Now that I am on a diet, I face the challenge each evening when I make dinner of somehow fooling my stomach into believing that it is eating food. Last night, I scored a signal success. I sliced a large Vidalia onion very thin, added to it a large red bell pepper julienned, and with nothing more than a bit of spray olive oil to keep the pan from sticking, sautéed it forever until the onion and the pepper all but melted, giving up their natural [non-fattening] sugars. It was delicious! As I lingered over the dish, my mind turned to fire [we have a gas stove]. I began to wonder about the extraordinary range of practical information that is presupposed by the simple act of cooking dinner. [I have the feeling I am channeling Claude Levi-Strauss, but that is neither here nor there.]
Think about how many different and not at all intuitively obvious bits of knowledge someone must have to get the idea of making a fire and cooking food. Let us start with fire. Early humans [and pre-hominids as well, as they are called] "had fire," as the saying goes. Where did they get it from? Almost certainly, Jane Neanderthal, as we may refer to her, first saw fire when lightning strikes sparked conflagrations in dry forests or grasslands. She and her fellow Neanderthal probably noticed four things about this strange phenomenon: it was hot, it was bright and shiny and flickering, it scared away animals, even large and dangerous animals, and it hurt if you touched it. How long [and how many times] did it take before someone had the idea of picking up a burning stick and waving it to scare animals? How much longer before someone discovered that you could bring a burning stick back to your cave or camp and use it to light other sticks, creating a stable fire? [This simple fact, which is obvious to all of us, actually involves a number of conceptual leaps]. How much longer did it take to discover that in getting a fire going from a glowing ember or a slowly burning bit of wood, you must gather twigs and bark and little bits of wood first before throwing on the logs? How much longer again to discover that a glowing ember can be carried from campsite to campsite and used to re-created a fire? And, the very biggest leap thus far, by what act of inventive genius did someone discover that one could create new fire by striking flints against one another? [Not just any two stones, but flint stones.] We are not yet anywhere near the idea of cooked food, and already we have an enormous fund of collective knowledge, much of it presumably discovered and rediscovered countless times in countless places over a period of a million years.
It is possible to imagine how the idea of cooking meat was discovered. [As I talk about the discovery of facts that all of us so much take for granted that we find it hard to conceive of them as having ever been discovered, I am reminded of a lovely moment in the John Travolta film, Michael. Travolta plays a rather overweight angel come to Earth, where he does this, that, and the other with Andie MacDowell, William Hurt, and Bob Hoskins. Travolta (the angel Michael) remarks in passing that he invented standing in line. Up 'til then, everyone just bunched up and crowded around. The charm of the line lies in our sudden realization that standing in line, like every other social act, must have been invented at some time or other.] But back to cooking. An animal laid low by the fire and partially burned would be a tasty bit of food for a hungry band of early humans wandering the savannah, and it might occur to them to take freshly killed prey and put it on the fire. But how did anyone think up the idea of taking a gourd used to carry water, putting it on the fire, boiling water in it, and then cooking plants and nuts and bits of grain in it to make soup?
Looking backwards, we understand the great advantageous of cooked food. Cooking breaks plant materials and flesh down, making them digestible. The advent of cooking enormously expands the range of possible foods, never mind the improved taste.
All of this, and a great deal more, flashed through my mind as I lingered over the onion and pepper dish I had created. It struck me as a very powerful example of the deep truth set forth in the first paragraph of the Credo that I wrote and posted on this blog a long time ago:
"We human beings live in this world by thoughtfully, purposefully, intelligently transforming nature so that it will satisfy our needs and our desires. We call this activity of transforming nature "production," and it is always, everywhere, inescapably a collective human activity. Every moment that we are alive we are relying on what those before us have discovered or invented or devised. There is no technique, however primitive, that is the invention of one person alone. Like it or not, we are all in this life together. Even those giants of industry who think of themselves as self-made men are completely dependent for their empire building upon the collective knowledge and practice of the entire human species."