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 M.F.K. Fisher

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Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908-1992) was one of the first great food writers of the 20th century. She wrote essays, memoir and travel pieces of her life in the USA and France, where she spent several years. Interestingly, though, she did not think of herself as a “food writer”. In the foreword to The Gastronomical Me (1943), she explained: “When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it.”

When I read this line in one of my Food Studies Master’s classes, a door opened for me. Food in itself is wonderful, but what drew me to working in bars and restaurants as a teenager and all through my twenties was the human theatre that played out there every night, celebration, romance, heartbreak, redemption, business. There had been books and scholarly articles examining and affirming my impression, but here for the first time was someone who celebrated it through words, which are after all my other great passion. And I realised I had found my corner in the food world, my tribe.

A thought by Julia Child

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Julia Child (1912-2004) was an American chef, author and TV personality. Actually, her first career was in the Secret Service, which is pretty cool. She met her husband in the Service, who became a diplomat and was posted to Paris. That’s where Julia decided to learn cooking. She began also to teach cooking and eventually published her debut cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which is famous for making complex French dishes accessible. Her personal style helped matters greatly: she is hilarious and did not take herself too seriously, not even on TV.

 

Book Fix Lisbon – Bookshop Bivar

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Where to find books in English in Lisbon?

No. 1 – Bookshop Bivar in Estefânia. All-English secondhand books. Browsing recommended!

Tucked away on a hill in a residential neighbourhood with winding narrow streets, I only found it because I was lost, but it’s worth the hike. A few bookshelves, a table, a counter and a big, inviting couch – it doesn’t take a lot of fancy trimmings to open a bookstore. The books themselves lend a merry atmosphere with their colourful spines on the white shelves. A few potted plants and someone friendly to help the customers with their queries about books for school, for beach-reading or to satisfy their book cravings, and you’re away.

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Book Fix Dublin – Chapters

img_20161121_153249Where to find good books in Dublin?

No.3 – Chapters on Parnell Street. A goldmine for hardcover books, and Ireland’s largest independent bookstore.

I used to think of Chapters as a sort of bargain bookstore. The prices are shown on the front of the books with large, red-and-white stickers, and often they are “special prices” and actual bargains. This makes a big difference on  hardcover books. I have no great ambition to own my fiction in hardcover, in fact, I prefer paperbacks, as they are lightweight and fit better into my handbags. But food and cookery books often come only in hardcover, and Chapters was instrumental in helping me build up my collection of recipe and reference books on food and wine. For the same reason, anybody interested in coffee table books on Art and Architecture should not miss visiting this store.  Continue reading

Fancy seeded soda bread

Version 2This is a quick and easy bread. There is no kneading or proofing (rising) time involved – just measuring and gently stirring the ingredients together. With baking time, it takes an hour and a quarter (depending how fast you are in measuring!). Even the implements are straightforward: three bowls, a whisk, a measuring spoon and a stirring spoon. Continue reading