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Part of the Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture exhibition.
Behind every meal is a story about the person who ate it, the culture that shaped it, and the place and the era in which it was served. Visit Our Global Kitchen for an up-close look at the intersection of food, culture, and health by exploring some notable meals throughout time.
What was it like to dine with the Romans? Imagine sharing an evening meal some 2,000 years ago with Livia Drusilla, the wife of Augustus, first emperor of Rome. At the country home of this powerful hostess, dinner would likely begin with a rich array of savory starters, some familiar, others intriguingly different from modern European cuisine.
Flavors from eastern, western, and central Asia mixed at the court of Kublai Khan, the Mongolian ruler who conquered China and became the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty (AD 1271–1368). Like his grandfather Genghis Khan, this fabled leader dreamed of a world empire, and he dined on a sumptuous multicultural cuisine.
Known for her sharp-witted novels about love and manners among the English gentry, Jane Austen did most of her writing in the early 1800s, more than a century before most European households had electricity. Although she lived comfortably and ate well, she had fewer food choices than most English people do today. At the time, a summer treat as simple as ice cream was quite a luxury.
Some of the most intriguing information we have about prehistoric food in Europe comes from a slim, brown-eyed traveler now known as Ötzi, who may have been a cattle owner or village chief some 5,000 years ago. After he died in the Alps, snow and ice covered his body and kept it preserved. By examining samples from his mummified remains, researchers have been able to pinpoint with surprising precision the composition of Ötzi’s last meals.
As a young athlete, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps liked to visit his favorite diner and order enormous breakfasts like this one. Phelps was then a growing teen, but even as an adult, when his training was extremely intense before the 2008 Olympic Games, he ate an estimated two to three times what is recommended for an active man. Phelps could eat that much without gaining weight because his activity levels were extreme—he swam six days a week, for up to six hours a day.
By some estimates, 40 percent of the people of India are strict vegetarians, following a tradition that has thrived in the region for more than 2,000 years. Civil rights leader Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) was raised on a meatless diet in the northwestern Indian state of Gujarat. In the Jain and Hindu faiths that influence Gujarati culture, meat eating is considered a violation of ahimsa—the principle that one should do no harm to living beings.
Environmental and human rights advocate Wangari Maathai (1940–2011) founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots campaign to restore forests and improve living conditions in rural Kenya. To help Kenyan families keep nutritious food on the table, her organization offers tips for planting and maintaining kitchen gardens—small plots of vegetables for home-cooked meals made with fresh ingredients like the one featured in the exhibition.
Around the world, about 870 million people are hungry—that’s one in eight. Whether chronically malnourished or facing starvation as a result of crisis, they do not have access to enough food. In developing countries, more than 100 million young children are underweight.
Why Too Little?
Unequal access. Enough food is produced in the world to feed everyone, but it is not distributed equally. Underlying problems of poverty, political dysfunction and lack of access to land and resources contribute to world hunger. Natural disasters and armed conflicts, as well as volatile food prices and trade policies, also play a role.
Worldwide, more than a billion adults—about 35 percent—are overweight or obese, even more than are undernourished and hungry. That does not include an additional 42 million young children who are overweight. Being overweight can carry long-term health consequences, including heart disease and diabetes.
Why Too Much?
Living big. The obvious explanation for the global rise in obesity is that people are eating more and are less physically active than in the past. But that’s not all: genetic factors, lack of sleep, industrial chemicals in the environment, and microbes in the digestive tract may also play a role.