We evolved to cook? What should we make in the kitchen?

I am in the process of writing a vegetarian cookbook that I am hoping will be a type of The Joy of Cooking cookbook but for vegetarians. Mrs. Rombauer’s book is a classic. In addition to easy to create and delicious recipes, I want the book I am writing to have informational sections on ingredients, cooking utensils and equipment, menu planning, and cooking techniques, similar to The Joy of Cooking, but for those wishing to follow a vegetarian diet. Vegetarian food can be quick, economical, tasty, beautiful, and have less of an impact on the environment even if a person’s diet is not entirely vegetarian.

In the July 17, 2010 issue of New Scientist, there are two interesting articles that relate to cooking and vegetarianism. Despite that my high school chemistry teacher was a gourmet cook and insisted that cooking was chemistry, I don’t often see science articles about cooking. Articles about vegetarianism have become more prevalent because of environmental concerns.

The article about cooking hypothesizes that cooking is what made us human. According to the article which is entitled, “I cook, therefore I am… human,” Richard Wrangham of Harvard University presented further evidence at the Evolution 2010 conference to champion the “cooked-food” hypothesis of human evolution. The cooked-food hypothesis is that humans were able to evolve from earlier primates because they acquired a taste for cooked food and the nutrition derived from it was of better quality and more efficient so bigger brains and more complex social relationships developed. Some of the evidence pointed to to support this theory involves the amount of chewing time and molar sizes in various primates as compared to humans. Two other paleoanthropological researchers, Christopher Organ and Charles Nunn who are also of Harvard, predicted that if humans were adapted to eat cooked food, then humans should spend less time chewing. They gathered data from various primates and humans about body size, genetic relationships among species, and the amount of time that each species spent chewing and determined that a species of our size should spend roughly 48 percent of the waking day chewing. Humans only spend less than ten percent of the day chewing. Also, our molars are simply not as big as the molars of other primates that need to chew a far greater percentage of the day. Homo erectus, an early ancestor of Homo sapiens, had considerably smaller teeth than other earlier hominids. According to Wrangham this is evidence that H. erectus cooked their food.

The only problem with this idea is that the earliest evidence that hominins could control fire is from about 790,000 years ago. H. erectus appeared between 1.8 to 2 million years ago. There should be more evidence of cooking hearths. Or should there? Maybe our early ancestors were stealth cooks. It seems to me that the lack of evidence of cooking hearths does not rule out the hypothesis. It just means that the evidence of such is not there to conclusively prove that cooking happened.

The other thought is that hominins evolved to cook and that somebody let the hearth fire go out. Oops. And they had to wait around for a million years or so for another spark to be captured.

The other article about vegetarianism is entitled, “What’s the beef with meat?” and discusses the idea that if everyone ate a vegetarian/vegan diet that this might save the world from ecological disaster by reducing every individual’s carbon footprint on the planet. The article’s thesis is that this is a simplistic idea and there is more to consider. The article states that a meat-free world would be greener because there would be less need for cropland, potentially more forest and greater biodiversity, lower greenhouse emissions, less agricultural pollution, less demand for fresh water, and many other conditions and situations that would be desirable. After this the article argues for the continuance of a diet that includes meat based on the following points: 1. sheep and goats can graze on land that is not suitable for farming and turn inedible grass into meat and milk calories; 2. pigs and chickens can subsist on leftovers and be biological composters of a sort and turn scraps into calories; 3. animal by-products like manure, leather, and wool would disappear if the world became vegetarian; and lastly manure could be used to generate biogas and subsequently electricity.

All of these points are good points. The article goes on not to advocate that things remain as they are with the wealthiest countries eating a proportionally greater amount of meat and incurring the health deficits and generating great quantities of greenhouse gases as a result of the consumption of meat, but rather to advocate for a more thought out approach to the use of animals for calories. The article points out that as more countries gain wealth their consumption of meat also rises and in wealthier countries the desire for meat continues to rise. It offers as a solution that we change how much meat and what types of meat people eat. Rather than expecting grain fed and fat chickens, scrawnier free range chickens that had been fed scraps could be what was available. Also, meat consumption would need to drop to a portion of meat only once or twice a week as opposed to daily. The article skeptically asks, “Would people really accept pricey free-range beef and scrawny barnyard chickens perhaps once or twice a week?” In my opinion, is such a consideration an option, when, as the article also points out, if the desire for meat continues to grow that the impact could be environmentally disastrous?

