Old flames: There’s more to fire than just the role it plays in cooking
What is it about cookery shows that draws us to them? We don’t get to eat the food, and often we are so mesmerised by the razzmatazz that we don’t actually follow the process of cooking. But food programmes — hosted by trained chefs, villagers, writers, homemakers, and so on — have us all hooked. Why? I think I’ve found the answer — it’s the sight of a fire burning bright that draws us.
Where there’s food, there’s fire, at least in some form. Fire figures prominently in a book I have been reading — Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. The cover is rather attractive — it shows a nicely browned sausage. I could imagine it sizzling over a crackling fire. And I could even get the aroma of a somewhat burnt sausage.
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Pollan writes about people’s fascination with watching food being cooked. “I would watch, rapt, when my mother conjured her most magical dishes, like the tightly wrapped package of fried chicken Kiev that, when cut open with a sharp knife, liberated a pool of melted butter and an aromatic gust of herbs. But watching an everyday pan of eggs get scrambled was nearly as riveting a spectacle, as a slimy yellow goop suddenly leapt into the form of savoury gold nuggets.”
What he doesn’t add — but I happily imagine — are the merry flames of fire leaping up as his mother holds the pan away from the stove to ensure that the eggs don’t coagulate in the heat.
The book, lent to me by a friend, is an eminently readable work on all that goes into food. The section on fire is particularly illuminating. Human beings, Pollan writes, were eating raw food till an accident happened in a Chinese home, as described by the 19th century essayist Charles Lamb in ‘A Dissertation upon Roast Pig’.
This is the story of a young man named Bo-bo — “the dimwitted son of a swineherd named Ho-ti.” Ho-ti had gone out in search of mast for his pigs when Bo-bo, who apparently liked to play with fire, accidentally burnt down the house. Along with it, a litter of piglets got charred. Bo-bo liked the aroma, and when he tasted the burnt skin of a pig, he quite liked it. His father found it irresistible too, but father and son decided not to let their neighbours know about it lest they disapproved of the use of fire on living beings. But soon strange stories started going around: “It was observed that Ho-ti’s cottage was burnt down more frequently than ever.”
Applying the heat of fire to food, Pollan tells us, transforms it in several ways, “some of them chemical, others physical — but all with the same result; making more energy available to the creatures that eat it. Exposure to heat ‘denatures’ proteins — unfolding the origami structures in such a way as to expose more surface to the action of our digestive enzymes.” In plant foods, fire “gelatinises” starches, the first step in breaking them down into simple sugars. Heat turns many foods which are toxic if eaten raw — cassava, for instance — tasty and more nutritious.
But there is more to fire than just the role it plays in cooking. It also brings people together.
Pollan writes: “‘The culinary act from the start is a project,’ according to Catherine Perles, the French archaeologist. ‘Cooking ends individual self-sufficiency.’ For starters, it demands collaboration, if only to keep your fire from dying out. The fire itself draws people close together, and introduces the unprecedented social and political complexity of the shared meal, which demands an unprecedented degree of self-control; patience while the meat is cooking and cooperation when it is ready to be divided.”
I second that. I think the best potatoes I have ever eaten were at a late friend’s farmhouse long years ago. We got a fire blazing and then roasted potatoes pierced on tongs over it. Once they were tender, we dabbed some butter on them, and a pinch of salt and pepper. The potato skin was hot and crisp, the inside deliciously oozy. We sat by the fire and felt a sense of tribal brotherhood.
I didn’t know then — but I do now, thanks to Pollan — that it was the fire which did it.
Rahul Verma likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.