On Food: II. Grains, Fruits and Vegetables

Fields of gold,
waves of grain,
the summer comes to a
The harvest is ready,
ripe for threshing,
as the sun fades into autumn.
Flour will be milled,
bread will be baked,
and we shall eat for another winter.

Patti Wigington

There are three levels of reality. First is the microcosmic level where atoms and electrons whirl and vibrate, imperceptible to our normal modes of cognition. Then there is macrocosm of sun and stars and galaxies. Between these is the mesocosm, the level of palpable reality. This is the level to which we are accustomed in our everyday life. At this level we recognize things and creatures, plants and animals. The foods we consume are at this level, though the elements and processes that serve us for our sustenance and health are at the microcosmic  level.

Today let us reflect on foods we get from the soil: on grains and fruits and vegetables. Humanity depends for its survival on the regular and abundant emergence of these in the fields of the world.

From the botanical point of view, everything we call cereal is a grass. Grains are grass fruits, consisting of an endosperm, a germ, and a bran. Whole grains are not popular with the food industry because they cannot be preserved for long. But they are rich in proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and oils. Long before John Harvey Kellogg, the vegetarian from Michigan, appropriated the name cereal for his brand of corn flakes, ancient Romans had named cereals after Ceres, their God of harvest. Rice, corn, wheat, barley, rye, and oats are all cereals, i.e. fruits of certain types of grasses. If the government knew this there wouldn’t be total a ban on grass.

There is another variety of grains which are called pulses. These include beans, dry peas and lentils. They too are  rich sources of proteins. This reminds me of an incident decades ago when my daughter came home from school  very confused because her biology teacher had told her that meat was absolutely essential for living. She knew her grandparents were pure vegetarians. I told her not to worry since they were in their seventies and in  good health. I went to her biology teacher and told him it was possible to be alive for long on vegetarian diet.  He said he disagreed, and showed me a biology text to prove his point. I told him that  my parents had been living fairly healthy lives for decades without so much as seeing an omelet, let alone carving a steak or chewing on a pork chop. He thought there was something wrong with my parents. I explained to him that millions of people in India live on vegetarian diet, their chief sources of protein being  milk products and a variety of pulses. He looked very puzzled and even somewhat unhappy. I have often wondered about the reliability of some nutritional reports like: a glass of wine a day is good for the heart, chocolate and elephant tusks are powerful aphrosadiacs, caffeine can prolong your life by three days, etc.

Most of us see grains in grocery stores,  as bread and rice, or in soups. We see fruits peeled, sliced, or jammed in bottles; we see vegetables cut or cooked or fried. It is a miracle that the golden sunlight turns into green grass and leaves, and then to grains. If we crave miracles, this is one: the transformation of solar radiation into salad and sandwich for us to eat and enjoy. Don’t be impressed by scientists when explain  this by saying it is because leaves have chlorophyl. The word only means green leaf in Greek. A word may sound technical if you you use a term from a Latin or Greek dictionary.  But that does not explain a fact.

Some three hundred crops provide us with plentiful food, and of these barely twenty four give most of the food we eat. Of these again only eight are responsible for 85% of all the food we eat.  Just three of them are responsible for practically all the main foods that people consume, directly or indirectly. These are rice, wheat and corn. With every grain is associated a fascinating history, important science, and multiple uses.

Wheat has been for ages  one of the most widely used cereals. More land is dedicated to wheat than to any other grain. Since the yield is excellent per unit area it is a very good cash crop, besides being the most protein-rich grain we have.

In a world of diminishing resources, wheat production has been steadily increasing. In the twentieth century there was a five-fold increase in wheat production in the whole world. In the second half of that century, there  was a ten-fold increase in the annual rate of wheat yield. It should not be forgotten that, aside from tractors and fertilizers,  all this has been possible because of  a fairly steady climate and weather. In the year 2007, as a result of flooding in the northern hemisphere and draught in Australia, wheat production diminished, and the price of wheat per bushel tripled.

Not many may know who Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport is. I first heard about him when I was in Ames, IA. He is the one who invented sliced bread in 1928. Although it has become proverbial, many other invensiotns were necessary before we could have even a loaf of bread: Mortars to pound the wheat and make a meal from which to sift the bran, crushers to grind, rotary grindstones, and so on.