We may have evolved to eat cooked food– tubers, roots, seeds, grains, and meat. I do see cooking as a form of everyday art—evolved as much as we have evolved. It is meditative, self expressive, and a reflection of how we choose to live. It can be part of creating a life of beauty and harmony. It is one of the most basic things that we do because we need to eat and we may need to eat food that is cooked (to be honest, I am still thinking about this because of information that I have read from the Raw Food movement). As a species that has the ability to be self-reflective, analytical, and capable of solving problems, examining our collective and individual relationship to the planet and our most basic biological needs and imperatives seems tantamount if we are going to survive the short geological timespan of the next century.

Have you ever really considered what you eat?

Have you ever really considered what you eat?

Our dietary habits place each of us in a particular niche. Our need for nourishment is one of the things that taxes our environment in terms of not only having arable farmland to produce crops, but also to raise livestock, to transport food stuffs to market, and to process and package food. Simply growing food requires water, fertile soil, and the labor necessary to plant, tend, and harvest crops. Even if one considers that often cattle are raised on land that is not suitable for growing crops and that cattle forage and turn grasses unsuitable for human consumption into nutrient-dense food, it still takes something on the order of two and half pounds of grain and over 400 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. And these are not statistics taken from one of the environmental or vegetarian activist sites. This is taken from a web site: http://www.beeffrompasturetoplate.org/mythmeatproductioniswasteful.aspx

which is working to dispel the arguments for vegetarianism.

My aim in this post is not so much to make the argument that others should switch to vegetarianism, my aim is to get people to consider what they eat. The consumption of food is necessary for life, but in an age when the production of food stuff to feed the ever burgeoning population of our limited planet may tip our environment over into collapse, when energy needs compete for the same corn as nutritional needs, and when our unconscious and unbeknownst political decisions are entwined in a free for all of wasteful conspicuous consumption– we need to examine and make more informed decisions about how we will feed humanity. Simply unthinkingly going to the large, brightly lit super market many transitions points removed from where food comes from is not an activity that promotes good resource management and the longevity of our species.

I love blueberries. I grew up in Western Michigan where blueberries thrive in the sandy, acidic soil close to Lake Michigan where forests of conifers for centuries dropped their pine needles to compost and create the perfect soil for blueberries. Growing up, I picked blueberries in July and August for money for school clothes. Blueberries are only in season in North America in July and August. I have bought blueberries that were fresh in February. I can tell you that those blueberries were well traveled blueberries and that they were picked before they were ripe and that they were ripened using gas. Did I need to have blueberries in February? No. There was no dire necessity in that decision– just I saw the berries and had the impulse to buy them. Was this a good conscious choice? Not really. In a time period when fossil fuels will be running out and the environment is so incredibly taxed buying out of season blueberries shipped from somewhere in South America is not a good conscious choice.

Small farms have been in demise for the last few decades. Agricultural products in the US are so plentiful that many farmers cannot compete with the large agri-business farms and they are going out of business. More and more farmland has been becoming the suburban sprawl of our urban centers. Some localities are seeing the necessity of preserving local farms and are creating ordinances complete with tax relief or are out and out subsidizing farms. Local farms not only preserve a certain character of the surrounding area, they produce local food stuffs. This is food that does not need to be picked before it is ripe, gassed to ripen, or transported hundreds or thousands of miles. It is food that would be available to the local population if there was a collapse in the global markets or if the transportation of food from other continents became prohibitive or restricted. Eating seasonally and locally produced food helps to keep local farms in business, is environmentally a better choice (for more than the reasons stated here), and is long term savvy.

