11 - THE MEANING OF FOOD
- Author: PROF. MARINO NIOLA
The Mediterranean Diet has its roots in the distant past: In the Mediterranean basin, in the Greek and Latin worlds, and even in religion; food was once considered a sacred thing, a gift from the gods. At the core of the Mediterranean Diet are three elements, referred to as the Mediterranean Triad: Grain, olive oil and wine. In the ancient world, each of these elements was considered a gift from a particular god.
Grain was from the goddess Demeter, who name 'de- meter' means mother of all. She is considered the mother of all crops and vegetation, and is often depicted with a swollen belly as though pregnant with the next season's crops. Olive oil is a gift from Athena, who is the virgin daughter of Zeus, king of all gods. The Greeks call her Parthenos, meaning virgin, and curiously she gave us extra-virgin olive oil. This gift from her was the result of a competition with Poseidon, the god of the sea, when they were disputing over the patronage of Attica (now known as Athens). As his gift, Poseidon offered control over the seas surrounding the region, a tempting gift no doubt considering the new city's maritime position. Athena, however, offered an olive tree, as her gift and the gods decided she would be the winner. In this way the olive tree was born, the foundation of the Mediterranean Diet, and so was also born the City of Athens, the great symbol of Western democracy. Athens is home to many sacred olive trees, where young Athenians have pledged to defend their homeland by swearing loyalty on olive trees, believed by all to be sacred.
The third element, wine, is a gift from Dionysus, a god who came from very far away bringing a divine leaven causing merriment and confusion. The Greeks would mix wine with water so as not to exaggerate, and they marveled as they discovered new parts of themselves and of one another. We have heard the word symposium throughout history, which in the ancient Mediterranean world, referred to the ritual of drinking together, from 'sin posis' which means literally 'drinking together'. We are the children of these curious origins, and although much has changed our modern civilization in the Mediterranean is still revolving around the great Triad of grain, olive oil and wine.