Everyone needs to eat to survive. Eating food supplies us with the nutrients we need for all bodily functions. However, the way in which humans get these nutrients is different than any other species. Cooking is a unique function of being human, as no other species on this planet cooks. Cooking is an incredible invention that not only gave us culture, but pushed along the evolutionary timeline and distinguished humans from apes — it is even claimed by many to be the defining feature that made us human.
It was not toolmaking or language that set us humans apart from apes, but the advent of cooking. This is because cooking allowed humans to take raw materials and transform them into energy-dense, easily digestible substances — we essentially unlocked calories that were unavailable to other species. Because of this, cognitive abilities greatly increased, according to Harvard Magazine. In addition to the increased cognitive abilities, cooking our food allowed humans to spend less time chewing and digesting, which allowed more time to devote to creating culture. If we look at our biological composition nearly two million years ago, we can observe major changes. Primatologist Richard Wrangham believes that the current bodies of Homo sapiens would not exist without the invention of cooking.
Not only did cooking set humans apart from apes, but many cultures regard cooking as the symbolic activity that establishes the difference between animals and humans. Cooking is a deeply cultural and societal act. Cooking food was not just about converting these raw materials into calorie-dense food but also giving humans an occasion that made us a social and civilized species. Unlike apes who foraged and ate alone, cooking brought humans together to share meals, stories, experiences, language and knowledge. Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, believes that the number of times per week humans eat socially is deeply correlated to one’s happiness. Although eating by oneself releases endorphins, eating together releases even more. Eating and cooking socially is one of the best things we can do for our happiness and stress relief.
However, today’s society is moving further and further away from our ancestral roots, and we are cooking less than we ever have before. The amount of time spent preparing meals in the kitchen has decreased significantly since the 1960s, and Americans in particular spend less time cooking when compared to other nations. This decrease in cooking is directly correlated with a decrease in the amount of meals we share together. It is interesting to note that at the same time that we are cooking less, we are watching others cook more than ever before. There are countless TV shows and YouTube series about cooking, which have contributed to Americans spending more time watching people cook than actually cooking themselves. Americans are buying prepackaged meals or TV dinners at astonishing rates. We are letting corporations cook for us instead of cooking for ourselves. Food is increasingly being seen as an abstraction — an abstraction from the labor of human hands, natural world, imagination, culture and community.
Cooking connects us to the natural world and reminds us that our food comes from somewhere — by not cooking, we are losing this connection. This connection is important, as people need to be reminded that our food comes from an animal or a plant, from a plot of land somewhere, from human labor and not simply from a pretty box on a supermarket shelf. We need to be reminded of this connection to promote the purchase of sustainably produced food. Our purchasing habits have a far greater impact than we realize. Cooking means you get to control where your ingredients come from, and you control how much you are going to contribute to the food industry.
Our culture of specialization has made it hard to imagine doing anything for ourselves besides the work we do to make a living. This specialization has contributed to “learned helplessness,” which is the idea that we have little control over our situations. Learned helplessness has bred both ignorance and dependence on the food industry — this is good for big corporations but not for our health, physically or mentally. Cooking provides a correction to this, as we are able to take back some sense of control. Michael Pollan, author of “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” writes that to cook is to “declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.” Cooking transforms us from consumers to producers.
As college students begin living on their own and find themselves needing to cook for the first time, many go straight to the prepackaged, easy-to-cook meals, since they are fast, easy and don’t require any thought. Some don’t think they have time to cook, and others believe they don’t know how. However, there are ways to make simple, nutritious, easy meals that don’t support the industrialized food system, which not only provides us with food ridden with chemicals and preservatives, but degrades our environment all at the same time. There are also ways to eat healthy on a budget, but it does require some thought and planning. One example is buying frozen vegetables instead of fresh ones — you are still cooking a healthy meal, but for a fraction of the price. I challenge you to cook once a week, gather your friends and share a meal with them. Not only will this be beneficial for your health, but for your spirit as well. Cooking teaches us about the nature of work, the meaning of health, tradition, ritual, self-reliance and community. Cooking is good for the health of our planet, our bodies and our communities. We don’t need to be top chefs in order to cook — we simply need the will and desire to try.
Eve Marks is a junior double-majoring in environmental studies and philosophy, politics and law.