This article was published in Smith Journal volume 26.
Did you know that the humble barbecue played a huge role in ensuring the survival and psychological development of our species? Didn’t think so.
Joe’s Bar-b-Que, Kansas City. The air is thick with the stink of slow-smoked meat of various shapes, sizes and species.
Before me, engulfed in a paper-cupped forest of soda and sides, lies a titanic tray of succulently smoked beef and crunchy, caramelised burnt ends. If barbecue is a religion, I believe this might be the Promised Land. “How’s the brisket?” asks a friend. I have no words, only grunts.
Restaurants like Joe’s have given Kansas City a reputation as the melting pot (or smoking pit) of the United States’ best barbecue. This is where you go to taste the widest range of barbecue in one place, but specialities vary wildly across the country. In North Carolina for example, folks don’t get out of bed for anything other than pork shoulder and whole hog. In Tennessee, Memphis wears the prize apron for its ‘dry’ (sans-sauce) pork ribs. In Kentucky, mutton’s on the menu. Alabama loves chicken. St. Louis does spare ribs. In Texas, it’s all about beef, sausages, and minimal (if any) sauce.
All this in mind, you’d be forgiven for thinking that barbecue is an American invention. And, if you were to pick a random barbecue fan from any of the aforementioned barbecue hotspots, chances are they’d tell you that for something to be ‘barbecued’ it must be smoked over wood, low and slow, for a number of hours. Everything else is grilling, they’ll say. But where does this cavalier attitude leave other countries, such as Australia, where the national pride of the humble ‘barbie’ requires little more than poking a few snags around a hotplate for 15 minutes?
Few Americans have been brave enough to convey to their countrymen and women that, actually, many other cultures around the world have their own definitions and traditions relating to the word ‘barbecue’. But self-professed ‘barbecue whisperer’ Meathead Goldwyn (who declined to provide his real name) isn’t afraid to wield the tongs of truth. “Much of America has this impression that barbecue is as native to America as Jazz,” he chuckles over the phone from his home in Chicago. “And it’s not! Barbecue is multi-national. It’s international. It’s universal.”
As the editor and owner of Amazingribs.com, a website dedicated to the science of barbecue, Goldwyn has spent much of his life studying the history and craft of cooking with fire. What America may have invented, Goldwyn contests, is Southern barbecue – the act of cooking meat low and slow over various types of wood. “It’s a wonderful cuisine,” he says. “And something Americans can claim as our own. But cooking over flame was around for a long time before we turned up.”
He’s not talking about the Mayflower. Cooking with fire started even before Homo sapiens were walking the earth. In fact, some anthropologists now believe our ancient ancestors’ discovery of barbecue may have even led to a breakthrough in the evolution of our species as we know it. Richard Wrangham is a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University and the leading proponent of a theory he calls ‘the Cooking Hypothesis’. His 2010 book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, argues the discovery of cooking helped our ancient ancestors unlock more energy from their food by making it easier to digest. This eventually led to them developing smaller teeth, smaller jaws, a smaller gut and, most importantly, larger brains.
And that’s not all. Cooking also afforded our ancestors more time to dedicate to other ventures, as they didn’t need to spend as much time foraging, nor expel as much metabolic energy trying to digest those tougher, raw foods. (Chimpanzees, by contrast, spend most of their time foraging, chewing and digesting what they eat.)
The science isn’t only applicable to meat – both plant and animal foods are rendered more easily digestible when cooked. While the grocery lists of our ancient ancestors are difficult to know for certain, we need only look at modern-day hunter-gatherer tribes for a good indication of what an ancient diet might have looked like. “With African hunter-gatherers, the majority of the diet comes from plants,” Wrangham explains over the phone. The idea of our ‘natural’, Palaeolithic diet as a meat-heavy calorie-fest might is likely far from the truth.
Curiously, very little airtime had been given to barbecue as a means of evolutionary progress until Wrangham came along – even Charles Darwin didn’t touch it. To better understand how he cooked up his bold hypothesis you’ll need to cast your highly-evolved mind back some 2.5 million years.
Picture the scene: everyone is naked. A bunch of pre-human, chimp-like Australopithecus are walking around like they own the place. They’re proud as punch because they’ve just figured out that by eating raw meat they can access more nutrients, grow bigger brains, and begin their ascent to Homo habilis: an altogether more human-like species, and possibly even the missing link between apes and humans.
Then, around 1.9 million years ago, some Homo habilis (still naked) evolved into Homo erectus – a species even closer to present-day Homo sapiens. They looked like us, walked and ran like us and, most interestingly to Wrangham, had smaller jaws, teeth, and guts – all of which indicates a switch to an easily digestible, high-quality diet. Until Wrangham came along, the primary explanation had been that both of these jumps in evolution were triggered by eating raw meat. But with that, says Wrangham, you’re asking one thing – eating raw meat – to account for two separate shifts in our evolution. It just doesn’t make sense. Cooking, he argues, is the only logical answer for this transition.
There are other barbecuing myths to dispel, too. For instance, the overwhelmingly macho image of the barbecuer is a modern invention. Of course, the world’s first pitmasters – the first people to regularly cook with fire – were very likely women. According to Wrangham, the discovery of cooking didn’t just help our evolution in a biological sense: it also led to the development of the nuclear family as we know it. Again, anthropologists look at trends in modern day hunter-gatherers to hypothesise the sexual divisions of ancient labour. It’s thought that while women would bring home the fair share of foraged food, men would typically do the hunting, and bring it back for the women to cook.
Thanks to the smoke and smells emitted from this all of this new-fangled cooking, it suddenly became very obvious to any nearby naked folk that there was food up for grabs. And grab they would. “It sounds very harsh and unhuman,” says Wrangham. “But you see that sort of behaviour in chimpanzees all the time. They will just take food from each other.”
A woman cooking on her own didn’t stand much chance against a hungry predator looking to snatch her dinner. Thus, the theory goes, a man would help protect the cook in exchange for a share of the feed – this is known as ‘the theft hypothesis’. “To me, that makes sense in terms of the evolution of the sexual division of labour and the nature of social relationships in humans,” Wrangham says. “It’s simply a sensible collaboration.”
Despite Wrangham’s claims, it’s quite difficult to find evidence of fire – much less, cooking (and much, much less gender-based labour divisions) – from nearly two million years ago. But whatever the archaeology says, there’s no disputing that throughout human history cooking with fire has been a pivotal activity. It’s the one thing that separates us from all other animals.
Aboriginal Australians were certainly one of the oldest surviving cultures –perhaps the oldest – to have harnessed the benefits of cooking. Ancient Greeks cooked souvlakis as early as 1600 BC. In New Zealand, ancient Maori hāngi sites – a type of underground oven fuelled by red-hot rocks – have been dated back to 1280 AD. And the Medieval English used small, specifically-bred ‘turnspit dogs’ to help them turn their rotisseries (unfortunately, this is not where the term ‘hot dog’ comes from).
China, meanwhile, brought char siu to the party; the Japanese, yakitori. The South Africans gave us braai while the Spanish were busy spinning lechon. The Jamaicans were perfecting their jerk while the Mongolians gifted bodog, a method of cooking mutton inside its own carcass. And in America, enslaved Africans (who only had access to cheaper, tougher cuts of meat) drew on Native American techniques to develop the low-and-slow process which we can now confidently refer to as Southern barbecue.
Indeed, whether you agree that barbecue goes back some 2 million years or not, the evidence suggests that at least hundreds of thousands of years of cooking over flame has made a delicious difference to our DNA. Perhaps that’s why, despite the invention of increasingly convenient cooking gadgets, we still do it. It’s a celebration – of the weekend, the weeknight, the sunshine, whatever it is we decide to celebrate. It enables us to connect with our ancient ancestors and our primal selves. And most importantly, let’s not forget the crucial reason those ancestors of ours continued to cook with fire after they first discovered it: it just tastes better.
So, how was the brisket? It was positively species-defining.