Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cooking the Past

The Times Literary Supplement (my husband subscribes) of June 4, 2010 has a book review by Barbara J. King that I found most interesting. It’s a review of CATCHING FIRE: HOW COOKING MADE US HUMAN by Richard Wrangham.

According to Wrangham, “We are cooks more than carnivores.” He says that, as reviewer King puts it, “raw foods can’t properly sustain the human body for longer than about a month”.

Cooking makes foods more digestible (with the exception of beets--nothing makes beets digestible) and reduces the amount of time required to chew, which assumes that primative men chewed their food rather than breaking or cutting off chunks and swallowing them whole. But Wrangham assumes chewing and King doesn’t question it, so maybe they know something I don’t know about that. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Then King and Wrangham part ways: He assumes that women took on the role of cook and paired with men in a preparer/provider-protector bond. She points to bonobo society, in which females form alliances to protect one another from male bullying.

I’m like, “Go, Barbara J. King! Cool thinking!”

I love envisioning a society in which the smaller gender (in this case, female), and the larger gender divide up the work into equally valued parts, saying, “Us big ones will kill and cart home the meat and will gather and haul home the veg, and you smaller ones do that magic thing with the fire and make it taste better and give us more strength.” “Okay, and if anybody gives us any trouble while you’re out hunting and gathering, we’ll gang up and whale the tar out of him.”

I love seeing cooking as an important contribution--possibly the most important contribution--to the evolution of Homo erectus, as Wrangham claims. I’ve read books before that claimed there are many activities associated with cooking and communal eating that contribute to what we call civilization and humanity, but this is the first I’ve heard of the theory that rendering food more digestively efficient was, in and of itself, responsible for physical evolution.

This was also the first I’ve heard of bonobo female fighting alliances, but I’ve long been familiar with statements like, “Just because I’ve got my hands in the dough doesn’t mean your Aunt Rose can’t smack you for picking at the food.” So it totally makes sense.


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