Before cooking, food was eaten raw, decayed, and putrefied. The human discovery of roasting remains unattributed, though Charles Lamb wrongly glamorized the story of the Chinese boy who accidentally burned down his hog shed and, in trying to save a well-barbecued piglet, discovered the glory of crackling . Raw , as anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss insisted, became a synonym for crude, imperfect, wild; cooked was refined and tasteful, beneficial and necessary for human work, family, and culture. Perhaps as long ago as 500,000 years, fire-cooking?and with it, that potent metaphor in the human mind blossomed.
With applied heat, the whole concept of food transmuted. Toxic and inedible roots became edible when baked; indigestible and unchewable parts of game became prized giblets. Anthropologists estimate that hunter-gatherer cooking doubled the kilocalories consumed per day (from 2,000 to 5,000) and may have subtly changed our genetic constitution; better-nourished consumers of cooked food produced more offspring.
At some unknown time our ancestors discovered that smoking preserved food more thoroughly than sun and wind, and steaming cooked the meat more thoroughly than charring the outside and leaving the inside blood blue. Smoking took the edge off seasonal starvation; humans could stash their jerky and explore with greater freedom. But the evolution of roasting and smoking into boiling, baking, and frying would require a new vision of humans as keepers and tenders of new utensils and controlled flames.
I think we began doing it because cooking improved flavor. Browning meat over an open fire makes flavors intense and sweet. Steaming, such as by wrapping food in clay (tandoori) or wet leaves, contains the moisture, preserves the delicacy of flavor and foods’ wonderful texture. (It receives the attention it deserves in the Asian kitchen; only in America is it looked upon as “simple.”)
Early cooking took place over the open fire, using what was at hand. Sticks, ashes, smoke, leaves, stones. Spits and pits. Only later, containers were used to cook food with fire. When wicker baskets could hold water, cooks could boil food by dropping hot stones into the water until it bubbled. After the invention of ceramics, cooks could boil and stew in pots right in the open fire.
5,000 years ago: The people of Ur (ancient Sumeria) were cooking bread in ovens. They burned simple fuels in the oven, then swept out the ashes and put the bread in; it baked in re-radiated heat from the oven walls. Much of the process of obtaining food, building a fire, and cooking remained the same, passed from generation to generation.
About 600 b.c.e.: Leviticus hints that pan frying (the use of vegetable oil to cook food) had been invented, complementing the styles of roasting/grilling, steaming/boiling, and baking. Frying would not become truly popular until the cast-iron pan.
About 300 years ago: A radical shift in iron technology; by the 1700s, cast iron (iron made with about 3 percent carbon) was used for stoves in Central Europe, but still primarily for heat, not cooking. Cooking remained separate in cast-iron troughs covered with grills fed by coal and charcoal, which replaced wood.
By 1802: Odorless natural gas joined wood and coal. It changed the taste and smell of meals. It powered the iron stove. The fuels for the flame became invisible, and, by the end of the century, would begin to disappear altogether.
By 1815: Home heating and cooking began to seriously merge. An iron cookstove was patented and in production, along with other stoves described as “suitable for families and ships.” (We forget that up to this point, cooking at sea also required an open hearth.) Fire, which had been a prominent part of the daily routine for thousands of years, was being enclosed and controlled. The direct and visible connection to the flame was disappearing, and the hearth, the heart of the home, was slowly vanishing.
By the 1860s: The fundamental way to cook, roasting by an open fire and baking on the floor of the oven (no pans), disappeared. Many complained bitterly about the loss of good crust on their bread, and how meat was not really roasted, but steamed, by the new stoves. It made no difference to the relentless progress in cooking methods.
The turn of the century: Just as gas and coal cooking ranges became common, the electric range appeared (featured in the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago), followed by canned soup and electric hot plates. By the 1920s, natural-gas and electric stoves were widely adopted for home use. In a radical move, stoves became white, a dramatic change from the black iron stove and sooty fireplaces, more modern and sanitary.
1946: In perhaps the most dramatic moment in cooking history since the first cooked meal, Percy Le Baron Spencer invented the microwave oven, which cooked food without a direct source of heat. In 1967, a compact version was sold for home use. Today, the majority of American homes have microwave ovens and our connection with cooking fire has been severed. While fire still remains for some of us in our backyard barbecues, many people today have no experience building a fire (and many barbecues have propane starters).
This was originally published in 2009 on Whole Earth Catalog.