«TITLE PAGE WHAT’S COOKING? Roberta Ann Muir Dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the coursework requirements for the degree of Master of ...»
traditionally, cooks have spent large stretches of the day helping ingestion by milling corn and grinding spices.” These processes would indeed render mastication easier. Heat is generally relied upon to eliminate bacteria from food; the notable exception however is the deadliest. Clostridium botulinum, which, according to Fernández-Armesto, “survives the range of temperatures attained in all traditional cuisine”, can be arrested in its development by high acid levels. This point is made by Astri Riddervold in a paper on the traditional practice in circumpolar areas of burying fish to preserve it. One technique involves the covering of shark caught in summer with earth to protect it from becoming flyblown. As Clostridium botulinum is a soil-dwelling bacterium, the fish is infected by it. Riddervold concludes: “The extremely high value of pH explains the absence of botulism following consumption of such buried shark.” The practice of burying fish in cold northern countries also provides an example of the elimination of
(Somniosus microcephalus), which is prepared in Iceland into a product called hákarl, contains cyanic acid, which would be harmful if eaten raw or even heated, however when buried and allowed to ferment, Symons, A History of Cooks and Cooking, 104.
Astri Riddervold, “‘Gravlaks’, The Buried Salmon,” in Fish, Food from the Waters: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium of Food, ed. Harlan Walker (Totnes: Prospect Books, 1997), 131.
the acid leaches out and the meat becomes safe for consumption. Another example is the bitter manioc (also known as cassava or yuca), which contains prussic acid. Soaking, cutting, grating or heating to less than 75 ºC releases (and promotes the action of) an enzyme, linase, which frees the prussic acid, dispersing it into the air and rendering the vegetable safe to eat. Sweet cassava (as opposed to the more common bitter cassava) is so low in prussic acid that peeling is sufficient preparation to render it edible. Vic Cherikoff, an expert on Australia’s indigenous plants, says that cycad nuts, a staple food of some Australian Aboriginal tribes, contain toxic compounds that were eliminated by soaking in water so that time (and possibly fermentation) broke them down.
Fernández-Armesto suggests that primitive hunters may often have sat down to an immediate feast of the partially digested, and still warm, contents of their prey’s stomach. He calls this “proto-cookery – the earliest known instance of eating processed food.” It is also proto-digestion and one way of consuming food that is more easily digestible with a greater bioavailability of nutrients. Another food preparation that renders digestion and mastication easier and increases nutrient bioavailability is the practice of chewing food for infants or the elderly and infirm, and then giving it to them to swallow. Fernández-Armesto says of food prepared in this way: “Warmed in the mouth, attacked by gastric juices, pounded by mastication, it acquires some of the properties of food processed by the application of heat.” Of all the food groups, starches are the hardest to render digestible without the application of heat. Even grinding them to a powder is not sufficient, as the cell structure remains impermeable. Malting, or inducing grains to germinate, however, releases amylase from within the starch, an enzyme that then converts the starch to sugar. The addition of malt to other starches then breaks them down, rendering them digestible, as the amylase in the malt works on the cell structure of the new starches. In Japanese cuisine, a heavy syrup, mizuame, is made by converting starch to sugar either through the addition of The Oxford Companion to Food, 1999 ed., s.v. “Iceland.” Raymond Sokolov, Why We Eat What We Eat: How the Encounter Between the New World and the Old Changed the Way Everyone on the Planet Eats, (N.p.: n.p., 1991; reprint, New York: Simon & Schuster, Touchstone, 1993), 141.
The Oxford Companion to Food, 1999 ed., s.v. “cassava.” Vic Cherikoff, E-mail to author, 26 July 2003.
The Oxford Companion to Food, 1999 ed., s.v. “starch,” by R[alph] H[ancock].
The Oxford Companion to Food, 1999 ed., s.v. “malt.” malt or of hydrochloric, sulphuric, or nitric acid. This heavy, colourless syrup is eaten as it is (as honey or golden syrup is in western cuisine) as well as being used in confectionary and desserts.
