Saturday, January 13, 2007

Origins of Chefs?


Mankind, says a Chinese manuscript, which my friend M. was obliging enough to read and explain to me, for the first seventy thousand ages ate their meat raw, clawing or biting it from the living animal, just as they do in Abyssinia to this day. This period is not obscurely hinted at by their great Confucius in the second chapter of his Mundane Mutations, where he designates a kind of golden age by the term Cho-fang, literally the Cooks' holiday. The manuscript goes on to say, that the art of roasting, or rather broiling (which I take to be the elder brother) was accidentally discovered in the manner following. The swine-herd, Ho-ti, having gone out into the woods one morning, as his manner was, to collect mast for his hogs, left his cottage in the care of his eldest son Bo-bo, a great lubberly boy, who being fond of playing with fire, as younkers of his age commonly are, let some sparks escape into a bundle of straw, which kindling quickly, spread the conflagration over every part of their poor mansion, till it was reduced to ashes. Together with the cottage (a sorry antediluvian make-shift of a building, you may think it), what was of much more importance, a fine litter of new-farrowed pigs, no less than nine in number, perished. China pigs have been esteemed a luxury all over the east from the remotest periods that we read of. Bo-bo was in the utmost consternation, as you may think, not so much for the sake of the tenement, which his father and he could easily build up again with a few dry branches, and the labour of an hour or two, at any time, as for the loss of the pigs. While he was thinking what he should say to his father, and wringing his hands over the smoking remnants of one of those untimely sufferers, an odour assailed his nostrils, unlike any scent which he had before experienced. What could it proceed from? -- not from the burnt cottage -- he had smelt that smell before -- indeed this was by no means the first accident of the kind which had occurred through the negligence of this unlucky young fire-brand. Much less did it resemble that of any known herb, weed, or flower. A premonitory moistening at the same time overflowed his nether lip. He knew not what to think. He next stooped down to feel the pig, if there were any signs of life in it. He burnt his fingers, and to cool them he applied them in his booby fashion to his mouth. Some of the crums of the scorched skin had come away with his fingers, and for the first time in his life (in the world's life indeed, for before him no man had known it) he tasted -- crackling!
-- Charles Lamb

Essays by Elia, 1823

Please follow the link to enjoy the further speculations of Mr Lamb, an essayist noted for his "talent to amuse", as Noel Coward called it.

Victors write history. So when they tell us how bad times used to be before this piracy or that, it behooves us to reach for the salt cellar as we attend their graceful, honeyed words.
Most of us have been told that pre-agricultural peoples led lives "nasty, brutish and short" as Hobbs described it. No doubt, some did. But others lived very well, better in fact than we, as some argue. The Wikipedia offers this in mitigation:
At the 1966 "Man the Hunter" conference, anthropologists Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore suggested that egalitarianism was one of several central characteristics of nomadic hunting and gathering societies because mobility requires minimization of material possessions throughout a population; therefore, there was no surplus of resources to be accumulated by any single member. Other characteristics Lee and DeVore proposed were flux in territorial boundaries as well as in demographic composition. At the same conference, Marshall Sahlins presented a paper entitled, "Notes on the Original Affluent Society," in which he challenged the popular view of hunter-gatherers living lives "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short," as Thomas Hobbes had put it in 1651. According to Sahlins, ethnographic data indicated that hunter-gatherers worked far fewer hours and enjoyed more leisure than typical members of industrial society, and they still ate well. Their "affluence" came from the idea that they are satisfied with very little in the material sense. This, he said, constituted a Zen economy.
Except in very rich coastal areas -- the Pacific North West is one such -- hunter-gatherers moved about following both flora and fauna. Both were diverse and not all were good to eat. (test yourself here) Because the sustenance was not concentrated, the land supported fewer people than agricultural land does. Surviving the first few years was very hard, as nature winnowed its profligacy to find those best able to survive. But the few who did survive lived well and long. They worked fewer hours per day than we do in order to meet their basic needs. They had few possessions to encumber them. As a small group of 10 to 30 individuals there was little sense to creating hierarchy, and every incentive to honor merit, eg.: who knows what this fungus is for? Eating or poisoning? The hunter-gather way of life was our species way of life for millions of years.
About 8,000 to 12,000 years ago the first, and greatest, pirates came up with the great wheeze of an individual owning land. No doubt they did this by knocking anybody who challenged their assertion on the head with a suitable rock -- or even fore-shadowed the pincushion by filling challengers full of arrows. Once land was owned, it -- and its residents -- were forced into the chains of servitude. Both the land and the people tied to it, either by kinship or conquest, had to produce a surplus large enough to support the chief and his thugs -- who were so necessary then, as now, to provide national security. Farming takes a lot more work than hunting or gathering. Farming forces changes in diet and approach. Food is not for today with maybe a bone to gnaw before the start of tomorrow's hunt. Food to a farmer is how much grain is in the bin. Grain? Yes, the seeds from that grass the cows and goats chew and chew and chew. Storing food demands containers. It demands tools such as knapped flint sickles and wooden flails to separate the all but inedible grain from the quite inedible chaff and stalk. It demands heat resistant, water proof containers to boil the grain into something people can eat. Or it requires bloody great stones to grind the kernels into a flour which can be baked in an oven to make bread -- unleavened crackers at first then sourdoughs with the serendipity of wild yeast.
But this gets in advance of Mr Lamb's point. I respectfully disagree with his authority's assertion that it was burning down a house that first introduced crackling. Rather it might have something to do with the mystical symbiosis of man and fire. At what point did someone realize that this tremendous destructive force, which drove all creatures before it, could be controlled - even tamed. Ever try to make fire by rubbing two sticks together? It's damn hard. Yet somebody thought it up, tried it, and had the patience to make it work. Perhaps the first cooked meat -- and vegetables-- came by accident after a wild fire. There were the animals caught and "burned". A rare treat -- an early instance of good coming from ill. But actual premeditated cooking requires the contol of fire. That would be the most basic definition of cooking: the chemical alteration of food by heat.
I would argue that you don't farm without control of fire. So the first cooking occurred to the hunter-gatherers. Perhaps after a successful mammoth hunt. So much food! More than the tribe can eat today -- or tomorrow! But why leave it to the scavengers? What if we threw pieces in the fire. Oh! Shit! Not the fat. Not the fat! Holy cow how that flares! and later: What's this hard stuff? It had mud all over it, but now it's so dry and hard.
Control of fire also opens the world of clay. Ovens can be kilns as well. Later they can be smelters. But I have no doubt that the fastidious were with us even so long ago. The dirt studded morsel did not pass as civilized. What would be the simplest solution? A stick? skewer a gobbet of flesh on the end of a stick and hold it over the flames 'til done.
Something to consider on your next hot dog roast.
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