The Elements of Cooking

I recently finished reading the book Cooked by Michael Pollan. The book is divided into four sections, one for each classical element. In the book he points out something that I really had not thought much about in terms of cooking in relation to the elements of fire,water,air and earth. It was an excellent read, I got a lot out of it in terms of widening my perspective on how food impacts our lives. The relation to the elements was an interesting way to put different “lens” on and view the process of cooking through them. In the book there is a lot of eye opening information of how food impacts our health. The fact that we have become a nation of outsourcing the bulk of our cooking to corporations that don’t have our health as their top priority is something to consider. When one comes intimately in contact with food, from the raw ingredients to the final product there is a natural awareness and inclination to know more about what is going into our bodies.

Cooked also got me thinking a bit deeper of the trans-formative power of food ( on us and cultures of the world ) and the energy used to transform food. External energy of one source or another must be applied to food to “cook” it. Mostly we think of this in the form of applying heat to food, but it can also happen “cold” in the case of fermentation and slow chemical reactions that occur due to enzymes breaking down food.

A Stomach Outside the Body

At the most basic level cooking food is a type of digestion, a pre-digestion of food, that takes place outside of the body. According to the book Cooked, there is a theory out there that actually says that human evolution is tied to cooking. We humans have a small stomach relative to other primates who live on a diet of mostly raw vegetables and some raw meats. Our jaw is also smaller as we have evolved to mostly eat softer cooked food. Our brain is larger than other primates and there is a chance that it got that way because we learned to cook. The brain for it’s size consumes a lot of calories, energy required from food. By cooking food humans can extract the maximum amount of calories from it, helping us develop the way we did over evolutionary time. Other than carrying weapons and making tools, cooking gives us an edge over the other animals. Cooking also has the ability to make things that would be indigestible or even hazardous, this makes me think of tapioca, toxic before it is cooked. Cooking have opened up a new range of foods that were previously unavailable to humans in their raw form. Effectively humans learned how to build a stomach outside the body by using fire to cook and predigest meat and vegetables.

A Boost to Culture

Cooking also makes sense in the development of human culture. If we don’t have to forage all day, it leaves time for a culture to develop and frees some people up to specialize in activities, such as making more tools, value added products and other things that make life even easier. Eventually enough free time is left over for the arts, philosophy and etc. to develop, then we have a real culture, that starts to draw, illustrate it’s life and write down it’s ideas. At that point we go from pre-history to a history that has been passed on. The torch gets past from the archaeologist to the historian.

Culture within a Culture

There also would also be a culture that develops around food, as people would have gathered not only by the warmth of the fire, but for some warm food cooked over the fire. I am speculating here but, it is even possible that domesticated animals such as dogs and cats were at first attracted to the smell of food around our social gatherings, being less fearful of us and fire and were tamable enough to become our friends. Who knows, but it is a possibility.

Fire, Water, Air, Earth ( Grilling Chicken, Braising Pork, Irish Soda Bread and Fermenting Chaga)

Classical Elements

A cooking transformation is involved with all of the classical elements and I will  briefly look at each of them here and cover each element in more detail in forthcoming posts of this series.

  • Fire: Fire was the first element used by humans to cook. Humans most likely encountered fires set by lightning long before they learned to domesticate fire itself, then they captured it keeping it alive for a while and then finally figured out just how to start it whenever needed. Cooking anything, meat or plant, helps it become softer and it also breaks down the food on a microscopic level in a way that makes it nutritionally more available. Cooking with fire, especially slow cooking of meat, brings out the sweetness and mingles the smoke with the fat to create something sublime and irresistible. New flavors that were not there before come to full development.
  • Water: Cooking in water allows the molecules of the food to mingle and reactions to occur between the varied ingredients. This brings out a whole new set of flavors that is not possible by putting a hunk of meat on a fire. Water conducts heat well and allows for all the ingredients to be uniformly cooked. Finally because water can hold certain combinations of ingredients, it has place. Different dishes from all over the world stand out from each other by the fact that they have there unique combinations of ingredients and spices.
  • Air: Air as carbon dioxide in bread, produced as a metabolic waste of bread yeast, transforms something like dough, a ball of mud basically into a light fluffy bread with a hard crust. What a difference this made to people. Before bread there was only a type of gruel, grains cooked in water. With bread, you had a radically different thing, something dry. Something you could take with you, something you could put other food on, thanks to the Earl of Sandwich. It must have felt like magic. In fact, it still does, even though we know what makes it work today, the ins and out of microbes and all the reactions that make the browning of the crust just so good, it is still magic when a loaf comes out right.
  • Earth: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, all returns to the earth. The power of this transformation, of decay, harnessed and semi-controlled is what allows us to ferment foods. From beer and wine to sauerkraut, it all depends on these microbes that come from everywhere…“Everything is Everywhere”. This is a statement from the book that reminds us that the microbes are ready and waiting for something to feast on. Humans just have to provide the right conditions and care and feeding of the microbes and they will do their job. Helping to predigest to food that we will eat or produce the alcohol for our drinks that will preserve them for years. Recently I drank a long forgotten stout, that was still drinkable after 5-6 years, well preserved.