History of Food Folklore

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In addition to sustaining life, food has come to play a symbolic role in both religious ceremonies and cultural traditions. For example, rice has been associated with fertility in many cultures for millennia and continues to be thrown on newly married couples today. Similarly, bread has been regarded as a symbol of divinity and has played an important role in religious services and observances.

Curative properties have also been ascribed to many foods for thousands of years. In ancient Rome, cabbage was considered the perfect medicinal plant and was prescribed frequently for a wide range of ailments including warts, deafness, and drunkenness. Apples, herbs, garlic, honey, milk, peppers, and many other foods were also highly regarded in ancient cultures for their therapeutic qualities. The prescription of foods as medicines was not necessarily based on scientific fact but instead was often based on early medical theories or magic. The ancient Greeks believed that the body was composed of four humors: blood (hot and moist), phlegm (cold and moist), yellow bile (hot and dry), and black bile (cold and dry). Health was thought to result from a balance of the humors, and illness resulted from an imbalance. To counteract imbalances and restore health, physicians often prescribed specific foods, based on their perceived degree of 'heat' and 'moisture'. For example, fever, a 'hot' 'dry' condition, was attributed to an excess of yellow bile, and 'cool' 'moist' foods, such as cucumbers, were prescribed to treat it. In contrast, oedema, a 'cool' 'moist' condition, was treated with foods that were viewed as 'warm' and 'dry'. The hot, cold, moist, and dry properties of food were also regarded as important in other ancient societies, including China, where achieving a balance between the opposing forces of yin (cold/moist) and yang (hot/dry) has guided traditional medical practice for centuries and continues to be popular today.

The Doctrine of Signatures, based on the notion that 'like cures like', was also popular in the nineteenth century. Therapies were chosen on the basis of similarities of color, aroma, shape, and other characteristics. For example, beet juice, which is deep red, was thought to be an effective cure for blood diseases, while yellow plants were believed to alleviate jaundice and other liver ailments. The pungent odours of onions and garlic were thought to ward off disease, stimulate strength and bravery, arouse libido, and banish evil spirits. Walnuts resemble the brain and so were eaten to improve intellect. The ginseng root, with its resemblance to the human torso, was used by the Chinese as a panacea (Figure 1).

The common names of many foods reflect folklore about their curative properties, as shown in Table 1. For example, the word ginseng is derived from the root words gin, meaning man, and sing, meaning essence.

Figure 1 The universal healing properties of ginseng were attributed to the resemblance of its root to the human body. Reproduced with permission from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Boston, 4th edn, 2000.
Table 1 Food names related to food folklore

Herb (botanical name)

Folklore

Blackeye root (Tamus

Heals bruises, removes

communis)

discoloration

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria

Cures blood disorders and heart

candensis)

disease

Birthwort (Aristolochia

Alleviates complications

longa)

associated with childbirth

Eyebright (Euphrasia

Cures disorders of the eyes

officinalis)

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