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FOOD 101: Cooking History

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Be grateful for your stove and microwave! Photo courtesy Sirgy.com.

 

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Man has been wandering Earth for some 200,000 years, but the general use of fire began only about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. Until then, man ate his food raw.*

Neanderthals discovered how to deliberately create fire. This led to warmth—the priority in the Ice Age—and to the secondary benefit of cooking meats. Most likely, a piece of mammoth, venison or another flesh that would have been eaten raw, fell in the campfire. It had to be left there until the flames died down, no doubt filling the air with the alluring aroma of roasting meat.

Heat breaks down tough fiber and releases flavor in the process. As a natural next step, meat and tough roots were slower cooked in the embers or on a flat stone by the side of the fire.

 
Boiling took more time to evolve, using large mollusk or turtle shells until man created vessels of earthenware or bark that could be placed over the fire. Steaming inside animal stomachs and leaves preceded the more sophisticated development of crockery. The first oven could have been as simple as a hole in the ground.
 
Here’s what your most ancient of forefathers did:

  • They dug a large pit in the ground and lined it with flat, overlapping stones to prevent seepage. Large quantities of water were poured in, presumably transported in skin bags. Other stones were heated in the campfire and add to the water to bring it to a simmer.
  • The food was then added and, while it was cooking, more hot stones to keep the water at the desired temperature. This technique is still used in some isolated parts of the world.†
  •  
    It was only much later that boiling or stewing was done in small pots placed near the fire, or in cauldrons suspended over a fire. [Source: Food in the Ancient World, Joan P. Alcock [Greenwood Press:Westport CT] 2006 (p. 105-106)]

    The use of fire vastly extended man’s diet, enabling tough foods to be palatable. Cereals—barley, millet, rice, rye, and wheat, as well as potatoes, require cooking before they can be consumed by humans. The use of fire doubtless encouraged the domestication of these foods and the end of lives as hunter-gatherers, as man settled into farming communities.

    Thanks to FoodTimeline.org for inspiring this article.

     
    *Source: Cambridge World History of Food, Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas [Cambridge University Press:Cambridge] 2000 (p. 1571)
    †Source: Food in History, Reay Tannahill [Three Rivers Press:New York] 1988 (p. 14-16)
     
      




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