Last night I made one of the sparkly and art deco Mrs. Pax Arcana’s favorite dinners — baked orzo with shrimp and feta cheese. It is a fantastically easy thing to make and requires very few ingredients from outside an average pantry, yet the simple combination of crushed tomatoes, tangy feta, olive oil, white wine, garlic, shrimp, and tiny nuggets of pasta is among the tastiest things on earth.
That I am fond of cooking surprises some people. Yes, I look like the president of the young Republicans. Yes, I watch baseball and drink beer — occasionally scratching my balls in the process. Yes, I have a Hungarian manservant who would gladly prepare my dinners upon request.
But to me, cooking is a fundamental human activity — as much as speaking, singing or dancing. According to one Harvard professor, it’s even more than that.
In a recent address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Dr. Richard Wrangham argued that cooking is more than just a commonality of experience between human cultures. Instead, it is the thing that underpins much of human evolution.
I could not attend the conference since my own group, the Grand Council of the Great and Serious Men of Science, convened on the same day to elect a new Steward of the Bunsen Burners (congratulations Dr. Himmelstump!) — but the Economist summed it up this way:
Humans became human, as it were, with the emergence 1.8m years ago of a species called Homo erectus. This had a skeleton much like modern man’s—a big, brain-filled skull and a narrow pelvis and rib cage, which imply a small abdomen and thus a small gut. Hitherto, the explanation for this shift from the smaller skulls and wider pelvises of man’s apelike ancestors has been a shift from a vegetable-based diet to a meat-based one. Meat has more calories than plant matter, the theory went. A smaller gut could therefore support a larger brain.
Dr Wrangham disagrees. When you do the sums, he argues, raw meat is still insufficient to bridge the gap. He points out that even modern “raw foodists”, members of a town-dwelling, back-to-nature social movement, struggle to maintain their weight—and they have access to animals and plants that have been bred for the table. Pre-agricultural man confined to raw food would have starved.
Cooking, on the other hand, made meat more easily digestible — allowing humans to absorb more calories and nutrients with less substance. Cooked food is also digested almost entirely in the stomach and small intestine, where it can be absorbed easily — whereas only about 50% of raw food is absorbed there.
There’s also the fact that cooking makes food softer, and therefore easier for the body to process:
Another telling experiment, conducted on rats, did not rely on cooking. Rather the experimenters ground up food pellets and then recompacted them to make them softer. Rats fed on the softer pellets weighed 30% more after 26 weeks than those fed the same weight of standard pellets. The difference was because of the lower cost of digestion.
In fact, Wrangham thinks our current obesity problem has less to do with overeating than with the pervasive softness of processed foods. So once again, the bottom line is to PUT THE VELVEETA DOWN, FATTY.
What’s cooking? [Economist]