The practice of hanging meat alters its texture; the aging process leads to a breakdown in connective tissue, rendering digestion easier. Fernández-Armesto refers to this as “an older technique than cooking by means of fire.” Jean-Louis Flandrin points out that “the initial purpose of heating, seasoning, marinating, grinding, slicing, filtering, and other cooking techniques was to make foods digestible and safe as much as, if not more than, to improve their taste. For him heating was just one of the “cooking techniques” used to make foods digestible and safe, along with the other techniques listed.
Preservation of food came about at the same time as humans began to hunt collectively. Large quantities of meat were slaughtered, more than could be consumed quickly, so the need to preserve it for later consumption arose. Perlès places these events in the late Palaeolithic Period when humans learnt to dry or smoke their meat, or to preserve it frozen in pits dug into the permanently frozen subsoil. Flandrin discusses the drying and smoking of meat as well as later preservation techniques such as salting and fermentation that “produce storable products such as beer, wine, cider, vinegar, cheeses, sauerkraut, pickles, nuoc mam [and] soy sauce”, suggesting that such preparations “may be included under the rubric ‘cooking’.” Cookbooks, from earliest times, have contained recipes for preserving food, many of which do not require heat. Apicius, widely accepted as the oldest European cookbook, gives recipes for preserving fresh fruit, herbs, truffles and olives by variously placing them in honey, vinegar, dry sawdust and brine, without applying any heat. In The Essence of Cookery, Rumohr gives detailed accounts of salting and smoking, both preservation methods popular in German cuisine. While he does allude to the fact that The Oxford Companion to Food, 1999 ed., s.v. “mizuame.” Fernández-Armesto, 5.
Jean-Louis Flandrin, “The Humanization of Eating Behaviors,” in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds.
Jean-Louis Flandrin, Massimo Montanari and Albert Sonnenfeld, trans. Clarissa Botsford et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999; reprint, London: Penguin Books, 2000), 18.
Flandrin, “The Humanization of Eating Behaviors,” 18.
Joseph Dommers Vehling, trans. and ed., Apicius Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome (Chicago: Walter M. Hill, 1936;
unabridged replication, New York: Dover Publications, 1977), 8 and 52–54.
foods preserved in this way will ultimately have heat applied to them, his detailed description is centred on the non-heat preparations, indicating that he considers this part of “the essence of cookery”.
Symons states: “Cooks take in provisions – and also, dry, salt, pickle and ferment them – for allocation over the weeks and months”. He also points out that “Cooks make food microbiologically safe: they keep or preserve a lot of food, not just through heating but brewing, cheese-making, salting, pickling, candying, bottling, and the like.” Bode discusses various methods of preserving food, including freezing, drying, salting and smoking, none of which involves the application of heat (with the possible exception of smoking which can be conducted at a temperature of 29 ºC, no hotter than that of a summer’s day). Visser reminds us that in today’s modern world, it is often cold, not heat, which preserves food until it can reach our tables, enabling us to “get food from anywhere on earth at any season of the year.” Irradiation, another modern technique, kills bacteria, insects and parasites, and thus inhibits food spoilage, in much the same way as pasteurisation does. Wolke says: “many germs are harder to kill than the bacteria that pasteurization is designed to deactivate … but higher temperatures would change the taste and texture of the foods too much. That’s where irradiation comes in.” Many of the preservation methods mentioned above, including irradiation, are capable of preserving food for much greater periods of time, with less loss of flavour and texture, than can be achieved by the application of heat.
Flandrin points out that an aversion to raw meat and a preference for cooked is a subjective, culturally determined bias, saying: “For a Japanese, the best way to serve fresh fish is raw. And at the beginning of the twentieth century, an Eskimo would have preferred raw and quite gamy seal meat to any of the boiled, roasted or sauced versions”. Discussing the rawist movement Fernández-Armesto says that raw food is attractive to those “modern urbanites repelled by our over-contrived lifeways, seeking readmission to Rumohr, 116–117.
Symons, A History of Cooks and Cooking, 132.
Symons, A History of Cooks and Cooking, 104.
Visser, Much Depends on Dinner, 286.
