I have a food question that has been giving me indigestion lately. My girlfriend is on this raw-food kick. She says cooking takes all the nutrients out of things but raw you get all the vitamin goodness. Luckily we don’t eat much meat. But she does cook meat, anyway. I don’t really have a good argument against her, as much as I would like to come up with one. How much raw zucchini can one guy eat? That’s not my question. My question(s) really is (are), is she right about the nutrients thing, and how did people start cooking food, anyway? It seems to me that if it didn’t benefit us, mankind would have stopped cooking things a long time ago. But what do I know? Maybe I just haven’t eaten enough raw kale to be able to figure out the answer(s).
— Leafy Green, San Diego
Grandma tried this trick on us about ten years ago. But she found out that certain cubed raw vegetables fit nicely in a slingshot and really hurt when you get one in the eye. The elves were having none of it, and after a week or so she gave up and went back to boiling the life out of everything. So I imagine girlfriend uses the same tired arguments Grandma did, about the good digestive enzymes and full nutrients released from raw foods. How you’ll have brighter eyes and a shinier coat after a month of celery sticks and cashews. That animals don’t suffer the degenerative diseases humans do because they can’t manipulate sauté pans or pressure cookers. Well, science doesn’t much back up that foolishness, since animals do suffer arthritis and other age-related diseases. The enzyme business is bogus. And given the mouth and digestive tract of humans, we’re not equipped to get full nutrient value from a raw beet.
If you believe the most extreme archaeological guesses, man in some form has been applying fire to food for hundreds of thousands of years. By “man” they mean homo erectus, a failed spur line off the main track of modern-human development. The best guess is that “cooking” was discovered by some strange accident, not by intent. But who knows. Maybe an ancestor of Wolfgang Puck was tinkering around in his cave and hit on the idea. Meat on a stick was probably the first meal on the ancient menu. Why did it catch on? Well, the food was warm, and it was definitely easier to chew. It might have tasted better, too, if survival-oriented erectuses had finely tuned palates. This probably encouraged people to continue firing their dinners. There’s some evidence that later, grains and seeds were wrapped in leaves and steamed, a Paleolithic tamale. Another bit of anthropological wisdom is that the muscles and bones of modern man’s jaw have evolved away from raw-food eating and toward a situation where cooking is obligatory.
As for getting all the nutrients from your food, particularly fruits and vegetables, all the good vitamins and minerals are locked inside tough, indigestible (by us) fibers of cellulose. To release them for use by the body takes either chewing them to a liquid or cooking. Proper mastication could make dinnertime endless. Vegetarian animals have teeth and stomachs equipped to break down cellulose. The tenderizing effects of heat on vegetation might also have encouraged early man to keep on cookin’ since it widened the number of potential food sources. Things too tough to eat raw were made palatable by cooking. It can even detoxify some plants. So we’ve given you all the reasonable arguments in favor of steaming that zucchini, blanching that broccoli, simmering that squash, but until girlfriend gets tired of crunching her way through dinner, it probably won’t do you much good. Unless you want to adopt the elves’ cauliflower-in-a-slingshot approach.
If Amazons were Greek, how did a river in South America get named “Amazon”?
— Jason H., San Diego
True, the women warriors called Amazons originated in Greek mythology. And Greek mythology would have been familiar to certain Europeans of the 1500s. So when Spaniard Francisco de Orellana hooked up with conquistadors sailing for the New World and set out to explore the Amazon basin and in the process encountered native female warriors, naming the river was easy. He was modest enough not to name it the Orellana River and name it for the ladies.
My friend says he farts more when he goes skiing in Colorado. Huh?
— Don’t Believe It, via email
Your friend is exquisitely sensitive to his bodily functions, I think. But he also might be right. If the space program has brought us no other benefit, we have learned from it that intestinal gas expands at altitude (lower air pressure). At 15,000 feet, the volume doubles, so I can see how your friend could be tooting down the slopes. This might be enhanced by all the exercise toning up his digestion and making things move faster than usual. Always ski in front of him.