Book Reviews: 'Catching Fire' by Richard Wrangham; 'An Edible History of Humanity' By Tom Standage

By Jane Black
Sunday, July 12, 2009


How Cooking Made Us Human

By Richard Wrangham

Basic. 309 pp. $26.95


By Tom Standage

Walker & Company. 288 pp. $26

Richard Wrangham is no fan of raw-food diets. It's not the faddish nature of the programs, which forbid followers to heat foods above 118 degrees to preserve their "life force." Nor is it the religious-like fervor of the diet's adherents. Wrangham, a Harvard anthropologist, rejects raw food because the process of cooking is what makes us fundamentally human.

In his new book, "Catching Fire," Wrangham argues that cooking, not meat-eating or social interdependence, is what differentiates us from other animals. Almost 2 million years ago cooked food helped a new species, homo erectus, with its large brain and small gut, emerge. And cooking is responsible for the development of agrarian societies, traditional gender roles and division of labor. In short, without a hot dinner, we would still be apes.

Wrangham is not the first to connect cooking to evolution; Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the French gastronomist, suggested as much when he wrote in 1825: "It is by fire that man has tamed Nature itself." But Wrangham draws together previous studies and theories from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, biology, chemistry, sociology and literature into a cogent and compelling argument.

Take the issue of digestion. Wrangham makes the case that our ability to heat food and thereby soften it spares our bodies a lot of hard work. And the calories saved in easy digestion reserve energy for other types of physical and intellectual activity. To understand why, simply consider how you feel after eating a light meal versus a heavy one. That shrimp salad demands less work from your intestines and makes you feel energetic afterwards; the 16-ounce steak makes you want to take a nap while your body attacks and breaks down the meal. The same differences apply to softer, cooked food versus raw, unprocessed food.

Our ancestors instinctively understood these benefits. Even when cooking wasn't possible, they found ways to soften or tenderize food. Steak tartare, for example, is thought to get its name from the Tartars who rode in Genghis Khan's army. Moving swiftly and without time to make camp or cook a hot meal, the riders would put slabs of meat under their saddles, riding on them all day until they were tender enough to eat. Softer food can be eaten more quickly than raw food, and that fact has allowed the human species to reallocate the way it spends its time. In the Western world, men and women each spend an average of five percent of their time chewing, about 36 minutes in a 12-hour day, Wrangham reports. Raw food, in contrast, must be chewed longer. For a human being to eat the same diet as a great ape, researchers estimate that we would have to dedicate 42 percent or five hours simply to breaking down our food.

With more free time, societies developed. Male hunters went farther afield in search of a prize, confident that they could get enough calories in a short time from cooked grains, nuts and berries collected by the community's gatherers. Women were bound to the fire. "Cooking freed women's time and fed their children but it also trapped women into a newly subservient role enforced by male-dominated culture," Wrangham writes. "Cooking created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority."

Similar fascinating details are often lacking in Tom Standage's "An Edible History of Humanity." The book is a follow-up to the author's previous, bestselling "History of the World in Six Glasses," which examined how beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola have influenced world history. Here, Standage, the business editor at the Economist magazine, applies the same principle to food, exploring the ways it fueled trade, industrialization and war.

Standage begins with the invention of farming and how the ability to grow food led to the rise of cities and modern society. He looks at how food was used as power -- village chiefs bestowed it as a reward and took it away as punishment -- and at how population growth in England and a looming food shortage led to wholesale industrialization of the economy.

As a food writer, I find it encouraging to see Standage acknowledge the sweeping role that food has played in history. But by isolating the topic, he makes his attempt to put food at the center sometimes feel flat or even false. Take his examination of food as a "fuel of war." He's right that the ability to feed soldiers affected military tactics; food supplies were key concerns in Napoleon's march on Russia and the British fight against American revolutionaries. But so was the weather.

Standage admits that no "single food holds the key to understanding history." Still, after a whole chapter about food and war, it's disappointing when he suddenly excuses any holes in his theory with caveats such as "logistical considerations alone do not determine the outcome of military conflicts but unless an army is properly fed, it cannot get to the battlefield in the first place." He also falls short by illustrating his points with famous moments in history. In discussing famine, he cites the 19th-century Irish potato famine and 20th-century starvations under Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. They are, of course, dramatic examples, but any student of history will know the outlines already. The book sometimes feels like an obligatory "Intro to Food History" textbook.

Still, like Wrangham, Standage succeeds in underscoring the crucial role that food continues to play in our lives. Thousands of years ago, the invention of agriculture shaped early societies. Today, it connects us to global debates about trade and the environment. The book is further proof of the gastronomist Brillat-Savarin's truism, "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are."

Jane Black is a staff writer for The Washington Post Food section.

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