Hunting, Gathering, and Stone Age Cooking

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 01

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In episode one of Food: A Cultural Culinary History, we’re going to consider food as a catalyst in human history, and what our food choices reveal about our values and ambitions. Then we’ll look at food culture in prehistoric times—our ancestors’ wide-ranging diet of everything from mammoths and seafood to acorns, insects, seeds, and grasses—and the ways in which how they ate directly drove evolution.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• Step by Step Directions for Making White Oak Acorn Flour

• Boiling Water in a Paper Bag

Here’s an interesting exercise that simply shows how one can cook in an animal skin. Take a large paper shopping bag, and cut out an eight-by-eight inch square with no seams. (Seams would cause it to leak.) Fold it in half diagonally once into a triangle, and then fold it again in half into a smaller triangle. Open it up so that you have a cone, and tape or staple the ends so that it doesn’t unfold. Notice that one side will be thicker than the other; that’s fine, it will hold water. Next, fill the cone halfway up with water, and place it immediately over a burning candle. In a few minutes, the water inside will boil, and the paper will not burn. This replicates the technique of cooking in an open skin stretched over a fire. If you have the patience, try cooking a carrot in the boiling water.

• Pit Cooking

A pit oven with yams

To get a sense of how people cooked in prehistoric times, first find an open spot with soil soft enough to dig, at least 20 feet from any trees or buildings. Dig a circular hole about three feet deep. Line the perimeter of the pit with large stones for safety purposes and so that you can balance sticks across the pit. Make a fire inside the pit, starting with small kindling and building up to larger logs. When they have burned down to coals, you can start cooking.

This is the original way to barbecue, incidentally. You want to cook long and slow, but because this is before the discovery of metallurgy, you need to make a lattice using fresh green sticks. Lay them across the pit in one direction, and then lay more in the other direction so that you have a kind of primitive grill. They should be far enough away from the hot coals so that they don’t burn, but they probably will char a little. Place on top of the sticks any meat you prefer: a few split chickens, large cuts of pork shoulder, or even a fish wrapped in sturdy leaves. Your seasoning should be minimal—whatever herbs you can find and salt. Because you are using a very gentle fire, expect larger pieces of meat to cook for at least an hour or if you have a flare-up, you can always sprinkle a little water on the fire to prevent the meat from burning. It will smoke a lot, which is good. Smoke is unquestionably a major flavor category that we have learned to enjoy in the millennia of cooking in this way.

Suggested Reading:

Anderson, Everyone Eats.

Fraser, Empires of Food.

Higman, How Food Made History.

Jones, Feast: Why Humans Share Food.

Montanari, Food Is Culture.

Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.

Images courtesy of:

• Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: Louis-Jean Allais [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Depiction of aurochs, horses and deer from Lascaux cave in France. By Prof saxx (Own work) GFDL , CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
• Group of Yugambeh Aboriginal warriors men demonstrate fire making craft during Aboriginal culture show in Queensland, Australia. Shutterstock
• Grinding stone: Shutterstock
• Diagram of an Earth oven: By Earthoven_hangi.jpg: KVDP derivative work: Beao (Earthoven_hangi.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Salmon weir at Quamichan Village on Vancouver Island: By Dally, Frederick [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Homo erectus using fire: By Nathan McCord, U.S. Marine Corps [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• White Oak acorns: By Dcrjsr (Own work) CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
• Fish grilling over an open fire: Shutterstock
• Pit oven with yams: By Jaejay77 (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons