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.