cooking and civilization

I have long said that civilization began at the hearth.  Watching Anthony Bourdain’s recent episode of Parts Unknown about Lyon, France, I remembered some other thoughts.  Over the past 10 years some evolutionary thinkers have proposed that human brain size is related to the discovery of fire and cooking.  Our brains relative to our body size are significantly larger than our relatives and they consume 20% of our energy.  (Remember that, dieters, think more and you will burn more calories).  A primatologist, Richard Wrangham, proposed that our brains grew in association with our ability to extract calories from food, and that is done by cooking it.  The site reported studies on diet, energy extraction, and energy needs to our evolving brains that concluded that cooking and eating meat were critical to that growth.  So while salads are beautiful, delicious, and light, they were not a major force in our evolution.


These studies suggested that cooking and eating meat were important over the past million years of so of our evolution.  No doubt that the control of fire was integral to our development and there is some paleoarcheological support for its beginning long ago.  My old anthropology professor told of a South American tribe, the Bororo, that threw meat on sunny rocks for a few days because “putrefaction is nature’s way of cooking,” so that once the bacteria have finished their job, the meat protein is more readily available.  Cooking certainly seems preferable and our taste organs, tongue and nose, have evolved a preference for umami, a savory flavor from cooking distinct from salty, sweet, bitter, and sour.


So from the humble beginnings around the communal fire, culture and civilization developed to include not just nutritious family meals but cuisine, food prepared with an aesthetic feel for special flavors and presentation.  Bourdain’s show about the cuisine from Lyon shows a marvelous appreciation for this cuisine, its culture, and its creators such as chef Paul Bocuse.  A very special show.

Civilization began at the hearth.  I also have said it will die in committee, and looking at the debilitated state of American political discourse, I see no reason to change that,  But I also have to add that processed food would also seem to be a sign not of technological progress but of devolution.  Bon appetite.