How Has Cooking Evolved Since the Discovery of Fire?

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, the British essayist and critic Charles Lamb (1775–1834), in “A Dissertation on Roast Pig,” tells how humans first discovered cooking or, more precisely, roasting, after “for the first seventy thousand ages” eating their meat raw by “clawing or biting it from the living animal.”

The story, purportedly discovered in an ancient Chinese manuscript, tells of the young son of a swineherd, who accidentally set fire to their cottage, which burned to the ground, killing the nine pigs within. (Swineherds apparently lived that way.) Stooping down to touch one of the dead pigs, the son burned his fingers and instinctively put them to his mouth to cool them, whereupon he tasted a delicious flavor never before experienced by mankind.

Recognizing a good thing when they tasted it, the swineherd and his son thenceforth built a series of less and less substantial cottages, burning them down each time with pigs inside to produce the marvelously flavorful meat. Their secret got out, however, and before long everyone in the village was building and burning down flimsy houses with pigs inside.

Eventually, “in the process of time a sage arose, who made a discovery, that the flesh of swine, or indeed of any other animal, might be cooked (burnt, as they called it) without the necessity of consuming a whole house to dress it.”

Right up until the beginning of the twentieth century, we humans continued to build fires whenever we wanted to cook. By then we had learned to build the fires on kitchen hearths and later to confine them in enclosures called ovens. Still, every cook had to obtain fuel and set fire to it in order to roast a pig or even to boil water.

But it need not be so.

What if we could build a single, huge fire in a remote location and somehow capture its energy and deliver it, like fresh milk, directly to thousands of kitchens? Well, today we can, through the miracle of electricity.

Only a hundred years ago we discovered how to burn huge quantities of fuel in a central plant, use the fire’s heat to boil water and make steam, use that steam to generate electricity, and then send the electrical energy surging through copper wires for hundreds of miles to thousands of kitchens, in which thousands of cooks could turn it back into heat for roasting, toasting, boiling, broiling, and baking. All from a single fire.

We first used this new form of transmissible fire to replace gas for lighting our streets and parlors (when we had parlors). Then in 1909 electricity moved into the kitchen when General Electric and Westinghouse marketed their first electric toasters.

Electric ranges, ovens, and refrigerators followed. Today, we can hardly turn out a meal without our electric ovens, ranges, broilers, beaters, mixers, blenders, food processors, coffeemakers, rice cookers, bread machines, deep fryers, skillets, woks, grills, slow cookers, steamers, waffle irons, slicers, and knives. (I once invented an electric fork to go with the electric knife, but it never caught on.)

Is that the end of humankind’s energy-for-cooking story? It was, until fifty years ago, when a totally new, fireless method of making heat for cooking was invented: the microwave oven. It worked on a brand-new principle that few people understood, and many consequently feared it. Some still fear and mistrust their microwave ovens, which in spite of their omnipresence, remain the most baffling of all home appliances.

Yes, it runs on electricity, but it heats food in a never-before-dreamed-of way, without even having to be hot itself. It is the first new way of cooking in more than a million years.