Saturday, July 21, 2012

What I'm Reading: Catching Fire

For a change, I read a book that wasn't a cookbook. Crazy wild, huh?

But it is about cooking. Subtitled "How Cooking Made Us Human," the premise of the book Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham is that cooking played a big role in the evolution of early humans into ... well, human humans.

It's an interesting idea that, of course, can't be proven. But a lot of it makes logical sense. Cooked food is easier to chew and easier to digest. And when we're talking about easier to chew, we're talking about a lot of time spent chewing uncooked foods.

Imagine how much less you'd get done every day if you had to spend six hours a day eating. That's about how long it's estimated would take to gnaw through enough food back then. These days, folks on raw diets can mechanically grind or chop tough foods, but back then, it was all about teeth. A lot of chewing of whatever food was available.

Yeah, all that chewing would seriously cut into my Facebook time.

Sure, we can all probably walk and chew gum at that same time, but that's not quite the same thing as needing to eat for 6 hours.

There's more to Wrangham's theories. Lots more. I thought it was pretty compelling. But then again, I love reading about prehistoric stuff and science-y stuff. Even if the theories are proven wrong, they're interesting to ponder.

Wrangham says that since cooking made chewing easier, our ancestors had more time for other things. Well, that makes perfect sense. He also also suggested that since cooked food was easier to digest, our guts shrunk because we didn't need all that food processing power. Having a smaller gut made it easier for early humans to stand upright. And while we're at it, since cooked foods are easier to digest, those ancients didn't need to eat as much cooked food to get the same amount of nutrition. So less time was needed for hunting and gathering.

And, according to the author, cooking also changed family structure. Or, really, it created the concept of family. Cooking required a hearth, so it made sense for some people to stay with the fire and stir the risotto and bake pies, while others went out and hunted for steaks and sausages. Or whatever.

Because there were two different food-related functions that brought different types of food to the table, the humans began to share food between husband and wife. Or that's what they author says. But as far as we know, there are no other species that share food in quite this way. Mothers quite often feed their babies, but the adults don't share with each other regularly, no matter whether they raise the babies together or not.

And here's a weird thing. In most known cultures today - and in the past - the women provide and cook the staples and feed the family on a daily basis, but men hunt for the more elusive foods (hunting big game wasn't always successful, but it was highly prized).

That's why food-sharing was so important. When the hunt didn't go well, men still needed to eat, and it was the women who had the staple foods. When the hunt was successful, the husbands needed to share that coveted meat with the wife, or she might not share the staples on the many days when the hunt was a bust.

And while men don't cook the daily staples in those many cultures, they often cook for celebrations.

When I read that, the first thing I thought of was how a guy who never cooks anything else will work the barbecue grill. He's not the one making the potato salad or cole slaw or baked beans. He's cooking the meat.

Hmmmmm... curious.

Of course there are exceptions, but I thought it was interesting that the cliche of the guy at the grill for the big summer party is similar to what other cultures do across the world and and what has been done across the centuries.

Whether Wrangham is correct on not about any of his theories, the book is interesting, and what he says seems so darned logical. And because I like to cook so much, I like the idea that cooking could have played such a huge part in our pre-history.

And now I think I'll light the grill. Mastodon ribeye, anyone?