The Cooking Species (book review)

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I just finished a book I had been meaning to read for a long time: Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. For anyone involved in studying food, this catchy title is irresistible. Cooking made us human? That validates our entire field of interest! This is particularly attractive because the preoccupation with food, even at a professional, scholarly level, is often considered at best to be a nice hobby, at worst a vain, superficial interest for a frivolous topic. As if the study of food was limited to the private appreciation of decadent luxuries such as white truffle or expensive wines. As if the study of food was not dealing with an absolute essential, with something that structures our entire lives from social relationships and physical surroundings to our time.

Wrangham, a professor for Biological Anthropology at Harvard, published his book in 2009, the year I started my MA in Food Studies. I heard about the book, and through reading a bit about it – and the title, of course – I thought that I already knew the main argument: Eating cooked food helped us humans in the development of larger brains, which in turn enabled us to gain a certain superiority over other animals as well as natural phenomena. That already is interesting. But I still underestimated how profound the impact of cooking was. Eating cooked food – well, cooking the food! – was not just a little extra wind in our sails as we were busy growing our brains. Wrangham explains that it was the fundamental factor in our development from hairy, tree-climbing apes to the upright-walking, tool-making, talking species that we are today. All humans cook (all human societies of course, not necessarily individuals). No other species cooks. We are the cooking species. How about that for validation…

Beside exploring the main argument through a discussion of the physical attributes of “the cook”, Wrangham devotes some time to discussing the social implications of cooking. There are many, and some are, I’ll admit, a bit difficult to swallow. Cooking did not just lead us to form peaceable, cooperative societies, but also households, and the gendered division of labour. The women ended up taking over the majority of everyday chores, while men had some time to spare to sit around and think about fun and important things to do, like politics and art. Seems unfair. Why did the women put up with it? Because they needed protection while they were cooking, in case some rogue bullying stronger male would steal their painstakingly gathered food. A hot meal after coming home from hunting all day was the trade-off made with one particular male who then ensured the safety of the food supply. Wrangham generally remains the dispassionate scientist, but even he calls it a “protection racket” at some point!

But aside from how that turned out, the creation of households in themselves was remarkable. Apparently, we are the only species where adults share food with each other. And very early on, the cooking and sharing of food when it was ready led to meals, and meal-times. Those, in turn, required peaceful collaboration and communication, and were conducive to developing language – but that is beyond the scope of this particular book.

Catching Fire is a pleasant read. It doesn’t require you to know a great deal on the topic already, but conversely, if you do, it still offers new insights.

Richard Wrangham (2009). Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. London: Profile Books.

If you like this, you may also like:

  • Jared Diamond (2005). Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years. London: Vintage.
  • Michael Pollan (2013). Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. London: Allen Lane.
  • Real Tannahill (1989). Food in History. New York: Three Rivers Press
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A thought by Carl Sagan

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Happy #bookloversday everybody!

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was a US-American astronomer, astrophysicist and author. One of his many awards and donors was the Pulitzer Prize for his book Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence and Emmys for his television work. If such an accomplished scientist and scholar of human intelligence calls something magic, it’s about as serious a compliment as you can get!

William Scott, painter of pots and pans

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A grey and drizzly Sunday is perfect for visiting a museum or gallery, so my friend and I went to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin today. The current special exhibition of Vermeer was sold out, but we were actually more curious about the new wing of the Gallery, which has been done very nicely and now houses part of their permanent exhibition of Irish artists (and entrance is free, so go have a look!).

I am fond of modern art (say, from the last 150 years), and I particularly liked this painting above: Frying Pan, Eggs and Napkin (1950) by Irish-Scottish artist William Scott (1913-1989). The colours and lines remind me of retro fabrics (the painting is from 1950, so that is not far off), but I also like the everyday subject matter, of food, no less. Scott, as I have learned, painted almost exclusively everyday items, mostly food and kitchen tools, with different levels of abstractions. Some of his works consist of colourful shapes only, reminiscent of the outlines of cups and pans; in others, the fish, eggs, fruits and forks are more clearly visible.

William Scott apparently said that for French Cubist painter Georges Braque, “the guitar was his Madonna” and that “the frying pan could be [Scott’s] guitar” – his muse or artistic theme that never stopped urging him to paint. I find this rather similar to the creative urge behind literary non-fiction with its focus on the patterns and dynamics of everyday life.