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!

A thought by Victor Hugo

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Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was a French novelist, dramatist and poet, and is considered one of the greatest French writers. Outside of France, his best-known novels are Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, although many may know them through their adaptations into numerous films, plays and musicals. Hugo was much engaged in the political and social life, elected first into the Académie Française, the council that is the official authority on the French language, and later into the National Assembly, where he campaigned for social justice, the alleviation of poverty as well as the universal right to vote and to free education. The epic Les Misérables addresses exactly these social causes, through the fictional story of ex-convict Jean Valjean, but also through essays on various historical or philosophical topics scattered through the text. They make up over a quarter of the already enormous book – one of the longest novels ever written. The above quote for example comes from Chapter 1 of Book 7 of Volume 4 of Les Misérables, where he calls for the illumination of minds through education and science. Education will not, as he points out, make us live happily ever after, but it gives everybody a chance to make their own choices and shape their own lives. Being left in the dark means not to be able to understand what is happening around us, in the natural as in the social world. It breeds fear and superstition: “It is unintelligible in the dark. It gnashes and whispers, completing the gloom with misery,” as Hugo vividly describes it. He does not believe in determinism, that we are destined to stay in the same situation as we were born in, and thus either fortunate or unfortunate. The real human division, he writes, is between the illuminated and the ones in the dark – and this can be changed. Minds can be illuminated, through education, through reading.

And think about it: Books are like flames also in that they do not diminish when they are shared. When did you last share a book with someone?

 

A thought by Aldous Huxley

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Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was an English writer and philosopher. He is best known for his dystopian novel Brave New World and his mescaline-fuelled philosophical essay The Doors of Perception, which among other things inspired the equally drug-fuelled band The Doors.

Other novels of his have such fabulous names as Those Barren LeavesEyeless in Gaza and Antic Hay. I have read a few of them, and they generally seem to feature young British expats around the Mediterranean afflicted with boredom and malaise… capturing the spirit of the interwar years in Europe. Good to read by the pool or on the sun-soaked terrace of a Tuscan country villa.

A thought by Jeanette Winterson

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Jeanette Winterson (*1959) is a writer and professor of creative writing. She is the author of several semi-autobiographical books; the first among them was Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Her books often have a near magical-realist feel, as they often feature highly symbolic elements, which fit her family background rooted in Pentecostal Christianity with its focus on spirituality, miracles, sin and other topics outside of the mundane, daily world. Her book titles sometimes feature fruit (oranges, cherries…) but again, they are used symbolically. Not as food writing, unfortunately.