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 A.A. Milne

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Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956) is mostly remembered today because of a children’s book. He created Winnie-the-Pooh, the loveable bumbling teddy bear and his friends, putting his little son Christopher Robin as a character into the stories. But Milne wrote many more things – plays, poems, novels and newspaper columns. Many of the latter appeared in the British satirical and humour magazine Punch, which ran from 1841 to 2002 and where Milne worked as a contributing author and assistant editor. He wrote witty essays on a number of topics, from literature to golf, thermometers, walking sticks and food. They allow an intimate look into everyday British life in the early 20th century although admittedly mostly of the educated middle- and upper-classes.

The above quote is taken from a piece called Lunch, which discusses the merits of that meal over others:  “An invitation to dinner is formal, to tea unnecessary, to breakfast impossible, but there is a casualness, very friendly and pleasant, about invitations to lunch which make them complete in themselves, and in no way dependent on any lunch which may or may not follow.”

I enjoy reading his essays, and others like them, exactly because they draw little spotlights on everyday phenomena. Politics, morals and other big issues of life deserve a large chunk of our attention. But looking at the little things in a different light is like being a traveller in one’s own backyard; it is refreshing and opens your mind, especially when written in such a charming way.

A thought by Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), the Irish playwright, novelist, essayist and poet, enjoyed the good life. He subscribed to the philosophy of aestheticism, of art for art’s sake and for providing refined sensuous pleasures. Living in London, he moved in fashionable social and cultural circles, and this is the world that is reflected in much of his writing, where characters meet in drawing rooms and at garden parties, and amuse themselves with witty banter and, again and again, food and drink. The humour of their dialogue is proof of Wilde’s great talent for wit – he was exceptionally talented at distilling sharp observations about people and about life into brilliant one-liners. His twitter account would have been legendary.

A thought by Paul Schmidt

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Paul Schmidt (1934-1999) was a US American professor of literature and translator of mainly Russian and German authors (Chekhov, Brecht…). He also wrote poems, plays and essays himself.

The above quote was taken from his essay “A Winter’s Feast”, published in Parnassus – Poetry in Review in 1990. The essay reflects on a passage from Russian author Alexander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin, which was entirely written in verse. In the first chapter, Pushkin describes a New Year’s feast that the novel’s hero, Eugene Onegin, attends at a restaurant. He dines on champagne, roast beef, pineapple, Limpurger cheese, truffles and foie gras. Certainly a festive, even ostentatious, meal – but it is even more than that. Schmidt unveils the multiple layers of meaning Pushkin managed to condense into a few words. As Schmidt writes, “food was a metaphor for the age,” and it is a great lyric and metaphorical tool, because it carries so much meaning within it.

In terms of food writing, I am personally most interested in literary nonfiction food writing, rather than fictional writing featuring food. This essay illustrates my main reason why. The poet or fictional author will put together a menu, dish or meal to suit the needs of the story or poem. This is, in purely food terms, less realistic. Less authentic, to use a much-abused word. Schmidt tells us, for example, that the “roast beef” was bécasse in an earlier draft of Pushkin’s text, which is woodcock, a game bird living in the forests of Central Europe and Russia. Pushkin, Schmidt writes, chose this dish “not because he liked woodcock but because bécasse rhymes with ananas (pineapple)”. The poetic or fictional use of food is of course proof of the lyrical talents of an author, which I appreciate, too, but for different reasons. As a real-life enthusiast and foodnerd, I just personally prefer nonfictional writing – like this essay itself.

After a discussion of the meal as a whole, Schmidt muses in little sub-essays on each of the dishes and their culinary-cultural meanings. The passage on Foie Gras, for instance, begins with the statement: “There is a dark side to food – the inside.” Do not let the slightly pompous tone throw you off – Schmidt tempers it masterfully by throwing, of all things, Arnold Schwarzenegger into the discussion. The subject of Roast Beef brings Schmidt to the topic of human “meditation” on our food, in the sense of meddling, of imposing culture on nature, of making food out of raw materials. The cheese, finally, prompts the thought that has become this week’s quote – the relevance of preserving food for human nutrition, and culture. Food preservation, Schmidt says, is evidence of our cognitive capacities, our big brains, because it shows our awareness of time, which sets us apart from other animals: “To set about preserving food, one must first be aware of time—not merely the fact of it: distinguish day from night, and you can tell time—but rather the effect of time on the world”. Time affects our food, lets it go from unripe to ripe to overripe and rotten. Food preservation means controlling these effects, gaining a small victory over Nature – a thought I have myself reflected on the first time I made jam. Schmidt takes it even further and relates our perception of ripeness with sexuality, the transition from the sweet innocence of milk to the provocative aromas of ripened cheese. Those smells are sometimes downright indecent – which is why we love them, of course…

A thought by Seamus Heaney

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Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was an Irish poet, playwright, translator and lecturer. He won the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature and many other awards besides, honouring his prolific work “of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

Born and raised in Northern Ireland, the topic of the struggle for civil rights and the sectarian violence in the region often shone through his poems. But he sought to reflect the private and apolitical side of it, describing the lives and voices of the people who lived and died in those troubled times.

His poetry was also evocative of his natural surroundings, of the bogs and seasides and not least the local food and foodways. He wrote of picking blackberries, peeling potatoes and eating oysters, “my palate hung with starlight”. The above quote is taken from his poem “Oysters”. It is a mark of his eye for the lyrical details of everyday life that he not only celebrates the food, “philandering sigh of the ocean”, but also the gift of friendship.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

 

A thought by G.K. Chesterton

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Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874 – 1936) was an English journalist, writer and critic. He is now best known for his books around the fictional priest-detective Father Brown, but he was a prolific writer on many topics, publishing around 80 books and 4000 essays. He was fond of using humour in his writing, though they often dealt with serious topics such as politics, economics, philosophy and theology. This quote is taken from his essay “Cheese”, from the collection Alarms and Discursions (1910). The essay starts light-heartedly and even nonsensically, bemoaning the “neglect of cheese in European Literature”, but turns into a reflection about civilisation and modern society, and the value of diversity within them. “Good” civilisations are “varying and yielding, because they are alive,” he writes. Like good cheese.

A thought by Gertrude Stein

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Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was an American poet, writer and art collector. Her work is largely experimental and part of the modernist literature and Cubist art scene around her. With her life partner Alice B. Toklas, she hosted regular salons in Paris where she lived for nearly fifty years. Guests included Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, and Henri Matisse. Alice was an accomplished cook and gardener, and they enjoyed eating and drinking well. Gertrude Stein often wrote in stream-of-consciousness style, and her writing tends to loop around repetitions of words and phrases. That makes it harder to read on the page but when read out loud, the writing shows a rhythm and cadence that often reminds me of chants and oral literature like epic ballads, and it becomes much more understandable. She also has a sense of humour that keeps shining through, reminding us to not to take the solemn business of life and literature all that seriously.