Silverware is very young. Consider the fork, that since we were a child has been a part of our lives, sitting beside us as we eat, and often used for salads and pieces of meat and even an occasional dessert. The fork is very young. Before the fork was invented, it was spoons and knives and occasionally skewers. Really, food was held in hands, devoured in hands, and put on plats of wood or stone when it was too hot for hands. Naturally, this would be very dangerous to do in a pre-sanitation culture, where the plates and stones and hands have not been washed, ever. Ergo, civilizations that developed safer alternatives to bare, dirty hands would be more likely to raise the next generation of children safely to child-bearing age. Trenchers of some sort have developed independently across many cultures. I’m not talking about the wooden ones, here. I mean, the ones made out of bread upon which food was placed to be both cooked and eaten. The pies and pasties are not only an important culinary development for creating tasty edible sacks of steamed meat and produce, but the modern pie developed out of the idea of a round of bread that is used as a plate. The nobleman eats food off the hard, tough bread, and then hands the bread to the lower classes, who can eat it and presumably taste a little of the sauce inside of the doughy shell.
While eating a burrito, a sandwich, or a samosa – a pop-tart, a hot pocket, a meat pie… This is the grandchild of the trencher in action. Even biscuits and gravy keeps the tradition alive, in its way, by smothering a tasty sauce over hard, day-old biscuits. Every military child remembers S.O.S. on toast.
Consider food and culture, then, constantly iterating. The fork is so young, but has now become so ubiquitous that people in Asia can find it at the occasional restaurant. Some establishments invented a spork to save money by taking the useful qualities of forks and spoons and rendering them useless by shoving them together independent of whether such a thing is functional. (It’s like a spoon with holes, or a fork without true tines: Terrible!) The ebb and flow of time and invention means that tools we take for granted would be alien and difficult to other cultures and times. Handing out chopsticks in the average American classroom would inevitably lead to hilarious results as children encountering something alien for the first time would need to develop their dexterity on the fly, dropping food along the way. Yet, the most persistent culture on earth relies almost exclusively on chopsticks and a very superior large spoon.
In constant flux, then, our diets and traditions that feel so ancient shift and groan and grow. We still eat with our hands, like savages. We still pick up our trenchers, just that we call them burritos or bruschetta. We use forks. We use specialized forks. We find all these gizmoes and gadgets in our kitchens that all do these crazy things. I have a tool in my kitchen that does exactly one thing: It peels and cores apples better than anything ever did before. Everything that is old is new again. The oldest way of cooking food is a staple of summer: barbecue.
Consider the homely, old-fashioned trencher. Saying the word out loud leads to blank stares, mostly. Asking for food on one would often not lead to a successful meal at a restaurant. Handing a trencher to the homeless on the street as alms would likely net a curse, not a blessing. Yet, the DNA of it persists in what we eat and what we do.
Food and culture are inextricably linked. What other species expends so much energy and time communicating to their children what is proper at the “table” if there is a table? Of all that we do, this unites us with all our ancestors: We gather together to eat. We often do not know why it is rude to put elbows on the table, but it is. We do not know why we should use forks for one thing and not our hands. We do not know why we shouldn’t use our thumbs to push the peas onto the spoon, but we do and we recreate this message onto our children, indoctrinating them into culture and place. Father sits at the “head” of the table, mostly. In formal dining situations, we pause and give thanks. We are, all of us, positioning ourselves at the table. Some of us gather around a television and include the one-eyed monster in our household as a full member.
Consider the trencher. A humble slab of bread that kept the food from falling into the fire, and kept our hands mostly free of our food, which was probably cleaner than our hands, has come back to us over and over. The idea behind it reiterating in new forms. Call it pizza, if there are tomatoes on it, and cheese. Call it quiche if there are eggs. All of them are trenchers.
This is what I think about when I think about culture. A simple foundation is discovered, and it iterates, iterates, iterates, through so many different ideas and shapes, all inspired by a simple innovation. Soon, all of these new things both compete with each other, and become the simple foundation of new things. Ideas are in motion. Culture moves. Society moves. Yet, there are still trenchers. The cultural dna – the idea, itself – retains a place, foundational and omnipresent.
This is what I think about when I think about books, too. There are books that just hang in the background, present even when not explicitly present – Biblican stories, myths, allegories and anachronisms. St. George and the Dragon, Genesis, Sheherazade, Buddha, Genji, Baghavad…
This is what I think about when I think about technology. There is the idea of communication over long distances. Writing is invented. Words are written down. Now there are electrons shooting over optic fibre cable networks, all doing the same work of wax tablets, and of the oral messengers before them. The cables, themselves, become foundational and shift and iterate into new ways.
The tree grows, throwing off branches. Each branch throws off branches. We worry and fret over our tiny twigs, and we do not see the trunk back there, growing thick as mountains.
I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I was eating a burrito and it spilled open and there was a trencher before me, and I recognized it. I hadn’t even realized what was happening until it was there, before me, the bones of the past habits tumbling into new forms. The trencher always returns. Things like that always do.