How learning to cook could save civilisation

Bon appetit: From prehistoric man to celebrity chefs, cooking is central to human culture.

Should learning to cook be compulsory for everyone? Yesterday Marks & Spencer launched a new TV show. Last week Marcus Rashford launched an online course. Cooking seems to be all the rage.

About 10,000 years ago in the Sahara, a prehistoric man poured a mixture of grains and plants into a pot with some water. He lit a fire below it, heating it up so that its bitter flavours and toxic chemicals vanished. The age of cooking had begun.

Humans have cooked ever since. “My definition of Man,” wrote 18th-century writer James Boswell, “is a ‘Cooking Animal’.”

The primatologist Richard Wrangham has even argued that cooking triggered our evolution into homo sapiens. Wrangham writes: “It changed our bodies, our brains, our use of time and our social lives.”

Archeologists believe that homo erectus was the first species that learnt to heat food, almost 2 million years ago. But the idea of combining ingredients came much later, as hunter-gatherers became farmers.

By classical antiquity, cooking had become a valued craft. In the ancient Greek city of Sybaris, the public flocked to cooking contests and new recipes were protected by law. The Roman gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius once voyaged to Libya just to sample its prawns.

Today, cooking is a popular hobby. Celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson fill television schedules and bestseller lists. According to data from Tesco, last April over a fifth of British residents cooked every meal from scratch.

At the same time, the growth of other options — ready meals, takeaways, delivery services — has seen significant numbers of people do the opposite. A 2011 survey by the Food Network found 28% of Americans unable to cook at all.

Some believe this should be addressed. Last week, footballer Marcus Rashford and chef Tom Kerridge launched Full Time, a series of Instagram tutorials aiming to get young people to cook healthy, low-cost meals.

Home cooking has many evangelists. “Cooking is the one place,” says food writer Lucinda Scala Quinn, “where you have an impact on the physical, spiritual and emotional wellbeing of a human being.”

Medical experts have often supported Quinn’s assessment. Home cooking, says Harvard’s David Eisenberg, “can drastically improve your health.” It gives us control over ingredients, allows a balanced diet and increases the variety of food we eat.

The mental health benefits are also well-charted. Cooking is creative, stimulating our minds. Studies have found that activities like cooking make people feel happier. As journalist Dillon Thompson says: “working in the kitchen and trying new recipes [is] a way to manage anxiety.”

Not everyone feels the same. A 2019 survey found that 53% of U.S. adults enjoyed cooking. But what about the other 47%? While some find cooking a leisure activity, others find it a tedious chore. A compulsory cooking course would alienate those who would rather be doing something else.

It can be time-consuming. A 2020 poll found the average person spends 61 minutes cooking a day. For those with stressful work lives, meal preparation can create more stress, and devour their free time.

Should learning to cook be compulsory for everyone?

Chef’s kiss

Absolutely, claim some. The mental, physical and financial benefits of cooking are clear and abundant. Cooking teaches us about food, the Earth’s produce and chemical processes. It instills discipline and focus, which can enhance other aspects of our daily lives. And it serves as a powerful social glue: few things are more rewarding than whipping up a feast for friends and family.

Absolutely not, say others. One person’s pleasure is another’s pain, and it would be unfair to impose cooking on those less inclined to it. Indeed, forcing people to learn any skill is unjust. We should be allowed to decide how to educate ourselves. Besides, not all taught knowledge is retained, and there is no guarantee that teaching cooking will turn reluctant students into eager home chefs.

You Decide

  1. Is it important to always know the ingredients in a meal?
  2. Is cooking a science, an art, both or neither?

Activities

  1. In pairs, design a menu for a banquet themed after a historical era and location, using only ingredients and recipes that would be available at that time.
  2. In groups, write and deliver a presentation arguing that a leisure activity of your choice should be a compulsory school subject.

Some People Say...

“The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of the human race than the discovery of a star.”

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755 – 1826), French lawyer, politician and gastronome

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Archeologists have come to a consensus on the chronology of early cooking techniques. The first controlled fires have been traced to anywhere between 400,000 and 2 million years ago. Little changed until around 30,000 years from the present, when earth ovens — pits in the ground for slow-roasting — appeared in Central Europe. The earliest-known ceramic pots for boiling have been traced to 20,000 years ago in Japan, while the first clay ovens developed 10,000 years later.
What do we not know?
There remains fervent debate around the theory that the invention of cooking sparked human intelligence, known as the cooking hypothesis. First presented by Friedrich Engels in 1886, it was developed by Richard Wrangham in his 2009 book Catching Fire. Wrangham argues that cooking foods made nutrients easier to digest and let prehistoric humans eat a larger variety of beneficial substances. Critics, however, argue that fire alone is insufficient to explain humanity’s advanced intelligence.

Word Watch

The Sahara
The region has alternated between grassland and desert in a 20,000 year cycle. It is next expected to become a green savannah in the year 17,000.
James Boswell
Scottish writer (1740 – 1795), best-known for his biology of his friend Samuel Johnson. Boswell believed that the ability to cook set humans apart from other animals.
Primatologist
A scientist who studies primates, a class of mammals that includes monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees and humans.
Homo sapiens
The modern-day human race, believed to have originated in Africa around 300,000 years ago.
Homo erectus
An extinct ancestor to modern day humans, which lived between 2 million and 108,000 years ago. Its name means “upright man” in Latin.
Classical antiquity
A cultural and historical era spanning the 8th Century BC to the 6th Century AD, centred around the Mediterranean civilisations of Greece and Rome.
Sybaris
Located in present-day Italy, Sybaris was famous for its wealth and decadence. The English word “sybaritic”, meaning fond of luxury and pleasure, is named after it.
Gourmand
A person who enjoys food and eating, also known as a gourmet or gastronome. Often eating too much: some accounts claim Apicius was ruined by his extravagant feasts.
Evangelists
People who seek to convert others to their beliefs, originally used in Christianity to refer to the writers of the Gospels.
Alienate
To make someone feel isolated, from the Latin alienus meaning ‘belonging to another’.

Subjects

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