Flandrin, “The Humanization of Eating Behaviors,” 17.
Eden.” Their senses are likely quite offended by food to which heat has been applied. As much as our senses can be pleased and comforted by heated food, they are also at times delighted by cold food.
Visser talks about the “water ices of the Turks and Arabs … rather like slushy Italian granita … often eaten between courses, as soup is in China, to refresh and clear the palate.” Such ice confections are still enjoyed today throughout many cultures.
There are many aspects of food preparation, such as seasoning and presentation, which are purely aesthetic and have nothing to do with the application of heat. Rumohr says that one of the two ways in which cookery brings out food’s “delectable qualities” is “by the process of adding an appropriate seasoning to the plain but nourishing dishes and foodstuffs, and by giving them a pleasant appearance.” Seasoning of food is a highly subjective area, where every chef (and at many tables, every diner) adds the final spices and accompaniments to the dish in order to finish it to their taste.
Whether it is a piece of slow-braised meat or a freshly tossed salad, the application of heat is not necessarily relevant to the aesthetic qualities of the seasoning or presentation of the food. As previously noted Larousse’s list of changes brought about by cooking is heavily aesthetic, two of the four changes referring to improved appearance, flavour and aroma of cooked food. Among these changes, Larousse refers to the improved taste of the basic ingredients “by incorporating extra flavours, condiments, herbs, wine, etc”; seasoning, in other words, which can be achieved without heat. It also refers to “marinating
foods [which] adds flavour before cooking.” Brillat-Savarin reminds us that:
… if our remote ancestors ate all their meat raw, we have not entirely lost the habit ourselves. The most delicate palate will respond very well to Arles and Bologna sausages, smoked Hamburg beef, anchovies, freshly salted herrings, and other such things, which have never been subjected to fire, but which stimulate the appetite for all that.
Visser, Much Depends on Dinner, 297.
Larousse Gastronomique, 1988 ed., s.v. “cooking.”
Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste, trans., Anne Drayton (London: Penguin Books, 1970; reprint, London:
Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, 1994), 244.
Fernández-Armesto agrees with Flandrin, calling rawness “a culturally constructed, or at least culturally modified, concept.” He points out that foods referred to as raw in our culture arrive at the table elaborately prepared. A plate of sashimi is always notable for its creative presentation; carpaccio is sliced wafer thin, arranged elegantly on a plate and decorated artistically with drizzles of olive oil and shavings of parmesan cheese; and steak tartare is a collage of little bowls, or mounds, of various accompaniments artfully arranged around the centrepiece of a knoll of raw minced beef. Fernández-Armesto refers to the tableside preparation of steak tartare as “civilized over-compensation”, adding that “other raw meat and fish dishes licensed by civilization are equally removed from nature – their nakedness heavily dressed, their savagery sanitized by elaboration.” Discussing ‘raw’ meat in a very different culture, Laurens van der Post draws a comparison to “meat à la tartare” while describing an Ethiopian raw meat banquet.
Although the meat is not elaborately presented, as in the examples above, the ritual of consuming it is quite elaborate, with meat, bleeding and still warm, being passed between male diners, each of who hold it between their teeth and cut upwards to remove their piece before passing it on to the next man. The meat is eaten dipped in berbere, a fiery red pepper paste that Post says: “gives the impression of being hot enough to cook the meat.” Fernández-Armesto says of both the European and Ethiopian ‘raw’ meat dishes: “these foods are raw only according to a very narrow definition. They are so changed from their state of nature … as to be unrecognisable”.
The transformation from the natural to the cultural was identified as one of the reasons for cooking. In the above examples, this transformation of food to the civilised realm has been achieved without the application of heat. As remarked previously, Claude Lévi-Strauss says that “cooking mark[s] the transition from nature to culture”. Saunders points out that: “even Lévi-Strauss would have to admit that fugu is civilised, though much of it is served raw. The fugu that reaches the Japanese table very definitely does not belong to nature.” Santich proposes another ‘raw’ product that is transformed from its natural state without the application of heat: mayonnaise. She suggests that it is “the contribution of Fernández-Armesto, 7–8.