Michael Pollan’s 2013 book Cooked has recently been adapted into a Netflix miniseries and watching it has prompted me to think about fire and its impact on some of the choices we make about food and cooking.
From the bush in Western Africa where large iguana’s are cooked under coals, to the lab of Modern Cuisine where up to 4,000 chemical reactions are observed (aka the Maillard Effect), to the day-long-fire-tending to roast a whole pig.
Many academics claim that cooking made us human. Our ancestors conscientiously sought to cook their food, which some say accelerated the development of our intellectual capacity. Through trial, error, and change, early humans learned to transform foods into more delicious and nutritious representations of themselves, though not without many disasters I’m sure. But how else do we improve but to try and try again. Professional cooks are still doing this repetitive and iterative process: each application brings about a new lesson, each lesson deepens our overall understanding of an ingredient, a process or a piece of equipment.
Fast forward a few evolutionary cycles and see how to this day, this connection continues to run, deeply rooted in our sense of identity as individuals and society. No wonder our choices of the food we eat are hallmarks in our culture, right alongside language and arts. More specifically, however, we see the strong connection it carries with the institution of family. Our families gather around the dinner table today, but ancestrally our families would gather around the fire. Our connection to food is about a connection we have to each other, and the relevance of this feeling is rooted in our relationship to fire and cooking over a fire.
And while it’s true that we tend to cook meat over the fire more so than rutabaga, kale or marshmallows, it is not at all true our ancestors relied on meat alone. In fact, most evidence suggests that our ancestors knew to eat the fruits and vegetables that were readily available, offered up by the land in formats easy to harvest, easy to eat and easy to digest. Pollan points out that the most sustainable agriculture involves animals and plants together. Both are part of the natural ecosystem. Plants are feeding animals and the animals are feeding the plants in a continuous sustainable cycle.
But is eating meat sustainable? This is a question I think about a lot. In fact, we discuss it a lot while we’re working in the meat locker. You might find that surprising, but we truly do put a lot of thought into how we eat meat, why we eat meat, as much as we do, and what meat we should eat. No brilliant revelations here, but Pollan’s work in the chapter on fire has prompted me to consider the positive role meat can play in our relationship with vegetables. Sure, we eat meat. And yes, there’s a good reason to believe we eat meat because our ancestors learned that it’s easier to preserve, easier to digest, and our own cultural imperative to gather over the table stems from this history of cooking over the fire. But in turn, this means we must consider the positive role that eating vegetables must play in our relationship to eating meat.
However, I don’t think Pollan is advocating we eat more meat. And I’m glad for that. I mean, I’m a butcher and WSB sells meat, but even we advocate for eating better meat less often. Eating local whole animals can help fight our reliance with animal protein that is mass produced with no care to the livelihood of the animal that is raised for food. My take away from Pollan’s writing on fire is that meat eating has played an integral role in our history as a species and continues to govern many of our traditions around food: but we must be cautious not to overburden the systems and the environment that produce our meat. We also must be cautious not to overwhelm our diets with too much meat.
Engaging with Michael Pollan’s work leaves me with more questions than answers, but oddly, it gives me a clearer idea of what my next meal should be.