Why we cook

Bedouin cooking

Bedouin women stew young lamb killed hours earlier. Photo: Ed Brambley/Flickr

Cooking is the only way that we can really have control of our food. Not everybody loves to cook as much as I do. We should, because cooking makes us human. Don’t let anyone intimidate you. Anyone can cook with high quality ingredients prepared simply.

Cooking is human
The time to start thinking about cooking dinner isn’t this afternoon, but 1.8 million years ago. Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham goes back that far in a startling book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009).

This is not a how-to cookbook. Instead, Wrangham proposes the radical idea that cooking made us human, instead of the usual notion that becoming human caused us to start cooking. He believes that our ancestors tamed fire and started cooking 1.8 million years ago, much earlier than usually thought. Cooking food caused anatomical and physiological changes that made us human. Our digestive systems became simpler and our brains became more complicated. Cooking allowed us to digest food more easily, and to consume more nutrient-dense food. This helped us grow a bigger brain. Cooking makes some otherwise inedible foods digestible (most starches) and makes many animal products safer to eat.

One does not need to agree with all of Wrangham’s theory to grasp how cooking connects to development of the human brain. This book is ambitious but readable and fascinating. It will inspire you to cook, which is the point.

Don’t let food producers do what you can do better

Men cooking in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Men cooking in Ljubljana, Slovenia 2011. Photo: Wikimedia/Hmundol

Take control of your food. Modern people have delegated too much responsibility to food manufacturers and producers. Their top priority is not nourishment, so their processing robs the food of nutrients. The worst of processed foods are food forgeries — fakes that taste like food but neither satisfy nor deliver nourishment. That’s one reason we eat more and more trying to get real nourishment.

High quality ingredients are crucial, and easier to cook
Food that’s good for us tastes good. Fresh vegetables with butter or olive oil are wonderful. They’re like gold. You can’t put something else into gold and make it more golden. With fresh, healthy ingredients, one doesn’t need fancy cooking skills.

Everyone can be a good cook, and most of us can enjoy it
But food producers perpetuate myths. They tell us that cooking is drudgery or difficult, and only special people with high-level cooking skills can do it correctly. This is wrong. People should stop being intimidated about cooking. Just use simple techniques with high quality ingredients. Use real food, spices, and more salt and fat. For example, salad greens taste better with salt and fat in the dressing.

Don’t obsess about cookbooks
I have zillions of cookbooks and love them. I also enjoy recipes on my iPad, as well as cooking videos. But I use them more as inspiration than strict instructions.

One chef whose approach I recommend is Jamie Oliver. He started out as “the Naked Chef.” He uses real food prepared simply within 30 minutes. His goal is whole meals for families to enjoy. Moreover, he doesn’t say cooking is easy. He just demonstrates it.

Cooking and mealtime is social

Family meal painting

Family meal. /Photo: 1st-art-gallery.com

The point is for people to eat together. We’re social animals and eating together feeds our spirits and emotions as well as physical needs. Humans survived as a species, in part, by sharing food. Especially in hunter-gatherer days and in tough times over the centuries, hoarding food has been a sin. We share our bounty today with our tribe because others in our tribe will share with us tomorrow.

What about eating raw food?
Raw food is often delicious and usually identifiable, which is a huge plus. Among other benefits, eating raw foods can make us more conscious of what we’re eating and how much of it is processed. Raw food has a lot of volume which can fill us up. Cooking destroys some germs that make us sick but it can also destroy some important “living nutrients”.

When it’s available, I make an effort to eat raw milk or cream and raw cheese. Many raw vegetables are more nutritionally available to us in the cooked form but great work-around solutions are fermenting vegetables, juicing vegetables or making green smoothies in a blender.

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