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.

Think!

I think that we as humans make a great to do about our ability to think and our general intelligence. We are greatly impressed with our own tools and our ability to use resources. Now I am not saying that this isn’t a truly wonderful thing, but I think that we need to use some of our other skills and abilities. I would very much like if we used our ability to communicate and work in groups and our abilities that allow us to understand other people’s perspectives, to be empathetic, and to be compassionate. I would also like it if we used our analytical thinking skills to really examine the choices that we are making as a species.

We have the ability to recognize that we are over populating the planet and using limited resources and fouling our own habitat. We as a group globally can recognize this.

I never buy the arguments that my being a vegetarian is a silly thing because other animals kill, are cruel, and are eaten in part because depending on the species they have more or less capability to emotionally process what their instinctual drives are telling them to do and they don’t have our capacity to recognize our actions, notice their impact, and make a decision among a set of wide ranging choices. Animals just don’t have the capacity to reflect and make choices that we do.

I think whether or not to be a vegetarian is very much a personal decision. Many people have differing ideas on what being vegetarian means also. Some people won’t eat mammals but eat bi-valves and fish. Others won’t eat any creature. Some will drink milk but won’t eat eggs or meat. Some eat only plant food stuffs. Also the reasons why people become vegetarians varies greatly. For some people it is a love of animals. Others it is for political reasons or environmental reasons. For others they are vegetarian because that is how they were raised.

I don’t so much care if other people are vegetarians or not, but I want them to be conscious of what they are eating and how this potentially impacts other creatures and the environment. I want people to examine and really think about what they are doing. This is hard when the muscles of a cow are cut into an unrecognizable form, placed on a styrofoam plate, and wrapped in plastic to be sold in a refrigerator in a grocery store far removed from the commercial slaughterhouse where the cow was stunned and killed.

I am very much concerned about being compassionate to other living creatures and I agree that raising an animal that becomes almost like a pet and then slaughtering it is callous and cruel. So are commercial farms where chickens are fed excessive amounts of hormones and antibiotics to simultaneously make them grow faster and fatter while keeping them kept in too close quarters and not having them get sick. This is cruel. It is also a disaster waiting to happen and the kindness of providing a less cramped living space and better conditions for the animals we raise for food may be a form of enlightened self interest. Consider the rise of mad cow disease and bird flu. I recently read that prions without any genetic material evolve as though they have DNA or RNA. Mad cow was caused by a particular prion. Bird flu came out of un-sanitary conditions in Asia and so far has not spread widely because of the form of the virus and its method of transmission. Hormones in meat and milk may be causing our children to mature earlier.

I very much admire people like Temple Grandin who examined how cows were taken to slaughter and devised a more humane cattle shoot so that the cows came to their death with less fear and panic. This helped the cattle industry, but it also helped the cows.

A friend from my online writing group raised the idea of deer who have been killed on the highway and if they should be eaten. I won’t eat them, but I have made the decision to be a vegetarian. I have very mixed feelings about eating a deer killed on the highway. First, I read an article in Mother Jones two years ago about how something like 40-60% of the species on the planet are predicted to rapidly become extinct within the next fifty years with the current rate of global warming and how this represents potentially one of the great die offs in the long history of the planet. The article talked about habitat destruction as one of the causes that is making the die-off look likely. Roads were sited as a factor in habitat destruction. In part it is because vegetation needs to be cleared to make roads and both the loss of vegetation and the heat retentive properties of asphalt or concrete add to global warming on top of the eventual use of automobiles on those roads. Another piece of it is that roads become barriers that are difficult for species to cross to migrate, get to needed resources, and to get to potential mates. This was something that was listed as being particularly problematic for larger species like predators who need large regions for hunting grounds.

So my response to the question about a deer killed on the side of the road becomes complicated. I think that in the specific instance of a deer killed on the side of the road the deer is dead and gone and will not come back. I personally will not eat it. However, there are people who could use the calories and I think the deer meat should be salvaged for distribution through a food bank or a soup kitchen. Now, as a reassessment of urban planning and resource management, I think more work should be available for people to do at home, less food should be trucked across country, there should be more public transportation, and there should be fewer roads and less cars.

