Animal response to fire typically is described as fear and flight. Yet I have noticed many times that the smell of seasoned oak in a wood-burning stove is so savory that it makes my mouth water. I have wondered whether this response indicates that humans had been cooking for so long that we associate fire with food. Now there is a fascinating book that explores and validates this notion and related questions about our relationships with cooked food.
"Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human," by Richard Wrangham, professor of biological anthropology at Harvard, was published in 2009 by Basic Books and is available in paperback. It is popular rather than academic in its presentation: not counting the extensive references and bibliography, its text is just over two hundred widely-spaced pages. Yet its thesis, along with interesting studies and stories, is profound and surprisingly new.
It appears that remarkably little has been studied about the effects of cooking on food content, on human nutrition, and on human physical and social evolution. Before Wrangham’s study, the evidence of anthropology and biology and food science hadn’t been put together in a common thread that explains much of human development. Consequently, theories about humans’ dramatic changes from our ancestors – through control of fire, increased social organization as well as mobility, and much larger brain size – have diverged from each other and lacked explanatory power.
Wrangham covers this diverse ground with many citations, yet only a few authors and studies here and there have pointed to the central importance of cooking over fire. Food nutrients are made dramatically more accessible by cooking: starches are gelatinized, proteins and other foods are softened and made significantly more digestible. Hours of chewing that would otherwise be necessary are greatly reduced, and nutritional uptake is greatly increased (this is true for other mammals as well). An early chapter reviews the dismal results of raw food diets and offers much evidence that our digestive system has evolved by being based on cooked food, including meat. Cooking over a fire also is likely to have strongly reinforced evolution toward stronger social relations based around eating together.
Wrangham’s book, which is occasionally redundant and sometimes anecdotal in its evidence, ends with support for a more attentive and healthful diet for modern descendants of our cooking ancestors. I recommend this book for its thoughtful and solidly grounded understanding of how we got to where we are.
More reasons to love cooking!