The first invention!

  Anna Madra, PhD candidate in Mechanics - Composite Materials at Polytechnique School of Montreal.

Anna Madra, PhD candidate in Mechanics - Composite Materials at Polytechnique School of Montreal.

By Anna Madra

We profit from it every single day. Some of us even do it. Only a very narrow group has decided not to and the effects are disastrous. I'm talking about cooking — the ensemble of constantly evolving technologies that help us get more energy from anything considered edible.

There were two moments in the history of mankind that changed the state of the things forever. First, the Australopithecines started eating meat, the action that has prompted a change not only in the amount and form of the energy supplied to the organism. It has also led to the development of group behaviors, systems of communication and tools for trapping, killing and processing the quarry. But modern day chimpanzees also eat meat if they have a chance and we still don't see them driving cars and playing guitars. So, what happened?

Homo habilis has discovered fire and fried his first steak. And after that, he didn't want to go back to raw meat apart from occasional carpaccio and sushi. He has discovered cooking and that marked the appearance of Homo erectus, followed shortly by the Homo sapiens, two species that differ only (slightly) in the brain capacity. Otherwise, nothing has changed for a 2 million years.

The magic that happens while applying heat to vegetables, meat, fish, has freed our schedules from chewing and digesting, that otherwise took the better part of the day. It has also supplied vast amounts of energy, necessary to sustain the action of that greedy organ, the brain. The rest of our history is all about finding better ways of processing, storing, transporting and enjoying the food. Imagine the world without fermentation - no wine and no beer. Italy without the grains of wheat, crushed, kneaded with water into thousands of forms and boiled as pasta. The cod fishing, followed by fish preservation by drying and salting, which also facilitates digestion, has shaped the exploration and history of Northern America.

And now the story continues. Refrigerated, microwaved, parboiled and deep-fried, enhanced with minerals and vitamins or spoiled with gelatin, sugar and artificially refined dyes. You can't do without it, although a food extremists group known as raw foodists refrains from it. In consequence, their schedule resembles that of the rest of the animal kingdom: finding food, breaking it up into shreds and pulp and spending most of acquired energy on digestion. Then the cycle continues. The effect: they are always hungry. The path we took in the course of evolution did not lead to a development of four stomachs as in ruminants.

We need cooking to survive and no other invention has changed the history of species as much as this one. Unfortunately, with the mass production of food-resembling articles, that bring to mind the diet from Orwell's 1984, we're facing a good ol' extinction again, this time by collective poisoning of our bodies and everything around. If you want to be sustainable, start in the kitchen.

More on the subject in the excellent book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham.

Or if you're a cod enthusiast in particular, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky.