Cooking is the root of all evil

If we hadn’t learned to roast meat, many of society's ills would never have happened.

The evil that chefs do lives after them. Until his death on 24 June, the Galapagos turtle known as Lonesome George was the rarest creature in the world, his forebears hunted to oblivion by hungry sailors.
 
Then there is the deadening legacy of the Rio+20 summit – an “epic failure”, as Greenpeace put it. We might not be eating rare species to the brink of extinction any longer but, as a result of our activities, climate change will drive many species to their doom. And it is clear that the chefs are to blame for this, too.
 
To see why, we have to take a closer look at the human brain. In order to harness resources that ensure our survival, human beings have learned a range of skills that makes us uniquely dangerous. We learned how to domesticate animals, tame wild land for agriculture, build cities and design and construct machines for rapid travel over vast distances.
 
It takes extraordinary cognitive abilities to pull all this off. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the human brain is not particularly unusual. An analysis published in the 25 June edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America shows that a human being’s brain is just a scaled-up version of the generic primate brain.
 
The human brain has about 85 billion of the glial cells that provide a scaffold for the information-processing neuron cells – of which there are roughly 86 billion. This is the same ratio of processing cells to support cells as found in other primate brains. The common report of ten (sometimes 50) times as many neurons as support cells is false.
 
Then there is the claim that the human cerebral cortex, the outer covering of grey matter, is particularly rich in neurons. It is not: the ratio of normal, cerebellar neurons to cortical neurons is the same in human beings as in every other mammal, adjusting for how the density of neurons varies with brain size. 
 
Brain size does differ wildly across nature. But many creatures have large brains only because they have large neurons; a tenfold increase in the number of neurons in a rodent cortex results in a fiftyfold increase in brain size. Primates, on the other hand, pack small neurons: ten times as many neurons give a brain only ten times bigger.
 
Basically, our advanced cognitive abilities arose because we have packed the largest number of neurons into one network. Our brain size seems to have crossed a threshold, a tipping point that switches on the kind of innovative thinking that launches technological development on a scale that can change a planet.
 

Meat is murder

 
The thing is that those extra neurons use up a lot of calories, calories to which the great apes can’t get access. Neither could the earliest human beings. But somewhere in early human evolution, we managed to find the extra few hundred kilocalories a day necessary for our brain expansion. How did we do it? By harnessing fire. Put simply, cooked food yields much more energy than raw.
 
So, it was the first chefs who created the modern human – and all the devastation its brain has unleashed. The cooking of Galapagos turtles was only the final act of the chefs; without the first of their kind, Lonesome George would not have been lonesome at all. If we hadn’t learned to cook, we would never have been able to come up with the means of global travel, prompting us to look for food in far-off places.
 
Without roasted meat, there would have been no Industrial Revolution, no devastation of swaths of Planet Earth’s animal and plant species, no catastrophic climate change. The politicians are off the hook – bring me the head of Jamie Oliver. 
 
Michael Brooks’s “Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£12.99)
 
From global warming to extinction: modern problems come down to meat. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle