It is a common theory among biologists and anthropologists that the catalyst that propelled our species from nature to culture was our having learned to cook our food. Cooking our food, when we were living in foraging societies, became a way to detoxify our food and thus made many more nutritional options available to us. Cooking also makes the things we eat more digestible and the nutrients more readily available. To paint a comparison, consider other primates; who tend to spend up to 6 hours a day chewing their food. This rigorous chomping is meant to help our evolutionary cousins to compensate for the toughness of their food and to extract as much nutritional value out of their limited options as possible.
Why is this important?
It’s meant to illustrate the importance of cooking to our collective human culture. It was with the advent of cooking that we were freed from hours of intensive chewing. This made eating and digestion a much more energy efficient process. Cooking also gave us a social focal point and gathering place to consume our meals, providing us the foundation to establish common ideas and practices with our larger group, thus establishing the first forms of culture. Gathering around meals continued to hold a high level of importance in social interactions even through the 20th century.
We are, according to some, at the cliffs edge of losing this opportunity to foster intellectual and emotional growth through cooking. Many believe we are beyond the point of retribution when it comes to cooking our meals, and the result could be the end of humanity. Not in the zombie apocalypse sort of way, but the end of what we consider to be the crucial aspects of ourselves that make us more human than animal. The more we outsource our cooking to large food companies, the less our cultural values are nurtured; we spend less time at the table with our families and lose out on crucial opportunities to teach our culture through cooking to the next generation.
In the H.G Wells classic The Time Machine, the Time Traveler theorizes that the race of beings he encounters in the distant future, being dullards and physically feeble, is the result of mankind’s nearly constant push to improve the comfort and quality of our lives through engineering the world around us. Basically, we became so effective at improving our situation that we left nothing to improve and therefore we lost the ability to rationalize and perform the most basic physical tasks as there was no need for these skills.
This is, in fact, what we are accomplishing by outsourcing our cooking, we are ridding ourselves of a skill we no longer deem necessary as a result of the convenient world that surrounds us.
This social shift is also having a tremendous impact on our health and waistlines. By leaving cooking to companies that specialize in high fat, high sugar foods we have turned foods that were once-in-a-while foods to items that we consume daily. Journalist Michael Pollan gives french fries as an example. To make french fries at home, first, you need to cut the potatoes. Then, they need to be dropped in a vat of hot oil (often times using a whole bottle of oil, which for many seems a waste). Next you remove the fries and allow them to drain. Once they have drained you need to re-submerge the fries in the hot oil to give them their final crisp. Once all that is done, you season the fries and attempt to clean oil splatters off of your stove-top, your counters, your backsplash, your vaulted ceilings, refrigerator, cabinets, toaster, kids and just about anything else within a 100 feet radius of the popping oil.
The idea here is that if we force ourselves to cook everything we eat, we make different/better food choices as a result of how difficult it is to prepare fried foods and other fast food staples.
When we outsource our cooking, we are losing precious time with our family and an opportunity to teach our kids how to cook and eat well. Furthermore, with every bucket of chicken or bag of burgers we order through the drive-thru we lose a piece of our collective cultural knowledge. This trend has also turned foods that we consumed now and again to daily staples, effecting our health in a way that could result in the next generations suffering a decreased life expectancy and that is a step backwards we haven’t taken, in western culture, in as many as ten generations.
“The best diet plan in the world, eat anything you want, just cook it yourself”-Michael Pollan