March 2008

Arts & Letters

Cooking brains

By Gay Bilson
Martin Jones’ ‘Feast’

Near the beginning of William Golding's 1955 novel The Inheritors, an old woman makes fire, opening a ball of clay, placing it over an old patch of the same and breathing on it. She places twigs, leaves and rotting organic material on the clay and blows again. "She began to work the wet clay with her fingers, tidying the edges so that now the fire sat in the middle of a shallow dish. Then she stood up and spoke to them. ‘The fire is awake again.'"

Golding's fictional small community of Neanderthals uses an extremely limited language (his extraordinary literary achievement was to craft such a moving story from such unpromising material), eats together, has a primitive hierarchical social structure and buries its dead. When Ha and Liku are captured by a strange and frighteningly different "white-faced" (that is, less hairy-faced) social group - who not only make fire and cook meat but use logs as rafts, build shelters and create images - Lok and Fa attempt to rescue them. Lok, heroic, struggles to communicate his "pictures", his problem-solving and imaginative ideas, to the others. He will die, and the two Neanderthals who have been captured by the early Homo sapiens might, the reader is allowed to suppose, genetically mingle with them.

We modern readers of novels have very large brains (some 2 million years ago, our earliest ancestor, Homo erectus, had a brain 50% larger than his predecessor, Homo habilis). We have, in the evolutionary scheme of things, weak jaws, small teeth and, compared to, say, a ruminant such as a cow, a tiny gut or digestive system. Compared to all other species, we spend a lot of time self-consciously thinking about food, but far less time making a meal of life.

A report in a recent Scientific American (not my usual monthly reading, but pointed out by a friend) describes a hypothesis of the biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham. Wrangham reckons that it was cooking which stimulated human evolution, providing the brain with so much more energy than raw foods could. A large number of archaeologists think he is wrong. Cooking is one of two kinds of predigestion (the other is natural fermentation, or controlled rotting, of foodstuffs: acorns long ago, soy now). Wrangham's theory requires evidence of controlled fire and some kind of prototype hearth in the same period as the first appearance of Homo erectus, but most bio-archaeologists agree that cooking is only 500,000 years old.

The time scale provided by those who study prehistory from site to laboratory is something of an antidote to the Yeatsian "casual comedy" of daily life. I recently picked pretty, fat yellow chillies from a large, healthy plant, identifying them through books and the web as a variety of the species Rocoto (Capsicum pubescens). This Manzano chilli was known to the Incas 5000 years ago. It is marvellously fleshy, quite large and full-flavoured, as well as being very hot. Dredging through a drawer of dried grains, I chose to cook the last of the quinoa and to make a salad of this, adding the diced chillies. It was a simple, expedient and, by lovely accident, logical combination because we also know that the Incas harvested quinoa as well as the Manzano chilli. I am not fool enough to see this serendipitous choice of ingredients as anything more than happenstance, but it was satisfying to have used them together as they may have been used 5000 years, or a blink, ago.

Thirty years after The Inheritors, William Golding was commissioned to write a book about Egypt. In An Egyptian Journal, he wrote: "Even the archaeologists were not what I had supposed. For instead of being the rational creatures I had anticipated, they were as crazily imaginative and as well disposed to the Mystery as any child could have wished." Martin Jones is a Cambridge bio-archaeologist who is also a fine writer. He is familiar with molecular samples from a wide selection of digs; as a scientist he identifies, verifies, dates and interprets materials and nano-samples using technology which Schliemann and Carter could not have imagined and which means nothing to most of us. Being "crazily imaginative", he has constructed a narrative of the meal (Feast is surely the craven publisher's catchy choice of title, for it is the shared meal which is central to Jones's argument) which begins 500,000 years ago at the Boxgrove site, near Chichester, in England. This narrative is necessarily discontinuous, monstrously so, but covers the major evolutionary and cultural steps which have culminated in family groups sitting in one row, facing a television screen and eating. Jones is refreshingly non-judgemental about the disappearance of the table, about everyone facing away from each other and towards an image while they chew, and if this tableau is the new campfire, then it is simply the temporary cul-de-sac of his narrative.

In an early, central chapter in Feast: Why Humans Share Food (Oxford University Press, 364pp; $65), ‘Fire, Cooking, and Growing a Brain', Jones examines the archaeological evidence from the Abric Romaní rock shelter, in Capellades, Spain. It has been dated to 46,000 years ago. This is roughly the period when Neanderthals ceded to Homo sapiens sapiens, modern man. As with each of his singular examples, he posits a fictional scene and meal, a kind of tableau vivant of our ancestors, followed by a marvellously lucid account of the site and the evidence from which he has built his description. These expositions are enthralling to the lay reader. At Abric Romaní, in Jones's hypothetical reconstruction of the scene, one group has gathered with fuel for the fire and the leg of a wild horse. There is a hierarchy of domestic activity: the hair of some is deloused by others, the grandmother tends the fire (just as Golding's fictional old woman was in charge of the fire) and a hunter chips at one of his flints. An old man sucks at a tender piece of meat because his teeth have either fallen out or are too worn to use. Raw meat is still preferred, but increasingly the people like flesh which has been cooked. As well as the meat, there are seeds which need to soften through soaking; also hazelnuts, walnuts and wild olives. The community is made up of similar groups, the meat of the horse having been shared between them. Each group faces their own fire rather than each other.

The hearth is central to the evidence at this site, and where there is a hearth there is cooking: "At whatever point fire did actually come under hominid control, the implications were enormous, for the environment, human society, human biology, and in the preparation of food." But, Jones writes, "It is not entirely clear how much these ancient biological functions [taste and smell] are being deceived by the art of cooking." Heat caramelises the surface of meat and prompts a positive response. It can soften and enhance the flavour of seeds, or change their chemical composition. Jones posits that there may have been curiosity about taste, that "the driving force [behind cooking] was experimentation with flavour, and an attraction to those flavours might or might not coincide with nutritional benefits."

But cooking prompts something else which is vital to our idea of ourselves: sharing and a sense of community, and sharing is pivotal to the development of language. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss suggested that food is "good to think". The literary and cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin thought that sharing food is the expression of culture over nature, that "digestion and dialogue" have a primal connection. In the early nineteenth century, Brillat-Savarin, in La Physiologie du goût, wrote, "Cooking is also of all the arts the one which has done most to advance our civilisation, for the needs of the kitchen were what first taught us to use fire, and it is by fire that man has tamed Nature itself." And the sociologist Michael Symons, in The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks: The Story of Cooking in Civilisation and Daily Life (1998), puts the emphasis on the cook herself: "I pin our humanity on the cooks. All the suggested abilities - free hands, nimble fingers, clever brains, extended child-care, domestic partnerships, stone cutters, fire and so on - can be bundled up as the many talents of the cook."

Martin Jones does not cite the gastronomic texts (Brillat-Savarin and Symons) in his bibliography, yet he is presenting us with similar hypotheses and explanations. The tools he uses to recount the history of the meal are those of a scientist who has become, because he has a big brain, an accidental gastronomer.

Gay Bilson
Gay Bilson is a writer, literary critic and former Sydney restaurateur. Her books include Plenty: Digressions on Food and On Digestion.

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