I was thinking just the other night…and from I know not where entered into my mind those old familiar issues of institution, standardization, and convention. This time they asked, “How might you symbolize us, and of what might you make an icon most representative of our natures?” This I pondered momentarily, though really no thought transpired at all, and i thought, cooking with fire. That fire which was first harnessed by humankind some one hundred thousand years ago. Here I see the first sign of the human proclivity for standard, convention, and institutionalization. Here I see the first great instrument of our processing of all that we engage both physically and metaphysically. Here first we take the proper and respective conditions of various materials and shape them in a way which makes less manifold the ways in which we must be prepared to receive them. Here first we attain a delusion of control, hence mastery over nature, hence security. And it is here first that we are also confronted with the aspects of institution, standardization, and convention which process us…which make us less manifold, which begin to reduce our pliability, our dexterity, our vision, our resilience.
Fire cooks…But what does this mean…to cook? This question is first, the question which proceeds this is, where does the process begin and end? But lest we get ahead of ourselves, let us return to what it means to cook and what the relationship of fire is to cooking. When one says that fire cooks what is really being stated is that through the application of heat to material the properties of that material may be altered. To reduce this statement yet again we may say that when one says that fire cooks, what is really being stated is that through the application of energy to matter the properties of that matter may be altered. Fire is convenient to humanity because it allows humanity to alter a material’s properties. Several questions arise though. Why is this phenomenon useful to humanity? What are the changes made to the material that are viewed as beneficial? Of the process of employing fire itself, what role does the exact nature of using a particular application of fire have on effecting materials? Here we shall begin and work back through the questions.
According to our definition of what it is to cook, we understand the application of fire to be the application of energy. The question of form of energy becomes important. Fire, after all, is just one manifestation of energy. Specifically, when we speak of fire we are talking about 1, the production of heat and light through the dissolution of matter on a molecular level, and 2, the control of this phenomenon. By control, what is meant is that the commencement, cessation, spread of, amount, duration, and intensity of heat and light produced are not random but orchestrated by the laws of physics and, we hope, humanity’s mastery of fire in some fashion or another. This heat and/or light then, when applied to another material, changes certain aspects of its structure. But to say that we cook through application of fire and then to describe what fire is only reveals part of the phenomenon taking place. After all, the heat/light, i.e. radiant energy applied to the material can be applied in different ways. The heat and light can be applied directly by insertion of the material into the actual environ of combustion. The combustion can be kept separated from the material. The duration of time of exposure and degree of intensity can be varied. All of these change the effect of the application. Then in summary, we can say that to use fire to cook is an action actually comprised of two separate but interrelated actions. The first is the controlled generation of heat and light. The second is the means by which the material to be cooked is subjected to the fire.
Next, the issue of why cooking with fire is desirable to humanity…What are the desirable effects of the application of fire … or of salting? First, we extend the usable life expectancy of the food. It’s increased durability is a result of having made it a less hospitable home to micro-organisms and less susceptible to decay due to moisture and heat. Furthermore, the more a food is cooked the more resistant to decay of any sort it becomes. If a food is fired until it is very nearly char…or chemically altered to an extreme like salted meat…it lasts almost indefinitely. But its nutritional value tends to be inversely proportional to its ability to resist decay. So the most inert food also tends to be of the least value biologically…even to the point of being dangerous or unhealthy. This ability to prolong the shelf-life of food is obviously one of the underpinnings of human civilization. It is a necessary building block for any kind of advanced societal structure and for the ability to travel into the unknown.
There is a negative aspect to this process though. If the nutritional value of a food stuff decreases inversely to the amount of cooking or chemical treatment it has undergone, the more cooked food one eats and the more one cooks food before eating it, the more one has to consume to maintain the same intake of nutrients. (For a contemporary example, think of how a person can eat heavily processed ‘junk’ food in massive quantities but actually be suffering from malnutrition.)
Again, think of the value of non-perishable food stuffs as vital to the ability to explore. The more one is dependent on these non-perishables the more one has to carry to maintain a healthy nutritional intake. The increase in cargo is itself an obstacle to exploration. It is of a totally different nature though than the alternative worry of not knowing if there will be food “out there.” The obstacle of carrying more is a determinable variable and can be accounted for and therefore lends itself to facilitating a feeling of security in the explorer. Not knowing whether or not there will be food-stuffs on the trip can not be accounted for ahead of time and therefore produces a feeling of insecurity. Thus, there is the natural tendency to favor use of cooked (or processed) food despite its lower nutritional value.
The other benefit, ability to change the flavor of the food, is also enticing for the same reason as the above. A feeling of security is derived from the power to alter an aspect of nature to one’s own liking. It too has a negative aspect, though.
As one lives in a world of processed foods one loses a sense of the natural properties of the food stuff. Assuming that there is a somewhat pervasive order to nature, though it be infused with instances of randomness, foods have certain flavors not without justification. Thus by experiencing the true qualities of a food one learns to interpret an aspect of the world around them. When the food one eats is altered, this taste/smell-as-information about the usefulness of a food stuff is denied and the complexity of understanding attainable of one’s environment is incrementally limited. This of course…the limiting of one’s ability to accurately interpolate the environment…creates insecurity.
So cooking’s value must strike a balance. Without cooking, we cannot explore much or trust the character or safety of food, which limits our options. Cooking increases our options to a point, in that it makes food more durable, portable, and safe. However it also reduces nutritional value and dulls our connection to our world. Hence we can over process food to our own detriment.
As with the strengths and weaknesses of cooking, so too are the strengths and weaknesses of institution, standardization, and convention. They are like cooking. They make navigating and using the world more convenient, but something is lost in the process. The key is finding the right balance.