a food paradise of pleasure

Seeds in the story of the Garden of Eden and the myth of the Mediterranean Diet (abstract)

This paper will explore the functions of seeds in the story of the Garden of Eden and the myth of the Mediterranean Diet, rather than seeds in a primarily agricultural or culinary context. It acknowledges the polysemy of seed as food or begetter; referencing seed in metaphorical uses derived from interpretations/employment of seed now defined as “an embryonic plant enclosed in a protective outer covering; a unit of reproduction of a flowering plant, capable of developing into another such plant.”

The generative function of seeds appears early in the first chapter of Genesis:

And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. Genesis 1: 11, 12 (King James Bible, 1611)

And:

God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. […] And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. Genesis 1: 27, 29 (King James Bible, 1611)

The Old Testament of the King James Bible was based on Hebrew and Aramaic texts (themselves based on much older oral traditions), and thus refers both to a watery garden and to Eden; whereas the Catholic Douay (1609) bible was a direct translation of the Latin Vulgate (St Jerome, late C4th/early C5th): this has no garden nor Eden, rather, “a paradise of pleasure” (paradisum voluptatis).

And the Lord God had planted a paradise of pleasure from the beginning; wherein he placed man whom he had formed.
And the Lord God brought forth of the ground all manner of trees, fair to behold, and pleasant to eat of; the tree of life also in the midst of paradise; and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2: 8, 9 (Douay Rheims, 1609)

Or:

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.
And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2: 8, 9 (King James Bible, 1611)

Thus, the diet (“meat”) of the occupants of the Garden was based wholly on fruit, the previously mentioned good seeds and herbs, and food from the magic Tree of Life; all of which are indicators of the eternal fecundity of the Garden and its occupants. As the Qur’an succinctly states:

It is Allah Who causeth the seed-grain and the date-stone to split and sprout. He causeth the living to issue from the dead, and He is the one to cause the dead to issue from the living. That is Allah: then how are ye deluded away from the truth? (Qur’an 6:95 Sūrat Al-Anām; Abdullah Yousuf Ali translation)

The Mediterranean Diet has its ideological genesis in flawed research undertaken in Crete in the early 1960s in which longevity in a working community was attributed to a diet heavy in olive oil. (Olive oil is essentially a fruit juice pressed from the mesocarp of a pit/seed-bearing drupe.) After a long period of gestation, the Diet was realised and quickly rose to fame in the USA with the launch of the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid in 1993, created by an alliance of the advocacy organisation, Oldways, the Harvard Medical School, and WHO. This graphically displayed the Diet’s original commandments. The Diet subsequently became a cultural phenomenon in affluent Western societies world-wide after saturation promotion organised by Oldways aided by substantial olive oil industry backing.

“Mainly wholegrain” cereals, unprocessed legumes, nuts, fruits and seeds consensually reside in the foundation food layer of the icon of a Mediterranean Diet Pyramid – as such they are at the conceptual and devotional heart of the Diet (“base every meal on these foods” is the commandment). This raw, whole, unprocessed nature evinces, but not realises, a cuisine pauvre, the epitome of artisanality in the “poverty” of eating only what is available locally and in season, and in a sense, an unwitting precursor to the C21st upmarket celebration of authenticity in indigenous food and cooking. This cultural rawness also encourages participants to believe that they can experience what is intended to be seen as the simple, delicious Good Life of Mediterranean coastal communities, however improbable this nostalgia may be. Ironically, in most instances the regime of the Mediterranean Diet pyramid cannot be afforded by poorer people, and it is not the diet of the peoples of the Mediterranean littoral, where a universal diet does not exist.

The wide, ambiguous base layer of the pyramid in the current Oldways model is prescriptive of the good-lifestyle elements of the Diet – play, physical activity, team sports, family, social eating - and simultaneously little short of descriptive of the benefits of the long good life promised by the Diet, a secondary myth of a paradise of pleasures, partly delivered by seeds.

Based on extensive research in both the story of the Garden of Eden, and the creation and development of the myth of the so-called Mediterranean Diet and its Edenic Mediterranean, this paper will enhance the Symposium by further exploring this lateral and challenging approach to the theme of seeds.

This paper will be presented at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery at St Catherine's College Oxford in July 2018.

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