IN 1773, JAMES BOSWELL called human-beings the “cooking animal”. Yet, for all the cooking we do, we rarely ask why. And when we do, the most common explanation is far too narrow, and even misleading.
Appreciating cooking’s basis in cooperation flips conventional representations of not only cooking, but the world.
Dictionaries head the disinformation. The Concise Oxford is typical, stating that to “cook” is to “prepare (food) by heating it”. Miriam-Webster suggests “to prepare food for eating especially by means of heat”.
Certainly, the verb “cook” often means using heat. But, as every cook knows, cooks do much more. Not merely standing at the stove, they freeze, pickle, and serve raw. They also weigh, count, estimate, clean, chop, slice, toss, beat, stir….
Before the actual preparation, they go shopping, run to the garden, open cupboards, and organise deliveries. Then they carry to the table, ladle, carve, arrange. Still smiling… wash up, take to the compost bin…
Even that is far from all cooks do, for they have taken formal or informal lessons, learned family recipes, made ethical choices, kept an eye on the budget, followed the festival calendar, and paid some attention to diners’ preferences. All this just to heat food?
While the assumption is often that heating improves taste, scientists such as evolutionary primatologist Richard Wrangham have claimed that such pre-digestion added to human efficiency (Catching Fire: How cooking made us human, 2009).
Paleoethnobotanist Kristen Gremillion explained in Ancestral Appetites: Food in prehistory (2011):
“The overarching benefit of cooking is that it acts as a kind of predigestion that extends the human body’s ability to extract nutrition efficiently, greatly increasing our ability to adapt to changing circumstances.”
As well as heating, Gremillion accepted other transformational techniques, including grinding, soaking and fermenting. Michael Pollan enshrined the idea in the title of Cooked: A natural history of transformation (2013).
All interesting, but none of this goes far enough. A fuller picture emerges with a distributional theory. This is the key argument of my book, A History of Cooks and Cooking, which came out in 1998. (The original publishers called it, The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks, and it has always remained for me, Cooks Made Us).
The cooks’ more exemplary instrument is not fire, but the knife. Our ancestors were cutting with flints well before – a million years before – they tended flames. They foraged, sliced and chopped to share food, and that continues to this day.
Heating food might increase its nutritional potential, but distribution is at the heart of society and culture. The archetypical campfire or pot brings people together, so that cooks weave entire ways of life. Cooks create civilisation.
I picked out the three moments of cooking: acquisition, distribution and organisation. That is, cooks gather food, and then divide and share it around. Throughout, they work with cultural patterns.
By dividing up food, cooks divide up labour, central to economies, as I have now explored in Meals Matter: A radical economics through gastronomy (2020).
Being so fundamental to human existence is cooking’s problem. Giving ultimate value to the sharing of meals challenges self-proclaimed authorities, who have championed their great tasks of religion, war, finance, industry and scientific inquiry. “Preparing food by heating” is readily distanced as “women’s work”.
Threatened by grassroots insurgency, ruling ideologues have consistently trivialised cooking. Plato’s philosophical dialogues explicitly put cooks down. Money’s wondrous logic now demands obedience.
With the power preaching from the capitalist clouds, we must, together, restore everyday reality. A good start could be in dictionaries, Wikipedia, science, common understandings…
Subversive political philosopher John Locke explained in a letter from France in November 1678: “We are not born in heaven, but in this world, where our being is to be preserved with meat, drink, and clothing and other necessaries that are not born with us, but must be got.” That’s what cooks lead us in, together.