Food is more than survival. With it we make friends, court lovers, and count our blessings. The sharing of food has always been part of the human story. From Qesem Cave near Tel Aviv comes evidence of ancient meals prepared at a 300,000-year-old hearth, the oldest ever found, where diners gathered to eat together. Retrieved from the ashes of Vesuvius: a circular loaf of bread with scoring marks, baked to be divided. “To break bread together,” a phrase as old as the Bible, captures the power of a meal to forge relationships, bury anger, provoke laughter. Children make mud pies, have tea parties, trade snacks to make friends, and mimic the rituals of adults. They celebrate with sweets from the time of their first birthday, and the association of food with love will continue throughout life—and in some belief systems, into the afterlife. Consider the cultures that leave delicacies graveside to let the departed know they are not forgotten. And even when times are tough, the urge to celebrate endures. In the Antarctic in 1902, during Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition, the men prepared a fancy meal for Midwinter Day, the shortest day and longest night of the year. Hefty provisions had been brought on board. Forty-five live sheep were slaughtered and hung from the rigging, frozen by the elements until it was time to feast. The cold, the darkness, and the isolation were forgotten for a while. “With such a dinner,” Scott wrote, “we agreed that life in the Antarctic Regions was worth living.” — Victoria Pope
This wartime photograph was published in a 1916 issue of National Geographic with a caption referring to Adam, Eve, and the apple. But more germane is how the image evokes an idyllic British landscape and the childhood pleasure of a snack after play.
A. W. Cutler, National Geographic Creative
Afghan women share a meal of flatbread, goat, lamb, and fruit in the Women’s Garden, a refuge for conversation and confidences outside the city of Bamian. The garden and surrounding park were created to promote leisure activities for women and families. For this group it includes the chance to bond over food.
Lynsey Addario, Reportage by Getty Images
“I got to thinking … about all those women on the Titanic who passed up dessert.” — Erma Bombeck
After World War I, roadside eateries like the California snack bar at right became popular. At left, from top: In Portugal a truck sells German comfort food; in Washington, D.C., a PETA protester offers meatless hot dogs; in England a beachgoer eats a packed lunch.
In this 1894 photograph of an outing in the Maine woods, watermelon slices resemble oversize grins. Medieval hunting feasts and Renaissance outdoor banquets were precursors of the picnic, but the activity gained currency after the industrial revolution as a short, economical excursion.
“With good friends…and good food on the board…we may well ask, When shall we live if not now?” — M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating
A shared meal binds people together, whether they’re a family saying grace (left), patients in a Croatian clinic (above, top), young men tucking into fried chicken in Accra, Ghana, or Buddhist priests near Shanghai supping on noodles in 1931.
The Sisters of the Visitation near Beirut, Lebanon, use a paste of almonds and sugar to make marzipan sweets, typically eaten around Easter. Foodstuffs are often a source of income for holy orders; the Trappists, for example, sell beer and cheese. These Maronite nuns make candy shaped like birds and flowers.
Ivor Prickett, Panos pictures
“I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.” — Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
Meals as milestones, from top left: A cake marks a birthday in 1934. At the wedding feast of an Armenian couple in Nagorno-Karabakh, the meat dish khorovats is served along with song and dance. Foods are laid out in honor of the deceased in Belarus. At right: A joyful catch is made in Bristol Bay, Alaska.
Four-year-old Seraphin Eskildsen is immersed in a bowl of porridge at his home in Denmark. For many, a favorite childhood food summons fond memories. Chef Jacques Pépin’s was a baguette with a square of dark chocolate. For Julia Child, it was a vanilla-and-chocolate ice-cream sandwich.
The magazine thanks The Rockefeller Foundation and members of the National Geographic Society for their generous support of this series of articles.