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 Allen Ginsberg

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Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was an American poet and one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s. His poems often mix impressions from his life as a Jewish, homosexual intellectual in modern mid-century USA with Eastern mysticism and literary references.

In his prose poem “A Supermarket in California”, he places two famous poets, American Walt Whitman and Spanish surrealist Federico García Lorca, alongside himself in the very mundane setting of a contemporary (1950s) supermarket with its neon lights, stacks of cans, frozen foods and shopping families. It is Walt Whitman that he references most in the poem, not just by name, but by the very form, tone and content of the piece. Walt Whitman, who lived from 1810 to 1892, was a whole-heartedly American poet. He revelled in the images, people and landscapes of the young country that in his lifetime increased from 22 to 44 states to eventually cover the entire territory between the Atlantic and the Pacific and also went through the first major crisis of the Civil War, in which Whitman was involved as a nurse. Whitman strove to capture his country in his poetry – to write an American epic. HIs major work Leaves of Grass was published in 1855. It is a collection of poetry written in free verse and a cadence, a rhythmic pacing, based on bible verses. Also its scope is epic, as it covers all manners of professions and people, animals and objects, landscapes and activities of everyday life. Unlike most poets before him, he focused strongly on material objects and the mundane, and particularly the human body.

Ginsberg picks up this cadence and Whitman’s characteristic “enumerations” of objects and people in his own piece, but the images of cans, refrigerators and automobiles bring it forward into the 20th century. And what better place to locate the mid-20th century American soul than in a supermarket, in California? On the cusp of the Space Age, the wide, sunny spaces of California embodied the current American dream of a suburban house with modern appliances and a car  in the driveway the better to reach the clean, cool temples of consumption, the supermarkets. Their abundance (especially in produce-rich California) of endless shelves and “brilliant stacks” of merchandise seem to showcase Whitman’s enumerations in real life.

Ginsberg, however, remains the outsider, fatigued, self-conscious and solitary, not partaking in the feast (“never passing the cashier”) but “shopping for images” only. He even imagines being followed by the store detective, as if not consuming was a crime. This is a veiled critique of the socio-economic paradigm , which also turns people into anonymous masses defined by their domestic roles (“aisles full of husbands, wives in the avocados”). A different country, an “America of love” that Ginsberg may have glimpsed through Whitman’s enthusiastic verses, seems now “lost” to him.

A Supermarket in California
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families shopping at night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?  What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in a hour.  Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

Berkeley, 1955

#quote #quoteoftheday #inspiration #booknerd #books #readinglist #reading #literature #writing #lovetoread #poetry #imagination #foodwriting #USA #america #california #whitman #ginsberg #beatgeneration

A thought by Gillian Slovo

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I heard Gillian Slovo, the South African-born author, last Saturday at the International Literature Festival Dublin 2017. She was talking, along with fellow writer Danielle McLaughlin, to author and psychotherapist Susie Orbach, on the topic of Why We Write. Orbach was fantastic in gently teasing out subtexts and hidden corners of thoughts – it felt more like being privy to an intimate conversation than listening to a panel discussion where, in the worst cases, the same old clichés are being rehearsed.

The questions of why we write, and how we write, fascinate me. The more I learn about this – also from writing myself – the more interesting it becomes. Susie Orbach said that she writes to explore what she is thinking. She is not alone in that – many people may write a journal for this reason, if nothing else.

I am particularly interested in literary non-fiction, and one of its main formats, the personal essay, centres on a process of verbalisation and exploration. A good essay should walk you through the thoughts of an author as they happen. This is not a special effect superimposed on the finished text in the way a murder mystery is structured. The case in essay writing is commonly that the author has a question, rather than already an answer, and elaborates and records her train of thought. Of course, there may be some re-writing once the reflection has been worked out for the first time, in order to shine up the language or bridge some jumps in the logic. But the essential format of seeking and finding will be kept, and it is actually this journey of discovery that is enjoyable to the readers. Also fiction writers are advised to let the reader discover facts about the story or characters as they go along, and not to overload them with all the details upfront. That is fit for a newspaper article, not a story.

Many writers explore personal topics this way, too, about their own present or past. This is sometimes dismissed as “writing being just a form of therapy”. This is irritating for two reasons. For one, there is nothing wrong with therapy; indeed there is nothing wrong with having mental health issues, but that is another discussion. Secondly, there is nothing wrong with writing being therapeutic. The real question is whether it is good writing, in non-fiction as in fiction. If it is good, it will be worth reading, no matter the motivation or circumstances of the author.

Gillian Slovo and Danielle McLaughlin are first and foremost fiction writers, although Slovo has also published a memoir of her childhood in South Africa as the daughter of two major figures in the anti-apartheid movement. Both authors spoke to Susie Orbach about the curious sensation of finding themselves, various parts of themselves, in the characters of their stories. These are usually not superficial likenesses of age, sex, or background. It usually concerns deeper emotions such as fears or desires. Through a character (or plot), an author can also explore darker sides of her soul, from the petty to the monstrous. As a reader, we do the same – this is one of the fundamental attractions of storytelling.

There is another way of understanding what Slovo said about missing oneself, and that is about the voice of the author. Every writer has a voice, which grows usually more defined with experience – you can also call it their style. Some writers are wordy, others sparse. Some are colourful, others minimalist, tongue-in-cheek, warm, mocking, cynical, forthright or reserved. For the reader, it gives an additional pleasure to reading. But for a writer who has found her voice, the pleasure comes from being entirely oneself, of recognising oneself and realising oneself in the process of creation, of choosing exactly this word over that, to sculpt this thought, or that. It is a feeling that imagine is similar in other artistic activities, and it is altogether addictive.

A thought by Truman Capote

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Truman Capote (1924-1984) knew a few things about literature, and about gossip. He did not study literature after secondary school, but he was writing every day since he was eleven years old, eventually publishing short stories, novels, plays and screenplays. He broke ground for a new genre, too – the real-life crime story. His book In Cold Blood (1965), about the murder of a family of four in Kansas, is usually called a nonfiction novel, which Capote researched for six years, travelling to the small farming community where the murders had taken place and later to the prison where the murderers were held before their execution.

In Cold Blood was not the first or last time that Capote used real life as material. He mined his own life for experiences and included himself and people he knew as sometimes little disguised characters in his writings. This led eventually to his falling out with the New York social scene that Capote had been eager to belong to in the 1960s.

Author and professor Colum McCann advises aspiring writers: “Plot takes a backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens.” This is why we enjoy reading or watching stories based on real-life, even well-known historical events. We know the ship will sink, but we watch Titanic nevertheless. We know of people’s triumphs and failures, but we are keen to understand how they came to that point, the decisions they made and challenges they overcame to get there. The literary treatment, like Capote’s writings, adds another element that we may not find in straight documentaries or news journalism: the rhythm and imagery of storytelling, the depth of character and scenic backdrops. Capote himself acknowledged this, too: “To me, the greatest pleasure about writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” But still, he just could not resist the temptation of the gossip.

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.