The Romans started refining wheat to produce white flour. In ancient Rome one associated white bread with goodness, purity, and nobility of birth. Only the upper class used to indulge in it.  Prehistorians who have studied the skulls and dental relics of ancients peoples  have calculated that the percentage of teeth with cavities grew from 3 to 5 % from  3000 to 100 BCE, and jumped to 11% during Roman times. It peaked to 24% in 1959. White flour gets much credit for this, they say.

Some historians tell us  that  the health of the Roman upper class degenerated as a result of their fondness for white bread. This led to the fall of the Roman empire. Wheat caused the fall of ancient Rome?  Incredible. Actually, it was not wheat, but craving for something more and better all the time. Sometimes invention of luxuries can lead to self-hurt.

Modern food technology is barely two centuries old. Mass production of food began in nineteenth century England where it was re-discovered that the wheat germ contains oils which gradually becomes rancid. The germ contains much of food value, which also attracts rodents. Remove these and refine the wheat, and the flour lasts longer. Bread became the first technologically manufactured food, with many more to follow. White bread was resurrected in idustrializing England in 1826 when they did an experiment with bread made with white flour. It was found that a “dog fed on fine white bread does not live past the 50th day. A dog fed on the coarse whole bread lives and keeps his health” for much longer.

Rice is another staple grain with an ancient history. It has been cultivated in India and China since time immemorial. Elsewhere, as in the Americas and Australia, rice came in  only in recent centuries. Rice is an important food for billions of people in Asia, Afria, and South America.

There is an economic aspect of rice which leave us in a no-win situation. The vast majority of the poor in the world subsist on rice. Therefore it is important to have the price of rice very low. But rice is also produced largely in the poorer countries of the world. This means it would be to the advantage of rice growers if the price of rice is high.

This paradox reminds that as long as food articles are tied to market fluctuations, economy, and profit, humanity may never be able to solve the food crisis. But then, it is virtually impossible to change the market structure of world economy, or the economies of different countries. This implies that  there is potential for more starvation, and more debt to be incurred by the nations of the world.

In many Asian countries rice has a cultural and religious status that few other grains enjoy.  In China and Japan there are rituals associated with the rice crop. In India, feeding the child with its first spoonful of rice is a sacrament. Uncooked rice with turmeric is used in worship services. The sprinkling of rice on newly weds is a mark of wishing them good progeny.

Maize or corn is another  important cereal which was in common use in the Americas  before Europeans came to know about it in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Aztecs had a Maize God called Centeotl.

From here maize spread to the rest of the world. We know that human beings migrate from country to country and from continent to continent. But the same has happened to cereals and fruits also, often through the agency of humans.

Maize was one of the many genetically modified crops grown commercially in the world. In 2010, 86% of the maize crop in the U.S. and Canada was genetically modified in order to make them herbicide-tolerant.

Maize is also used for heating in corn stoves where the cobs serve  as fuel. As is well known, maize is used in the production of ethanol fuel to reduce pollution.  Currently forty percent of the 330 million tons of corn the U.S. produces each year  is turned into ethanol. When the Aztecs were growing the plant they could never have imagined that someday maize would be used for locomotion.

Barley was one of the first grains to be domesticated. Archaeologists say they have found evidence of its use as early as in 8500 BCE. There is a cuneiform clay tablet in the British museum, dating back to 2350 BCE in which a Babylonian king prescribed how much barley each of his subjects could consume: rationing was already in vogue.

In ancient Greek rituals of the Eleusinian Mysteries a special barley-based drink is said to have been used. Xenophon wrote: “For drink, there was beer which was very strong when not mingled with water, but was agreeable to those who were used to it. They drank this with a reed, out of the vessel…, upon which they saw the barley swim.” It was  an ancestor of the beer, and must have tasted very different from Amstel or Heineken or even King Fisher which is a beer from India which you all should try some day. 

The gladiators of ancient Rome were fed with barley: In fact, they were known as hordearii or barley-eaters. For many centuries barley was a staple  food in many regions of the world.  It was only in the 19th century that potatoes began to replace barley in Eastern Europe.

Aside from its use in the production of  beer, whiskey, and wine, and its abundant use as animal feed, barley also serves as algicide to protect pond plants and fish. According to David F. Houston of of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of TexasThe ease with which barley may be substituted directly for wheat in human food, and its usefulness to replace wheat milling by-products as feed in the production of the milk supply, render its abundant production important.

With its eight essential amino acids, Barley is also healthy in tea and coffee. The caffè d’orzo is nothing but barley-coffee. Some studies have shown that eating whole grain barley regulates blood glucose resopnse.

