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With fire comes civilisation, via the kitchen

It appears Darwin can shed light, or rather add fuel to the fire, to the debate about why kitchens are important, how they have helped humans jump up the evolutionary scale and explain why they are spaces on the ascendance, even though people cook less.

In this book Catching Fire: How cooking made us human, Richard Wrangham explains how cooking has made us more intelligent and sociable in evolutionary terms; cooking helps us have better sex, promotes (useful) division of labour and contributes to the concept of well-organised, domestic households.

His theory starts off with how fire shifted our diet from raw food (bad for us, not good, as recent fads suggest) to cooked food. Horses and cows, for example, need to keep eating constantly and have no time for leisure. Even hunter-gatherers were tied to a cycle of hunting and starvation, which was time consuming and distracting, and occasionally fatal. Agricultural man could not digest uncooked grains and most fresh fruits don’t store, so we would not have developed diverse diet or progressed beyond primitive lifestyles without cooking.

Cooked food requires less energy to digest and leaves us with time to pursue mental activities like education and craft skills. With a more efficient digestive system, our brains were able to grow bigger and needed less bulky organs to support a large brain size.

The increasing ratio of brain size to body is explained by more effective cooking. The first sharp increase of brain size was due to shifting our diets from foliage to roots – which have more carbohydrates – around 5 – 7 million years ago. The second brain expansion, around 1.8 to I million years ago, was due to eating more meet, which was only possible due to more effective digestion.

The food quest is key to our evolutionary success, although ironically this is now in doubt. There is the prospect of our kids living shorter lives due to our perversion of the food supply industry, the lack of physical work and disregard for sociability.

To end on a positive note, in defence of kitchens, Wrangham says that cooking softens food, which enables us to eat more efficiently, hence allowing us to spend more time working at tasks not related to survival. It also supports a division of labour that creates a well-balanced household economy whereby the hunter-gatherer women were treated well, because they were needed by men to ensure functioning of the dietary system. We believe that modern man has been reconstructed, but it is clear that having a sociable place to cook and eat is a key to remaining healthy. Fast food restaurants tend to use overly rich ingredients and don’t provide you with a diet for longevity. Cooking at home, on the other hand, does and it is tailored to your own specification.

Open-plan, sociable kitchens provide support for digestion as eating is slowed down by conversation. A calm environment, with long views for instinctive relaxation and other rituals so elegantly set out by Margeret Visser in The Rituals of Dinner, discourage over-eating. Wrangham claims we learned many of the elements of sociable behaviour through the discovery of fire and developing an ability to cook. The circular argument seems complete: the more you cook, the more civilized you become. Maybe the modern kitchen is not so much the living room in which you cook, but where you become socialised or join civilisation?


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