Tuesday, August 4, 2009

How Cooking Made us Who We Are and Why We Shouldn't Abandon It

Today I finally finished reading Richard Wrangham's fascinating book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.

Many times while reading it I turned down a page thinking I would quote it here.

The basic premise of the book is that cooking drove the evolution of the human species. Our ancestors learned to control fire and cook their food which allowed us to evolve into creatures with smaller stomachs and bigger brains. Cooked food is more energy efficient and more nutritious and it changed how we socialize, the way our teeth and jaws formed, it allowed us to spend more time hunting and less time digesting, and lots more.

Mr. Wrangham is a professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard and this book is the culmination of his life's work (so far). I have two words for you: read it. Not one to rush out to buy a science book, rest assured that the very concise 207 pages read like a can't put it down best seller.

On the last pages of his book Mr. Wrangham throws what I thought was an unexpected curve ball, he takes his well crafted argument about evolution and invokes Michael Pollan:

We should choose to eat "real foods" not "nutrients." For Pollan, real food is natural or only lightly processed, recognizable and familiar. By contrast, nutrients are invisible chemicals, such as essential oils and amino acids and vitamins, objects of scientific expertise whose significance we must take on faith.

In the end Mr. Wrangham encourages us to eat healthier food and acknowledges that the modern processing of foods has created an epidemic of obesity. In essence we need to get back to cooking our food from recognizable ingredients, like we used to.

Just a few days ago I posted about Pollan's article in the NY Times which basically says we all need to cook more, which is to my mind what Mr. Wrangham is saying only from a very different perspective. He's saying that here is this thing that helped us achieve and become who we are as a species and we have tossed it to the side of the road like so much wrapping paper from the big Mac we got from the drive through.

Then to top it all off I see the wonderful Tom Philpott at Grist has an article about Pollan's article discussing the issues at hand as to why people don't cook more and what can be done along with some critical analysis of Pollan's article.

He uses a quote from Pollan's piece from this food marketing guy:

A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it.

Nice. Cooking, if you believe Wrangham and I do, created us, and now we are going to give it up because....it's obsolete?

Pollan and Philpott are much better at discussing all the politics, pros, cons, limitations and history as to why it is we find ourselves at this place of non-cooking.

It's an interesting place to be at as someone who so enjoys, even thrives on cooking, who sees the act of cooking as a way of being creative, sharing love, being with friends, creating a home-life, taking care of the health of myself and my friends as well as the planet.

When I'm hopeful, I see that we may be approaching a tipping point, a swelling movement of people who care deeply about food; where it comes from, how it is raised or grown and yes, how it is prepared. Anybody can cook, any relationship can be formed in any way the people involved in the relationship see fit. We can make this cooking thing work.

It's hard to comprehend how we don't, especially given how people respond when they eat good home cooked food, like I see them do in our house all the time. "You made this?" As if I had split an atom or created a space ship that can fly to Mars. How can something so basic become unnecessary, burdomesome, undesirable? Such strange times we live in.

People who cook at home and eat with their loved ones are happier, healthier and more productive.*

Let's make a deal, I'll continue to post recipes and menus if you promise to keep dropping by and cook some of them, OK?

It's a small step, but it's a start.

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