Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
By Richard Wrangham
(Basic Books, 2009)
Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire is a great, nutritious, meaty meal of a book. And important, I think, for anyone who enjoys cooking and eating. In his introduction, Wrangham writes: “I believe the transformative moment that gave rise to the genus Homo, one of the great transitions in the history of life, stemmed from the control of fire and the advent of cooked meals. Cooking increased the value of our food. It changed our bodies, our brains, our use of time, and our social lives. It made us into consumers of external energy and thereby created an organism with a new relationship to nature, dependent on fuel.”
In clear, layman’s language that is a delight to read, Wrangham assembles the evidence for his radical yet convincing take on the engine of human evolution. And he knows whereof he speaks. He is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, the curator of Primate Behavioral Biology at the Peabody Museum, and the Director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project in Uganda.
His theory implies some uncomfortable truths for today’s cooks, especially those interested in healthy eating. In particular, the consequences of this: “Cooking increased the value of our food.”
Cooking makes our food softer and more digestible; the calorie content of cooked ingredients can be used more efficiently by the body producing more energy than the same amount of raw ingredients. The energy value of a calorie, then, varies according to preparation technique.
In one example of what this might mean, Mr. Wrangham discusses an experiment in which two groups of rats were fed the same number of calories and got the same amount of exercise. For one group, the rat chow pellets were softened. This group gained weight.
What’s true for rats may not hold true for us. And it may not be pretty or elegant to consider the “chew quotient” of the foods we choose to cook and/or eat, but we may not be able to escape the knowledge that the more processed those foods are, the more likely that they will make us fat. If we accept Wrangham’s analysis of raw-food diet research, the answer to this conundrum would not appear to be to return to an all-raw diet; and we are too busy to do that much chewing. Nonetheless, we should probably keep this information in mind as we plan our weekly menus. Catching Fire gives cooks and noncooks much to digest.