Just as the  Old World gave us wheat, rice, and Barley, the New world has given us not only maize, but also the Quinoa, the pseudo-cereal that grows in abundance in Ecuador and Bolivia. Quinoa is rich in nutrients, and can be cooked like rice. Unlike other grains, it is also used as detergent, and has some medicinal values.

Listen to this poem by an ardent admirer  and consumer of Quinoa (Denise M):

Quinoa, quinoa, my favorite whole grain

Boiled or toasted seasoned or plain

High in protein, and gluten-free

Rich in iron and in vitamin B

Full of fiber and a nutty flavor

Easy to cook and a pleasure to savor

Overshadowed by couscous, barley and rice

The less popular quinoa is twice as nice

It’s fluffy and versatile; add veggies or beans

Or make pudding, cold salads…nearly any cuisine.

I could eat it daily, again and again

This healthful quinoa, the “mother grain”

Among the many blessings we have received from Earth, are the countless  tasty and succulent fruits  that nourish and delight. Fruits have their origins in different parts of the world. Dates came from Egypt and apricot from China; avocado from Central America and blue-berries from North America, breadfruit from Indonesia and mango from India, pineapple from South America and pear from Europe, and so on.  This must remind us of the fact that we are all children of the same planet, inheritors of her abundant boons, and we  need to share earth’s bounties. 

Fruits and vegetables are both plant products. The difference is mainly in how they taste differently to human tongues.  Fruits are usually sweet-tasting; vegetables are savoury or less sweet. Squash, pumpkin, and cucumber, tomatoes, peas, green beans, eggplant, and sweet pepper are all vegetables in common parlance, but botanically speaking they are all fruits. Even some spices, like allspice and chilies, are technically  fruits. On the other hand, rhubarb which is only a leaf stalk  is often described as a fruit,  becaue it is used to make desserts. It is fair to say that fruits account for a significant fraction of the world’s agricutural products.

Here I must mention banana, one of the most remarkable plants that feed us. The fruit is green when raw and yellow when ripe, but we can also get red bananas. There are miniature bananas and very long ones. In India, the banana leaf is used as dish for dinner, and then as fodder for cattle. It is also used to wrap edibles. The trunk of the tree is also eaten, when appropriately curried and cooked. It is the easiest fruit to peel, easiest to bite, with hardly any seed to speak of  in our domesticated bananas, and quite sweet when ripe. Banana is sometimes fried, or baked with bread. One makes banana chips which are tastier than potato chips. Rich in starch, banana also contains vitamin B-6, Vitamin C, and potassium. Banana flowers are excellent as vegetables. That is why, the banana tree is regarded as sacred in the Hindu world, and held in high regard  throughout South East Asia. In addition to all this, it is the only fruit that offers us comic relief with its slippery peel when it makes humans take an unexpected ugly fall.

After millennia during which the vast majority of people spent much of their waking hours in the production of food, came the industrial revolution: which led to radical changes  in agriculture. With the emergence of modern mechanized and chemical agriculture with its countless paraphernalia, millions were released from toil in the fields. Agricultural outputs were multiplied, and the quality of the foods produced were much improved.

All this was great and welcome. At the dawn of the twentieth century,  many people felt good with the promise of abundance and satisfaction for everyone before long.  This phase of hope barely lasted a few decades. In the second half of the twentieth century  the Eudys principle kicked in: The Eudys principle states that every good thing introduced in human societies will sooner or later lead to problems, difficulties, and unhappy side-effects. 

Thus, improvements in agriculture and medicine resulted in population growth and longevity. This meant feeding more mouths for longer periods, and the need to grow more food. This called for more water and other resources, more mechanization and pesticides, and all the rest of it. In other words, the emergence of modern agriculture has not been an unadulterated blessing. Worse, it has led to some of the most ominous circumstances in human history, threatening us with our own extinction as a species.

Let us close with the poem:

Oh, I have walked in Kansas
Through many a harvest field,
And piled the sheaves of glory there
And down the wild rows reeled:
Each sheaf a little yellow sun,
A heap of hot-rayed gold;
Each binder like Creation’s hand
To mold suns, as of old.               (Vachel Lindsay)

 Let us express our gratitude to our unnamed ancestors who learned to sow and reap  the greens and the grains. Let us be thankful to the farmers of the world who literally give us each day our daily grain, and to the bakers of the world who literally give us each day our daily bread.  Hallowed be their labors.


August 19, 2013

Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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