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 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…