Why do we cook?

IMG_0317 (2) Many of us enjoy cooking, especially with good produce, and perhaps with a glass of wine. But why do human-beings cook in some anthropological sense? Why could James Boswell call Homo sapiens the “cooking animal”?

For such a fundamental question, it has been left surprisingly unanswered. Too often, cooking has been ignored as “women’s work”, “drudgery”, “leisure” or “indulgence”. For too long, scholars went along with Plato’s warning against cooking as pandering.

Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss might have written about the “raw” and “cooked” in the 1960s, but somewhat mysteriously. Cooking expressed human cultural structure, or something. Still, he started gastronomic reflections on the slow road back to academic respectability.

In recent years, two books have promoted versions of what might be termed a “transformational” theory of cooking. Where Lévi-Strauss saw cooking as a “language”, evolutionary biologist Richard Wrangham wrote about the energy advantages of cooking as a form of pre-digestion. His Catching Fire: How cooking made us human (2009) thus aligned with the dictionary meaning, “to prepare (food) by heating”. Heat transforms raw ingredients to make them more digestible in Wrangham’s case, or possibly also tastier or more expressive. As the subtitle indicates, Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A natural history of transformation (2013) went along with fire.

The flame is important for me, too, but not as basic as the knife – I often put down the glass of wine to pick up a knife. The knife fits another, and more basic, theory of cooking. This is distributional. According to this approach, the cook’s essential duty is dividing up the food among the diners. This makes the “cooking animal” much older than the fire-maker, taking cooking back to the beginning of the stone age, and the sharp flint.

The importance of food sharing for the human story was the topic of my book, originally published in 1998 and currently available under the title A History of Cooks and Cooking (http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/87xzf7wp9780252025808.html ). That’s where others found the Boswell’s “cooking animal” quote, without them always transmitting the beauty of the distributional theory.

The distributional foundations had already cropped up occasionally, and were touched on by Launcelot Sturgeon in his Essays, Moral, Philosophical, and Stomachical in 1822. I’ve since read a claim that Sturgeon might have been the nom-de-plume of Charles Lamb, but, whatever the case, look out for the clever pair of essays, “On the physical and political consequences of sauces” and “On the importance of forming good connexions; and on the moral qualities of the stomach”.

I can see how a transformational theory would appeal especially to anthropologists in their fascination with culture. The refinements are often highly civilising. However, the more social slant of distribution should attract sociologists, and also economists. That’s because the distribution of food at the meal is the concomitant of the distribution of labour. The often-quoted early section of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations on the division of labour could hardly by more gastronomic.

My next book is all about that.

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