Bap­tism of fire

Smith Journal - - Opinion - Writer Oliver Pelling




Be­fore me, en­gulfed in a pa­per-cupped for­est of soda and sides, lies a ti­tanic tray of smoked beef and crunchy, caramelised burnt ends. If bar­be­cue is a re­li­gion, I’ve made it to the Promised Land. “How’s the brisket?” asks a friend. I’ve no words. Just grunts.

Restau­rants like Joe’s have given Kansas City a rep­u­ta­tion as the melt­ing pot (or smok­ing pit) of the coun­try’s best bar­be­cue. This is where you go to taste the widest range of bar­be­cue in one place. Else­where, in North Carolina, folks don’t get out of bed for any­thing other than pork shoul­der and whole hog. In Ten­nessee, Mem­phis wears the prize apron for its ‘dry’ (sans-sauce) pork ribs. In Ken­tucky, mut­ton’s on the menu. Alabama loves chicken. St. Louis, Mis­souri does spare ribs. In Texas, it’s all about beef, sausages, and min­i­mal (if any) sauce.

All this in mind, you’d be for­given for think­ing that bar­be­cue is an Amer­i­can in­ven­tion. And, if you were to pick a ran­dom bar­be­cue en­thu­si­ast from any of the afore­men­tioned places, chances are they’d tell you that for some­thing to be ‘bar­be­cued’ it must be smoked over wood, low and slow, for a num­ber of hours. Every­thing else is grilling, they’ll say. But where does this cav­a­lier at­ti­tude leave other coun­tries, such as Aus­tralia, where the na­tional pride of the hum­ble ‘bar­bie’ re­quires lit­tle more than pok­ing a few snags around a hot­plate for 15 min­utes? Are Aus­tralians not wor­thy of their bar­be­cue aprons?

Few Amer­i­cans have been brave enough to con­vey to their coun­try­men and women that, ac­tu­ally, many other cul­tures around the world have their own bar­be­cue tra­di­tions. But self-pro­fessed ‘bar­be­cue whis­perer’ Meat­head Gold­wyn (who de­clined to pro­vide his real name) isn’t afraid to wield the tongs of truth. “Much of Amer­ica has this im­pres­sion that bar­be­cue is as na­tive to Amer­ica as jazz,” he chuck­les over the phone from his home in Chicago. “And it’s not! Bar­be­cue is multi­na­tional. It’s in­ter­na­tional. It’s uni­ver­sal.”

The edi­tor and owner of Amaz­, a web­site ded­i­cated to the science of bar­be­cue, Gold­wyn has spent much of his life study­ing the his­tory and craft of cook­ing with fire. What Amer­ica may have in­vented, Gold­wyn con­tests, is South­ern bar­be­cue – the act of cook­ing meat low and slow over var­i­ous types of wood. “It’s a won­der­ful cui­sine,” he says. “And some­thing Amer­i­cans can claim as our own. But cook­ing over flame was around for a long time be­fore we turned up.”

And he’s not talk­ing about the Mayflower: cook­ing with fire started even be­fore Homo sapi­ens was walk­ing the earth. In fact, some an­thro­pol­o­gists now be­lieve our an­cient an­ces­tors’ dis­cov­ery of bar­be­cue may have led to a break­through in the evo­lu­tion of our species. Richard Wrang­ham is a pro­fes­sor of bi­o­log­i­cal an­thro­pol­ogy at Har­vard Univer­sity and the lead­ing pro­po­nent of a the­ory he calls ‘the Cook­ing Hy­poth­e­sis’. His book, Catch­ing Fire: How Cook­ing Made Us Hu­man, ar­gues the dis­cov­ery of cook­ing helped our an­cient an­ces­tors un­lock more en­ergy from their food by mak­ing it eas­ier to di­gest. This even­tu­ally led to them de­vel­op­ing smaller teeth, smaller jaws, a smaller gut and, most im­por­tantly, larger brains.

And that’s not all – cook­ing also af­forded our an­ces­tors more time to ded­i­cate to other, higher-minded ven­tures, as they no longer needed to spend as much time for­ag­ing, and didn’t have to ex­pel as much metabolic en­ergy try­ing to di­gest those tougher raw foods. (Chim­panzees, by con­trast, spend most of their time for­ag­ing, chew­ing and di­gest­ing what they eat, and have not once in­vented the wheel.)


Meat wasn’t the only item on the menu, ei­ther. While the gro­cery lists of our an­cient an­ces­tors are dif­fi­cult to know for cer­tain, we need only look at mod­ern hunter-gath­erer tribes for a good in­di­ca­tion of what an an­cient diet might have looked like. “With African hunter-gath­er­ers, the ma­jor­ity of the diet comes from plants,” Wrang­ham ex­plains over the phone. The idea of our ‘nat­u­ral’ diet as a meat-heavy calo­rie-fest might then be quite far from the truth.

Cu­ri­ously, very lit­tle airtime had been given to bar­be­cue as a means of evo­lu­tion­ary progress un­til Wrang­ham came along – even Charles Dar­win didn’t touch it. To bet­ter un­der­stand how he cooked up his bold hy­poth­e­sis you’ll need to cast your highly evolved mind back some 2.5 mil­lion years.