We have the capability to communicate electronically and organize work without everyone being in the same room and yet people still often commute in for work that could be done some percentage of the time from home. This should be utilized more.

Most of the roads that are constructed as part of a national infrastructure serve a couple purposes beyond allowing the citizenry to move freely. They allow the transport and distribution of goods, resources, and troops. Highways are for trucking. If we could transport less food stuff and goods via trucks that would cut down on petroleum usage and emissions and global warming.

Public transport and a better train system in the United States could make fewer roads possible with environmental benefits that would follow.

I am going to take a wee bit of a tangent on this ramble.

Consider the outdoor space around where you live. How much of it is grass? Grass is a colony plant that thrives in wet, cool conditions. Sod farms thrive in early spring and late fall. Most people’s grass looks lush and green in the spring and later in the fall when it is wet. Watering grass is a huge waste of water and fresh water as a resource is in limited supply. To desalinate ocean water is hugely energy expensive. In the heat of summertime, grass to stay green needs to be constantly watered to maintain it. What else do you have as vegetation around your house? Viburnam? Holly? Cedar? I don’t know what is used for landscaping purposes in other parts of the world. Please consider if those plants are indigenous as a first thought. The next thought that I would ask you is if those plants are edible. Most are not and some are poisonous.

Most people have space around where they live that food stuffs could be planted in. Many indigenous and edible plants use less water than grass and are more beautiful than landscaping plants. Alpine strawberries are a perennial that creeps and makes a wonderful ground cover. Flowering kale is gorgeous. Carrots have lovely foliage. Nasturtium are edible. Onions are in the allium family. Basil loves hot weather and thrives without excessive amounts of water and it smells fabulous. We could all easily grow some of our own food in the space around our office buildings, our apartment buildings, and our homes and schools. Further, edible fruit and nut trees could be planted to make edible forest gardens that could make any backyard or park a place where low maintenance, organic “farming” could happen. We could cut down on the amount of petroleum used to transport food if we chose to use the resource of the land all around us in a much more thoughtful way. We could cut down on the amount of petroleum used if we all ate seasonally and locally. We could cut down on the amount of petroleum used if we preserved food and didn’t waste as much. We could cut down on the amount of petroleum used if we relied less on agri-business farms that promote mono-cultures and use petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides that require an ever increasing amount of them to maintain the fertility of exhausted soils.

Calories are calories. We have certain nutritional needs, but most people don’t consider that their food consumption entails unconscious decisions about environmental things like the use of the limited resource of petroleum. Most people have very unrealistic ideas about how much protein that they really need in their diets. Also, some animals that are raised for meat and considered more desirable use more resources and are harder on the land. So sheep can be raised in areas that other animals might not be raised in and preserve wetlands, but mutton in the US anyway is considered much less desirable than beef. Cattle raised for meat use quite a lot of resources.

I raise all this not specifically to encourage anyone to become a vegetarian but rather to think about the choices that they make in their day to day lives. Could you eat more healthy, with less impact on the planet, and in a way that reflects your own personal values? Are there other things that you could do to make less of an impact on the planet? I would very much like if we as a species became more reflective about our choices as a group.

For instance in the US, we get tax deductions for the number of children we have. Why not instead of giving a straight out deduction for every child, give a standard deduction for the first child, a lower deduction for the next child, and a penalty for the third child? Or go further and give couples an incentive for not having children if they don’t want to. No woman should feel obligated to be a breeder just because she can. Also having children because others are and it seems meaningless to not make the choice not to breed seems very thoughtless. Children are a huge obligation. Over population is a problem.

More thoughts. Why not put a huge luxury tax on private motor vehicles particularly vehicles that get poor gas mileage? Why not make it mandatory to include inner city farming zones where a city’s food resources are grown? Why not mandate that houses cannot be over a certain size without having solar roof shingles? Why not mandate that all new building construction have geothermal heating/cooling? Why not mandate that the dead are an organic resource and should be returned to the soil? Why not bolster the international internet infrastructure and make communication and the relaying of information easier and more free? Why not heavily tax all garbage collection and begin a program of resource retrieval in known garbage dumps and land fills?

I can think of more. Please add to my list or argue with me.

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?