The Day My Brain Got Big

So, you know this hypothesis that’s out there that says eating cooked food is what changed our evolutionary path and aimed us towards becoming the creatures we are today? I’m paraphrasing and far outside my area of expertise*, but it has to do with the fact that humans have a very high brain size:body size ratio compared to other primates, that those brains account for a disproportionate amount of our energy consumption considering what a small percentage of our body mass they make up, and that the math maybe doesn’t quite work out for us to have developed and supported those big brains through a raw-only diet, since our bodies can more easily extract nutrients from cooked food and also cooking kills the things in raw foods that could make us sick, freeing up energy that could be spent on our brains rather than fighting off disease. Hence: big brains make us human, cooked food was necessary for maintaining a big brain, and it also made the development of big brains possible in the first place. There’s debate over whether it was cooked meat or cooked tubers that did it. There’s debate over whether it had nothing to do with cooking at all — we don’t know if we had even harnessed the power of fire yet at the time our brains got bigger, which does seem like it would put a damper on the whole idea — and it was really about eating more easily digestible fruit instead of leaves with all their undigestible cellulose.


Now I am not a scientist, I’m just someone who reads science-y articles, says COOL and tells my husband about them, then he says COOL and we get back to our regular lives of not being scientists. So I can’t tell you how good any of this science is. But whether any of these hypotheses turn out to have any evidence to support them doesn’t really change whether or not I find it interesting, because the part that makes me say COOL is this idea that somewhere in the history of the human relationship with food we can find a clue to what makes us us. Maybe one day we ate a thing and our brains got bigger. Maybe one day we ate a thing and became something we hadn’t been before.


Food was not a priority in the household — to use the term VERY loosely — where I grew up. There was the understanding that you had to eat so you wouldn’t die, and that was about it. The foods we ate were very simple things, the same things over and over again, the most run-of-the-mill ingredients you could find easily in any grocery store (though we only shopped at one, because it was the one we always shopped at) that didn’t require any skills more complicated than applying heat to prepare. The only flavoring we used was salt. There was a tin of black pepper in the cabinet, but I don’t remember anyone ever opening it. There was a short list of foods that we ate and anything else was not only not eaten but was also treated as just the weirdest possible thing anyone had ever heard of. Until I started cooking my own food I didn’t really know much of anything about what I liked to eat, or even really how to enjoy food in the first place.


There was this spaghetti sauce commercial when I was a kid. Actually, Youtube is telling me there were several and I’m probably mentally editing several of them into one that never actually existed. But the basic idea was you had Ragu Old World Style on one side and whatever new chunky sauce Prego had made on the other, and they’d be poured through a colander and the Ragu would run straight through because it’s the consistency of watery tomato juice and the Prego wouldn’t. Ragu Old World Style was THE spaghetti sauce in our house and those ads started when I was still young enough not to have realized that there were other sauces. So this ad comes on for the first time in our house one day when I’m watching TV with my mother. And she, the ostensible adult in the situation, starts talking about how DISGUSTING the Prego is and WHO WOULD WANT VEGETABLES IN THEIR SPAGHETTI SAUCE and making gagging sounds and this all lasted well past when the commercial was over. (Stories about my mother often sound exaggerated. I promise you they are not.) Meanwhile I am sitting there with my brain doing the Grinch-heart thing because OH MY GOD YOU CAN PUT VEGETABLES IN SPAGHETTI SAUCE????

I told that story to a coworker once and she said, “Do you ever just look in the mirror and think about how far you’ve come?”


Things I Made This Weekend

Gastropod did an episode about saffron, so I had to make risotto.


Chicken thighs with barbecue sauce loosely adapted from Food In Jars and walnut-crusted blue cheese potato cakes from The Best of Cooking Light that were too soft to cook up like proper cakes so they became mashed potatoes but I don’t even care ’cause they’re the best potatoes I’ve had in a good long while.

*My primary area of expertise is errors in Friends continuity, email me for rates if you’d like me to give a talk at your organization’s next event.


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