Pic­ture the scene: ev­ery­one is naked. A bunch of pre-hu­man, chimp-like Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus are walk­ing around like they own the place. They’re proud as punch be­cause they’ve just fig­ured out that by eat­ing raw meat they can ac­cess more nu­tri­ents, grow big­ger brains, and be­gin their as­cent to Homo ha­bilis: an al­to­gether more hu­man-like species, and pos­si­bly even the miss­ing link be­tween apes and hu­mans.

Then, around 1.9 mil­lion years ago, some Homo ha­bilis (still naked) evolved into Homo erec­tus – a species even closer to present-day Homo sapi­ens. They looked like us, walked and ran like us and, most in­ter­est­ingly to Wrang­ham, had smaller jaws, teeth, and guts – all of which in­di­cates a switch to an eas­ily di­gestible, high-qual­ity diet. Un­til Wrang­ham came along, the pri­mary ex­pla­na­tion had been that both of these jumps in evo­lu­tion were trig­gered by eat­ing raw meat. But with that, says Wrang­ham, you’re ask­ing one thing – eat­ing raw meat

– to ac­count for two sep­a­rate shifts in our evo­lu­tion. It just doesn’t make sense. Cook­ing, he ar­gues, is the only log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion.

There’s an­other bar­be­cu­ing myth Wrang­ham wants to dis­pel, too: the over­whelm­ingly ma­cho im­age of the bar­be­cuer. In fact, the world’s first pit­mas­ters – the first peo­ple to reg­u­larly cook with fire – were very likely women. It’s thought that while women would bring home their fair share of for­aged food, men would typ­i­cally do the hunt­ing, and bring it back for the women to cook.

This, Wrang­ham says, may have led to the de­vel­op­ment of the nu­clear fam­ily as we know it. Thanks to the smoke and smells emit­ted from all this new-fan­gled cook­ing, it sud­denly be­came very ob­vi­ous to any­one nearby that there was food up for grabs. And grab they would. “It sounds very harsh,” Wrang­ham says. “But you see that sort of be­hav­iour in chim­panzees all the time. They will just take food from each other.” A woman cook­ing on her own didn’t stand much chance against a hun­gry preda­tor look­ing to snatch her din­ner. Thus, the the­ory goes, a man would help pro­tect the cook in ex­change for a share of the feed. “To me, the ‘theft hy­poth­e­sis’ makes sense in terms of the evo­lu­tion of so­cial re­la­tion­ships in hu­mans,” Wrang­ham says. “It’s sim­ply a sen­si­ble col­lab­o­ra­tion.”

De­spite Wrang­ham’s claims, it’s quite dif­fi­cult to find ev­i­dence of fire – much less cook­ing (and much, much less gen­der-based labour di­vi­sions) – from nearly two mil­lion years ago. But what­ever the ar­chae­ol­ogy says, there’s no dis­put­ing the fact that through­out hu­man his­tory, cook­ing with fire has been a piv­otal ac­tiv­ity. It’s one of the things that sep­a­rates us from all other an­i­mals. Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians were cer­tainly one of the old­est sur­viv­ing cul­tures – per­haps the old­est – to have har­nessed the ben­e­fits of cook­ing. An­cient Greeks cooked sou­vlakis as early as 1600 B.C.E. In New Zealand, an­cient Maori hangi sites – a type of un­der­ground oven fu­elled by red-hot rocks – have been dated back to 1280 C.E. And the Me­dieval English used small, specif­i­cally bred ‘turn­spit dogs’ to help turn their ro­tis­series (un­for­tu­nately, this is not where the term ‘hot dog’ comes from).

China, mean­while, brought char siu to the party; the Ja­pa­nese, yak­i­tori. The South Africans gave us braai while the Span­ish were busy spin­ning le­chon. The Ja­maicans were per­fect­ing their jerk while the Mon­go­lians gifted bodog, a method of cook­ing meat by plac­ing hot stones in­side an an­i­mal’s car­cass. And in Amer­ica, en­slaved Africans (who only had ac­cess to cheaper, tougher cuts of meat) drew on Na­tive Amer­i­can tech­niques to de­velop the low-and-slow process, which we can now con­fi­dently re­fer to as South­ern bar­be­cue. Hal­lelu­jah.

In­deed, whether you agree that bar­be­cue goes back some two mil­lion years or not, the ev­i­dence sug­gests that at least hun­dreds of thou­sands of years of cook­ing over flame have made a de­li­cious dif­fer­ence to our DNA. Per­haps that’s why, de­spite the in­ven­tion of in­creas­ingly con­ve­nient cook­ing gad­gets, we still do it. It’s a cel­e­bra­tion – of the week­end, the week­night, of what­ever it is we de­cide to cel­e­brate. It en­ables us to con­nect with our an­cient an­ces­tors and our pri­mal selves. And most im­por­tantly, let’s not for­get the cru­cial rea­son those an­ces­tors of ours con­tin­ued to cook with fire af­ter they first dis­cov­ered it: it just tastes bet­ter.

So how was the brisket? If you must know, it was pos­i­tively species-defin­ing.

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