Cooking Up a Pot of Civilization

From The Washington Post:

Cook Richard Wrangham is no fan of raw-food diets. It's not the faddish nature of the programs, which forbid followers to heat foods above 118 degrees to preserve their “life force.” Nor is it the religious-like fervor of the diet's adherents. Wrangham, a Harvard anthropologist, rejects raw food because the process of cooking is what makes us fundamentally human. In his new book, “Catching Fire,” Wrangham argues that cooking, not meat-eating or social interdependence, is what differentiates us from other animals. Almost 2 million years ago cooked food helped a new species, homo erectus, with its large brain and small gut, emerge. And cooking is responsible for the development of agrarian societies, traditional gender roles and division of labor. In short, without a hot dinner, we would still be apes.

Wrangham is not the first to connect cooking to evolution; Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French gastronomist, suggested as much when he wrote in 1825: “It is by fire that man has tamed Nature itself.” But Wrangham draws together previous studies and theories from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, biology, chemistry, sociology and literature into a cogent and compelling argument. Take the issue of digestion. Wrangham makes the case that our ability to heat food and thereby soften it spares our bodies a lot of hard work. And the calories saved in easy digestion reserve energy for other types of physical and intellectual activity. To understand why, simply consider how you feel after eating a light meal versus a heavy one. That shrimp salad demands less work from your intestines and makes you feel energetic afterwards; the 16-ounce steak makes you want to take a nap while your body attacks and breaks down the meal. The same differences apply to softer, cooked food versus raw, unprocessed food.

More here. (For my brother Tasnim Raza, the pioneering gourmet cook of the Raza family.)