July 19th, 2014
The Rhythm of the Heat
Summer is the time when when we dabble in re-enacting the lifestyles of our distant ancestors, or as it’s also known, camping. For all our efforts to make the experience of cooking out utterly indistinguishable from cooking in, it remains difficult to stand cocooned in the smoke of a fire (even if all you’re cooking are smores) and not consider that this was the daily reality of food preparation for a very long time. So long, in fact, that it still is reality for more than half of the seven billion on the planet.
This is not, in general, a good thing. Indoor cooking fires trigger lung disease, cataracts, respiratory infections and endanger pregnancy. The fuel for those cooking fires — whether wood, dung, charcoal or whatever’s left in the field after the harvest — takes a lot of time to gather and leaves the landscape vacuumed bare. On top of all this, women bear the primary burden of the gathering, the cooking, the going-blind-while-struggling-to-breathe — though it should be mentioned that young children also participate, frequently while riding along in a sling.
The most broadly used cooking technology — dated at least as far back as the Neolithic era — is the Three Stone Fire. This venerable stove needs only three rocks of similar height and a cooking vessel to perch atop the gap between them, which is where the fire goes. But venerable does not equal respected. The Three Stone Fire is targeted for eradication by all manner of aid and development agencies because indoor air pollution from cooking fires kills someone every 20 seconds on average.
If you’re wondering why cooking isn’t simply moved outdoors, the reason is economics. In countries where you’d be likely to use a TSF, you’d also be likely to put fully half of the energy you consume into cooking. What’s more, it’d cost a quarter of your income to obtain that cooking fuel. These are significant numbers because protecting your fire from the wind makes it dramatically more efficient — that is, gets more of the heat into the food. That’s really important, because the basic TSF loses 85-90% of its heat outside the cooking pot.
But just when we’re starting to feel pretty good about how we’ve perfected cooking in the industrialized world, here comes the indispensable Kris De Decker to tell us that, yes, our electric and gas stoves have it all over your run of the mill TSF, but when that TSF is operated by someone with skill? A modern electric stove (even the vaunted induction) has a thermal efficiency that’s half of a well-tended fire. Gas fares hardly better.
On its face, this seems simply impossible. But I strongly suggest that you head on over to De Decker’s site Low Tech Magazine, for the photos, charts, graphs and full story on how well-tended fires outperform modern cooking stoves and its companion article on insulating cooking pots like houses. He does his usual fascinating job of deconstructing our basic assumptions about the relationship between modern and antique technologies, and has some suggestions that — at the very least — have the capacity to dramatically improve the camping experience. But from my point of view, De Decker’s exposé suggests a larger and more ominous question.
Primatologist Richard Wrangham has made an impressive argument that cooking is what fueled human evolution — that the ability to effectively pre-digest your food outside of the body gave us access to a massive and adaptable diet that enabled both the big brain and the ability to spend less than an hour a day eating to keep the whole thing alive. Compare that to the eight hour work day a gorilla puts into the task of chewing.
Wrangham’s hypothesis is fascinating and though much of his evidence is necessarily speculative, some of it is pretty damning. Take raw foodists, for instance. With full access to a globe’s worth of ideal raw foods made available via an industrialized food chain, your typical raw foodist has a hell of time maintaining body weight. That’s great for shedding pounds, but it’s not so great for other things — like getting pregnant. If our ancestors were out there skritching around for dinners of raw carrion and leaves, there’s very little chance they would be our ancestors.
What all this means is that, at least into the stone age and likely all the way back to the emergence of homo erectus, we’ve been the one animal to require external inputs of energy. It’s a strange thing, especially when looked at in light of, well, the universe. That’s because entropy is the law, meaning that it’s the nature of energy to dissipate into useless nothingness. Life, in opposition, is dependent on concentrating energy and when I say dependent, I mean that if a living thing fails at the task, it dies.
Every other organism we share the world with plays by the rules, earning it with their chloroplasts or teeth or what have you. But we, too clever by design, domesticate plants and animals to produce food right to hand, and then, on top of that, find combustible biomass and use that external energy to make the food energy we consume more valuable, in a metabolic sense. Don’t get me wrong — entropy is a shell-game and when you know you’re a mark, turnabout is fair play. But it also means that we’ve got an addiction to external energy so deep that it might as well be an in utero addiction, an unreasoning and irresistible need that is simply part of the ground rules.
There are days when my mental discipline falters and I wonder why we — the big “we,” the species “we” — don’t suck it up and make the changes needed in order to step out of the path of the long-honking and now visible freight train in the sky. There are many intriguing theories, ranging from the slyly named “identity protective cognition,” to the HANDY (Human And Nature DYnamical) model which effectively models how the rich bastards who run everything are the last people to feel the effects of their bad decisions and consequently only react when it’s too late for everyone.
But the prosaic cooking fire suggests that there’s something greater at work. Should we be surprised to watch ourselves shovel coal on that runaway train, when we consider the nature of our relationship with Father Fire? Throughout most of our history, he has suffocated, poisoned and incinerated us even as he provided nourishment. When we gaze into flickering flames, we somehow draw contentment from our proximity to a source of injury and maybe death, captives to the rhythm of the heat.
It is what we were born into, and we know no other way than this perpetual hunger for heat not of our own making. The gluttony worked out for long time, through the centuries and millennia it took us to grow to the size we are now. But you can’t eat like a teenager forever. Father Fire and Mother Earth are getting a messy divorce and, yes, this time it really is the fault of the kids. So it’s a time for reflection, a moment to pause and wonder if what’s worked for as far back as you can remember might not be how it works now, to consider that it might be time to grow up, learn how to cook for ourselves and move out of our father’s house.