Tomatoes and zuchini. Have you ever grown zuchini squash? The vines take over the garden and produce more zuchini than you could ever imagine. I remember my mother once upon a time trying to convince me to eat zuchini by making scalloped zuchini. Like scalloped potatoes. In Michigan in late summer, you cannot get rid of the zuchini fast enough. People sneak up on one another’s porches and leave the stuff. Tomatoes also. Tomatoes ripen very suddenly and while one week they are green and hard on the vines– the next you will have bushels of them. I read somewhere that if we just processed all the tomatoes that are grown we could produce some phenomenal amount of tomato sauce, but every year tons of tomatoes go to waste.

How many people have planted anything since they were in Kindergarten and pushed those marigold seeds into the potting soil in a small paper cup? How many people have sprouted bean seeds since they were in elementary school? We make certain choices about what plants we want in our landscapes. Acres of green lawn are considered desirable, but this uses a huge amount of water resources. Grass thrives in cool and wet conditions. What if we planted the areas around our public buildings with indigenous plants that could be used as food? What if we planted fruit and nut trees, berry brambles, perennial herbs and other plants that could be used for food in our yards instead of grass? Imagine all the food that could be produced with the same resources that we are currently using for nothing more than lawns and ornamental plantings of little value beyond aesthetic appeal. What if we all switched are consideration of what should be planted and made it a requirement that every plant planted have multiple reasons for being planted?

What resources have been used to produce the food that you are eating? What unconscious political allegiances are you making with your choice of what you buy and consume?

If I think I fall asleep, blogpost on food

I woke up this morning sometime around four in the morning after falling asleep last night somewhere in the vicinity of eight o’clock. I was trying to get some work done last night. Something that I seem incapable of this week. This morning before dawn I opened this blank blogpost page to write something. And froze. So I went and made some coffee and then came back and sat and stared at the blank page for a bit. And fell asleep. I seem to close down whenever anything approaching a cogent thought whispers over the wrinkly folds of my grey matter. And it is starting to irritate me.

I can deal with the here and now. Food. Probably sex. But this blog isn’t THAT kind of blog.

Coffee. My coffee is an exploration in geography. Roasted Sumatran beans from a company called Seattle’s Best, flavored with a sweetened brick of Mexican chocolate bought on a whim in a delicatessen.

I went to a tea shop yesterday and had a cup of lapsang souchang with soy milk and looked at cookbooks. I collected recipes. A while ago I was given a twenty pound bag of sweet potatoes. If you ever want to test your creative abilities, I challenge you to the twenty pound bag of sweet potatoes test. And I’ll give you a hint. Sweet potatoes are great in sushi. Put some sticky rice on a piece of nori paper, run a fill of carmelized onions with shiitake mushrooms, a fill of baked hickory flavored tofu, and a line of julienned sweet potatoes fried in olive oil. Schmear the edge of the nori paper with umeboshi paste, roll, and cut. It doesn’t even need soy it is so good. The recipes that I found yesterday were for Sweet Potato Waldorf Salad, Sweet Potato Pound Cake, Sweet Potato Corn Bread, New Orleans Sweet Potato Salad, and Sweet Potatoes with Brown Rice and Kale. I also make marvelous Sweet Potato Burritos.

Today I have to cook a meal for one of the world’s truly unique characters. An opinionated bright light who is such a larger than life persona at his tender age that I have no doubts that he will go on to great things. He is incisive, opinionated, loving, passionate in his occupations, and challenges the status quo with his humorous statements about the obvious absurd nature of things.

Food. Today we will have Sweet Potato Waldorf Salad (you didn’t think a meal with people coming over would escape from the sweet potatoes, did you?), fresh greens from the garden with vinaigrette, cheesy lasagna made in the slow cooker (I may photograph this as I make it and post it later because it is yummy and very inexpensive and easy), brats & sausage on the grill, veggie patties on the grill, lamb (because a sacrifice is needed to lift the curse and a friend suggested a goat but well I don’t think anyone would eat it), chocolate cake and ice cream, and juice and soda pop and beer.