It’s all very well going away on holiday but, while a break is intended to recharge the batteries, it can also fry your brain and bring out the stupid gene on your return. I was away on a break with my family last week and we had a lovely time doing very little. Now back in the real world of work, housework and things that need attending to, my whole body is rebelling and instead of being filled with enthusiasm and renewed verve as I expected, I am beyond lethargy.
So there I was, home a day or two and once again standing and staring into the abyss that is the fridge wondering what to cook for dinner. Gone were the nice waiters with their menus where the only mental agility needed was that of choice. As I joylessly pulled the chicken breasts from the fridge and considered the best way to prepare them, it actually occurred to me that cooking, as an action, is rather curious. In fact, along with the ability to speak, the desire and preference for cooked foods is what really separates us from animals.
They would probably cook too if they could make fire which is, after all, a pre-requisite for cooking. While I acknowledge that there is a raw food movement and the odd Hanibal Lecter type out there, generally most people still choose to cook their food. But why?
As I expected it wasn’t only my lightning fast brain that pondered the question. There has being ongoing research into this area for many years. A Harvard University professor by the name of Richard Wrangham has been leading the way in this research and has been looking at how cooking alters the nutritional value of food.
Generally, cooking makes food softer and therefore we spend less time chewing it, we swallow it more easily and digest it faster. It is this ease of chewing, swallowing and digesting that has kept cooking popular all these years. Research from Mr. Wrangham and his contemporaries suggests that, without developing cookery skills, the human race would have continued to develop slightly hunched, with large guts, massive teeth and very small brains. That description still probably fits the odd character down the pub on an average weekend but, in general, humans have evolved to become erect, our stomachs have reduced in size as have our jaws and our brains have got much bigger. It turns out that the brain needs almost a quarter of all the fuel (calories) we take in daily, to function properly.
Studies have shown that much of the food ancient man ate was indigestible and therefore provided little in the way of fuel. He would eat it and then it would pass straight out again, and provide little benefit. That’s why their brains remained small. When we discovered how to cook it meant we could eat more, digest more and therefore take in more calories (fuel) so the brain was able to grow and evolve. Dr Wrangham believes that cooking and humanity go hand in hand. However, we have also taken it to the other extreme in some cases.
While cooking obviously makes food easier to chew and digest, the other human element, besides taste, is texture. We all have foods that we don’t like the ‘mouth feel’ of and that can be quite an individual thing but, generally, humans like their food to be soft. Softness is relative but the scale is still a soft one. For example, while some people like a ‘crunch’ or a bit of a ‘bite’ to a carrot or piece of broccoli, they are still easy enough to bite through. Pasta is another dish that some prefer to eat ‘al dente’ but, let’s face it, it’s still pretty soft.
Believe it or not food companies spend a fortune on this whole area of softness and texture. In fact, if you think about it, all the foods that are generally considered to be off limits to people on diets are mostly particularly soft; ice cream, buttery mash, melt in the mouth chocolate, caramel, cakes, desserts and even fast food chain burgers are just a lump of softness in a polystyrene box – soft bun, soft onions, and soft patties. We tend to think of softness associated only with detergents and toilet rolls but softness in food, particularly processed foods, is paramount. Apparently, when we taste something soft and juicy, nerves from the taste buds send signals to the brain relating to how soft it is. Our brain makes a decision based on these signals and informs us whether what’s in our mouths is pleasant or not. This is what prompts us to take another bite or not as the case may be. This is largely why we have a problem with obesity. We no longer only have foods that we have to actually cook in order to eat, there is soft, processed, ready to eat food available around the clock in our Western society.
This is probably why the real answer to losing weight healthily is to return to proper cooking. Ultimately the taste will be better too. Soft is a texture and has nothing to do with taste. Soft should never be confused with bland. We are spoiled for choice when it comes to taste at this time of year. Traditionally spring and summer are the seasons for fresh and lively combinations of bitter, sweet, rich and mild together. Cooking at this time of year just naturally takes on a simplicity and lightness to go with the longer daylight hours. And remember without people who love to cook, the human race may never have made it. Give the cook in your house a hug today.