Why do humans eat cooked food, even though all other animals eat it raw?

The veggie lobby has promoted the notion that the consumption of meat is an unnatural act, not merely unhealthy but actually a distortion of the human palate, a kind of self-induced madness. Supposedly, charred flesh doesn't actually taste good. The only reason that we think we like this stuff is that we're brainwashed by corporate greedheads who run the beef lobby. We want to eat real food so we'll be real people.Frankly we think only a dolt would deny that a burger tastes better than a bowl of granola.

We have a book here, "The Curious Cook," by Harold McGee, that says cooked beef has at least 600 "flavor compounds," compared with only a few flavor compounds for your basic staffs of life, like wheat and barley. Raw meat is also extremely bland. McGee attempts to explain the puzzle of human cooking, this strange fact that human beings developed a taste for cooked food rather than the raw stuff that had sustained our ancestors.

The traditional explanation was that food becomes more tender when cooked, and is thus easier to eat, saving time and energy and allowing us to have smaller jaws than our forebears, who tended to have those big Carly Simon features. Moreover, the cooking of food kills unsavory smells and unhealthy bacteria.

But this doesn't explain why people like the taste of cooked food. This is a matter of chemistry: When food is heated, the complex sugars and amino acids break down into new molecular combinations, each of which has a distinct aroma and flavor.

Consider what happens to sugar when heated. At 320 degrees Fahrenheit it melts. At 335 degrees it starts to turn brown and give off a rich aroma. These heat-induced changes are called the "browning reaction." The carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the sugar molecules are reacting with oxygen in the air to make hundreds of molecular compounds, some of which go flying up your nose. McGee describes some of these new molecules:

"Furans, five-cornered rings that include one oxygen (atom), can have sweet, fruity, nutty or butterscotch flavor notes. Pyrones are six-cornered, with one oxygen in the ring and another attached to the opposite carbon. Maltol, a prominent pyrone, contributes a strong flavor of caramel itself."

(We have to wonder: Furans? Who makes up these words? Do they dump Scrabble letters on a table and see what comes up randomly?)

Next time you're at a restaurant, say, "Waiter, I'm afraid I have to send this steak back. The furans have obliterated all trace of the pyrones."

The only foods that naturally have lots of flavor compounds are fruits. A strawberry has about 300 flavors, a raspberry about 200. McGee argues that all well-prepared food aspires to the condition of fruit.

"Fruits probably provided our evolutionary ancestors with refreshing sensory interludes in an otherwise bland and dull diet. Perhaps cooking with fire was valued in part because it transformed blandness into fruit-like richness."

McGee notes that the browning reaction also takes place when organic material decomposes in the soil, which is why rich soil is darker than infertile sand. He even suggests that there's a scent of roasted coffee in a spadeful of dirt. (Just as there is a scent of dirt in the coffee at the lamentable Why Things Are Cafeteria, where coffee is so old it has a vintage.)

Why did the great Inca empire fall to fewer than 200 Spanish invaders?

In the 1530s, just under 200 Spanish soldiers armed with swords, pikes, halberds, blunderbusses and other scary-sounding weapons (you can just picture someone being quartered with a halberd) sailed down the western coastline of South America and invaded the Inca empire in what is now Peru. The Spaniards were a vicious collection of mercenaries led by a former swineherd named Francisco Pizarro. The Incas were a civilization of 20 million people who worshiped their ruler (the "Inca" himself) as divine. The Inca at that time was a man named Atahualpa.

Atahualpa knew the Spanish were up to no good, but decided to pay them a personal visit, both as a formal courtesy and to get a measure of their forces. With great fanfare he was carried on a throne of gold into the Spanish camp. But he never had a chance to chat amicably with Pizarro because the Spaniards pounced on him, bound him with chains and locked him up.

So now you'd figure the rest of the Inca army, thousands of armed men not far away, would rush forward and turn this little band of Spaniards into paella. Not so. The army did nothing. The invaders went on to loot the empire of unimaginable stores of gold.

Why were the Incan troops so passive?

One answer you sometimes hear is that the firearms and horses of the Europeans intimidated the Incas. That's partly true; the Incas had never seen a weapon that could kill at a distance, and horses were unknown. This small band of soldiers managed to slaughter at least 2,000 natives. But an alternative view is that the ant-like society of the Incas -- a single leader ruling over a vast communal enterprise with no concept of the individual -- led to disaster when the leader was captured, when "the charm that might have held the Peruvians together was dissolved," as William H. Prescott wrote in "The Conquest of Peru."

"Those Indians who let themselves be knifed or blown up into pieces that somber afternoon in Cajamarca Square lacked the ability to make their own decisions either with the sanction of authority or indeed against it and were incapable of taking individual initiative," the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa wrote recently in Harper's magazine.

Oh yes, you might want to know what happened to Atahualpa. Pizarro wanted to burn him alive. But the Spanish were religious people, so they decided on a compromise. They baptized Atahualpa, so he'd be a Christian, with all the afterlife perks. Then they strangled him.

The Mailbag:

A reader says he knows why Q-Tips boxes started running a warning in the early 1970s saying that you shouldn't put them in your ear: About that time, he says, a friend of his was cleaning out his ear with a Q-Tip when the phone rang. Well, we won't go into any other details except to say that Q-Tips and telephones don't mix.