From Fuel to Fine Art

Food’s wild ride in human culture

Somehow, humans went from scrabbling roots and berries and munching bark to inventing cauliflower ice cream, cucumber gelée, oscietre caviar and piedmont hazelnuts and making it look like this:

cauliflower ice crem

Cauliflower ice cream, cucumber gelée, oscietre caviar and piedmont hazelnuts by @helenedarroze. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

We progressed from homo erectus stripping elephant carcasses on the African plains to homo sapiens like chef April Bloomfield who takes a slab of cow, goes into her kitchen, and returns with this:

steak

Woodgrilled Denver steak with roasted ramps. (Photo from April Bloomfield’s Instagram / @aprilbloomfield)

Humans, when given an opportunity to make art, tend to go for it—even if the raw artistic materials are animal body parts and miscellaneous objects pulled from the dirt.

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Sirloin Steak with Shiso Scallion Mashed Potatoes from Eating Richly. (eatingrichly.com)

Or off trees and bushes:

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Mangoes, figs and blueberries. (Photo from Chef Lauren Von Der Pool’s Instagram / @queenofgreen)

We came across an interesting theory posited by Harvard professor of biological anthropology and noted primatologist (he studied with Jane Goodall) Dr. Richard W. Wrangham in his 2009 book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. The thesis states that, around 1.8-ish million years ago, early humans used fire to cook animal flesh—most likely the first cooked meat was either an accident (someone dropped an auroch leg in the fire) or by coincidence (someone found an auroch carcass burned in a wildfire and was brave enough to taste it—deliciousness ensued).

Herein lies the evolutionary turning point we took to become modern humans. But how? According to Wrangham, cooking released more nutrients in the food and boosted our energy by making those nutrients much easier to digest and decreasing our chewing time to about an hour a day versus 6-10 hours a day. (Note: the 6-10 hour a day chewing investment is based on how much time our great ape cousins, gorilla and chimpanzee, spend masticating their raw food diets today.)

This energy boost coupled with the new free time we had gave us the window to grow bigger brains—and now we had the cooked food to feed that big brain. Eating cooked food improved our immunity to disease because we had more nutrition and gave us more baby-making power because we were more robust. This flashpoint—cooking our food instead of eating it raw—launched the dietary change that would revolutionize our biological evolution.

We changed. Small brains and big guts evolved to really small guts and teeth compared to the size of our huge brains. Thanks to cooked food over a millennia and some change, we morphed. Today, as Wrangham notes, modern humans are adapted to eat cooked food (a talking point he uses as his number one argument against current raw food diet trends.)

For early humans, roasting meat became the norm and people in southern France—France plays a rather large role in the evolution of cooking to an art form—learned to steam food in wet leaves in the Paleolithic period. The results of cooking were so good, humans started to experiment, using the developing imagination function of our growing and ultra-fueled brains. A crude form of bread appeared as cracked grass kernels mixed with water and toasted on hot stones. In time, humans would invent earthenware pottery, and, as they say, we were off to the races evolutionarily with our cooking techniques and handful of devices for aiding in the cooking process.

So, a million-plus years ago, humans had cooking techniques, tools, and imagination—everything they needed to eventually get to a fine-dining world and the emergence of the phrase #foodporn. All it would take would be plant cultivation, domestication of animals and several thousand years of cross-cultural exploration and exchange to trade foodstuffs (how else would Britain ever get anything awesome like avacados and chiles, and we can pretty much thank China for getting it right with the art of food about four thousand years before Christ).

Pleasant Living, the first recorded cookbook, appeared in 4 B.C., written by Archestratus, a Greek, and it’s fun to note that a cook won the first Olympic footrace about 700 years before Archestratus was born. As the centuries passed, humans discovered, cultivated and invented a number of extraordinary culinary attributes that we pretty much take for granted today: farms, livestock, cups and plates, forks and knives, coffee (praise!), drinking chocolate from cacao beans that became eating chocolate (more praise!), booze, vending machines, crude stoves that paved the way for ranges, spice cultivation (which definitely had its dark side, ahem, European colonization), canning, refrigeration, flash freezing, and, solely in the United States, the invention of chewing gum.

Because of cooking’s influence on human evolution and culture, hotels, pubs, cafes and coffeehouses also became a part of the human world, as did cooking competitions, the codification of cooking into “cuisine,” which really is what differentiates between the cook and the chef. So enamored and involved are we with cooking, cuisine, food symbolism and cultural traditions around food that we had to invent one word, “gastronomy,” (originally “gastronomie,” en francais) that would encapsulate the gamut of what we mean when we’re talking about the whole field of food and food history.

As with any art form, presentation and effect are key. Art must move the soul or it is not art. Thus: plating. Here we have the presentation and effect of the food to tantalize the soul to move; if properly engaged by the way the food looks on the plate, the flavors should close the deal, making a meal transform into a work of art.

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Octopus, beetroot, and amaranth by @lvin1stbite. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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Ribbons of dark chocolate ganache, pistachio cake, pistachio ice cream, mint, and candied preserved lemons by @nick_muncy. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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Furikake granola, whipped foie gras, raw buttermilk, pumpkin vichyssoise, african olive fruit, and anise hyssop by @brad_kilgore. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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Wagyu and mushroom glass by @martinbennsepia. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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Blueberry sugar globe with lemon jam, violet cream, blueberry compote, and blueberry yogurt sorbet on the inside by @chefsmartone. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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White onion, charcoal mayo, red cress, and onion cream by @connorjlowrey. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

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Monkfish tataki w/ salted plum puree, chives, and olive oil spheres by @tadashi_takayama. (Photo from The Art of Plating on Instagram / @theartofplating)

Like food? Love gastronomy? Well, guess who’s coming to give us one heck of a food show—Alton Brown with his Eat Your Science tour, April 21.

We love food, too, and are always looking for neat foodie Instagrams and chefs doing the deal with the artistry of food. If you have some foodie blogs or Instagrams you follow, let us know in the comments below.