Origins of Cooking

by Sarah West

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I was looking recently at a gorgeously photographed cookbook from the celebrated Copenhagen restaurant, Noma. Led by the young and talented chef Rene Redzepi, Noma is credited with reinventing Nordic cuisine by using exclusively local ingredients, foraging and exploring the edible potential of what seems a bleak and limited landscape. I had heard about this chef and was interested in his zeal for found foods, though what I saw in his cookbook looked more like contemporary art than any meal I have eaten—beautiful but weightless, these dishes do not convey sustenance.

One dish, titled Vegetable Field, tricks the eye into seeing a patch of dirt with carrots and other root vegetables lifting their shoulders out of the ground. In reality, it is made of roast vegetables and malt “soil,” and although I have never eaten such a thing, I assume it tastes at least as intriguing as it looks given the restaurant’s Michelin stars. Pressing the familiar into whimsy, Redzepi’s creations seem as interested in imagining nostalgia as simply tasting like the exquisite ingredients they likely are. They are dinner in the form of an art gallery.

But how has fine food come to this degree of abstraction? We once, long, long ago, wandered our world picking and eating as we went, taking only what lay before us in whatever form we found it. Fruits plucked, herbs sampled, we filled our stomachs without thought of preparation or storage: an improvised Eden. Then, some 250,000-odd years ago, we harnessed the nuances of fire. Under its tutelage we learned, slowly, to coax from the vegetables and meats we were accustomed to eating raw, new and perhaps more agreeable flavors and nutrition.

Cooking has taken many forms over time. Fire, an open flame that singes and chars, is the most basic (and still one of the most delicious). Underground cooking chambers made by burying coals or hot rocks in the earth have translated to the high tech convection ovens of our day. Clay or metal vessels used to hold and heat water or oil for more controlled, precise cooking are the forbears of our myriad stockpots and sauté pans.

Even wood itself, a fuel of combustion, was once fashioned into a container for heating food: the folded cedar boxes of some Pacific Northwest coastal Indians, heated by adding fire-hot rocks to the water-filled interior rather than heating from below, boiled seal meat, berries or starchy roots. The endless combinations of what we cook and how we cook it have enthralled and nourished our species for millennia.

Scientists quibble over which came first—cooking or the larger brain. But in either equation, the practice of cooking our food has, over time, played a crucial role in our cognitive ability. When we expose food to heat, we alter its complex chemical structure and make more of its nutrients available to our ravenous brains, which on average consume 25% of our modern caloric intake. Cooking unlocked hidden potential in the food we took so much time to hunt and gather, providing increased return for the effort.

In this way, the practice of cooking has contributed to our cognitive capabilities. The most “recent” addition to our brain, the cerebral cortex, is responsible for the feats of language and reasoning, and for the capacity of a brain that once merely existed to begin to know itself. This remarkable development was likely encouraged by the simple but profound notion of applying heat to food. Cooking has nourished both our physical and mental capabilities alike.

From its very inception, cooking has always been a creative impulse, an abstract thought garnered from observation. The first limb seared in flame was likely both an informed and impulsive experiment. Watching the effects of wild fires on nearby vegetation, ancient hominids may have wondered what would happen if they took a piece of this heat and applied it where they chose. Cuisines such as Noma’s sparse but artistic plates reside in this same conceptual realm. Food preparation has always been a form of art, sustenance drawn from the ethers of our interior and exterior wildernesses, feeding our present minds as much as capacities yet unknown.