societies that ultimately triumph over others have (in addition to creating successful ways of making war), histories of domesticating plant and animal production: grains, fruits, sweets, spices, sheep/goats, pigs and cattle.  All the ingredients of, say, a loaf of good bread, a nice stew or steak dinner, and some apple pie afterwards.  Wash it down with a big glass of milk or a cup o’ wine.   Even the best wild-caught fish/seafood recipes:  for example, bouillabaisse, depend upon all kinds of domestically produced herbs, foods and spices.

So what’s the connection with a food blog?  Hey, who am I to quarrel with history?!  I keep mentally referring to Diamond’s thesis every time someone trumpets the latest diet fad.  In the last  century-plus, there have been, literally, hundreds of “a better way to eat.”  There’s  the Drinking Man’s Diet, Fletcherism, the Zone Diet, detox & cleansing, Atkins, Vinegar Diet, bananas and skim milk,  paleo diets, low carbs, high carbs, juicing, organic-only, vegetarian, vegan, etc. and so on (yes,  some diets exist to make political or belief statements).

Maybe we should start referring to the foods many of us grew up on…..certainly our grandparents did… a “Conqueror’s Diet.”   Tomatoes, potatoes, breads, pork chops, steaks, BBQ, rice, wheat, barley, oats, peppers, spices, onions, garlic, etc., and so on.  Come on, don’t we need all those to make a proper and complete diet?

The problems with the Conqueror’s Diet and all those other diets (and I’m Prime Example Number One) is not what we consume, but how much, and then when/what we do….or don’t do…to use up all those tasty calories (I’ve heard it’s called exercise).  I’m an overweight old guy, but  I’m horrified by the portly giants waddling around in the all-you-can-eat buffet lines, or pushing industrial-sized carts with enormous boxes of sort-of-but-not-really-food in mega-store checkout lines.

I’m headed off to the kitchen now to make myself a Hangtown Fry (scrambled eggs, bacon and oysters…mmmm).    I think I just shamed myself into making a smaller portion than what I initially envisioned when I bought the oysters.

And then I’ll start planning on how to conquer…..oh, I don’t know…..Canada?


Ol' Mick

I'm an old guy, been eating all my life. And I've been blessed with marrying a really good cook (she's an actual prize-winner) who still looks much better than do I. Two daughters, both in the food business (one in PR, the other in sales), and both married guys, who also like to cook. Consequently our family gatherings sometimes resemble a raucous cut-throat foodie TV contest on a cooking channel.

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