Baptism of fire
COULD THE SIMPLE BARBECUE HAVE SET US ON OUR EVOLUTIONARY PATH AND ENSURED THE SURVIVAL OF OUR SPECIES AS WE KNOW IT? SOME ANTHROPOLOGISTS SAY ‘YES’, AND ‘YUM’.
JOE’S KANSAS CITY BAR-B-QUE, KANSAS. THE AIR IS THICK WITH THE STINK OF SLOW-SMOKED MEAT OF VARIOUS SHAPES, SIZES AND SPECIES.
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 AmazingRibs.com, 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.)
LITTLE AIRTIME HAS BEEN GIVEN TO BARBECUE AS A MEANS OF EVOLUTIONARY PROGRESS – EVEN CHARLES DARWIN DIDN’T TOUCH IT.
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.