Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, By Richard Wrangham<br />The Fat Duck Cookbook, By Heston Blumenthal

Christopher Hirst
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:38

In his "Dissertation upon Roast Pig", the whimsical essayist, Charles Lamb, envisaged the invention of cooking by a Chinese boy who accidentally burnt the family pigs: "Some of the crumbs of the scorched skin had come away with his fingers, and for the first time in his life (in the world's life indeed, for before him no man had known it) he tasted – crackling! The truth at length broke into his slow understanding, that it was the pig that smelt so, and the pig that tasted so delicious." Though located in the wrong continent – Africa was the birthplace of humanity – Lamb's early 19th-century drollery may not have been too far from reality.

Richard Wrangham's radical revision of human evolution suggests that our ancestors were transformed after discovering an additional benefit of the fire intended to keep predators at bay. "Once they kept fire alive at night, a group of habilines [the missing link between primates and humans] in a particular place occasionally dropped food morsels by accident, ate them after they had been heated, and learned that they tasted better. Repeating their habit, this group would have swiftly evolved into the first Homo erectus." By "swiftly", Wrangham means 15-20,000 years, the amazingly brief spell required for transition of species.

According to Wrangham, professor of biological anthropology at Harvard, the discovery of cooking can be dated to 1.9 million years ago. Because their diet was primarily cooked rather than raw, Homo erectus enjoyed great nutritional benefits. "Cooking gelatinizes starch, denatures protein and softens everything... [it] substantially increases the amount of energy we obtain from food." As a result, the mouths and guts of our ancestors became far smaller than other primates. "Natural section favoured those with smaller guts, because they were able to digest their food well, but at a lower cost than before."

The physical changes did not stop there. Because early man enjoyed a more nutritious diet, his brain increased in size. Factors such as high meat intake and improved cooking methods may have been responsible for the increase in brain size as Homo erectus became Homo heidelbergensis around 900,000 years ago.

This ancestor was "merely a more robust form of Homo sapiens", which appeared 200,000 years ago. We know that prototype man was cooking long before this. Archaeologists have found sites with blackened cooking stones or hearths dating back 790,000 years in Israel. Fire freed man from constantly chomping raw roots. It also made him the naked ape. Because he didn't need hair for heat, he became the fastest primate, with the ability to sweat off heat generated from hunting. Unfortunately, woman did not benefit quite so much. "Cooking... trapped women into a newly subservient role enforced by male-dominated culture," suggests Wrangham. "Cooking created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority. It is not a pretty picture."

Wrangham backs up his theory that cooking made us human with evidence from his own observation of chimpanzees in Uganda and strange episodes from history. Though the Robertson family survived on raw food for 31 days when their yacht sank in the Pacific in 1972, it "also brought a sense of starvation". A stomach injury suffered by Canadian trapper Alexis St Martin in 1822 allowed a surgeon to observe his alimentary response to both the raw and the cooked. "Large pieces of [raw potato] pass the bowels untouched by digestion," he noted, though further revelations were curtailed when St Martin understandably wearied of researchers peering into his innards.

Wrangham's enjoyably expressed theory is utterly persuasive, especially if you happen to place a high importance on cooking, but the mystery remains: why didn't Darwin recognise the importance of cooking in jump-starting humanity? His experience of rubbing sticks together for an earth oven in the Falklands prompted him to regard the art of making fire as "probably the greatest [discovery], excepting language, ever made by man". Nevertheless, Darwin saw the control of fire as something that humans developed rather than something that developed humans. Though Wrangham does not draw the inference, could Darwin's omission of cooking be related to the low priority that Victorians placed on culinary matters?

Two hundred thousand years after Homo sapiens appeared on earth, cooking has produced a new human variant. Bald as a billiard ball, clad in gleaming white, scientifically obsessed, Homo hestoniensis sees food as hi-tech novelties for the palate – Coconut Baccy, Whisky Gums, Radish Ravioli of Oyster – rather than vital nutrition. Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck Cookbook may be more manipulable (and £65 cheaper) than its prodigious predecessor, The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, but downsizing does not make it any more practical. This quirky mix of memoir, recipe book, scientific anthology and graphic novel (the profusion of authorial images would be regarded as immodest in any field other than gastronomy) is presumably intended as a souvenir for those who have laid out £130 on the Tasting Menu at Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant in Bray. At least it will give them a lasting memory of the meal. From several Fat Duck customers, I have heard complaints that they were far from replete after the experience. Though it is called a cookbook, scarcely anyone will ever cook from this volume. Many dishes call for specialist equipment and recondite ingredients. A dessert called Lime Grove requires liquid nitrogen, a Dewar flask, malic acid and high methoxyl confectioner's pectin. Even the simpler dishes call for more time and application than anyone but an extreme culinary obsessive will want to spend. Blumenthal remarks of one dish, "Part of its attraction was the technical complexity – I have never taken the easy route." Having spent 15 hours and £150 making his version of Black Forest Gateau, I can confirm this.

It would be easy to get annoyed by this bulky book, which reveals the terrible consequences when a designer is given free rein. Its concern with exotic tidbits that require a large kitchen squadron might be a definition of decadence. But Blumenthal is good-natured and a genuine enthusiast for the marriage of science and cooking. There is no trace of arrogance in this nutty work. But you do wonder how the habilines who first enjoyed the wonderful effect of fire on food would feel after a Fat Duck meal. Hungry, I guess.

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