You probably use the oldest form of cooking quite often, or eat foods cooked in this way. Every time you cook on the grill, you are doing it. And any time you go out of a nice fire-grilled steak, you are eating food cooked in the oldest way.
The oldest form of cooking is basically fire-roasting and, specifically, open fire cooking. The earliest forms of open-fired cooking would have consisted of placing food ingredients straight into a fire. Yep, right into the ashes! Some indigenous societies still cook in this way. We know from archaeological evidence that humans have been cooking over fires since the Stone Age.
Suspending foods, especially animal carcasses over a fire using a spit, or green saplings crossed over a fire to form a makeshift platform, are not really that much different than our barbecue grills. Fire pits are another early form of fire cooking. Today, we still love to cook with fire, of course, we have just become ever more proficient in controlling fire, as our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have become.
An oft-repeated tale about the momentous discovery of roasted meat is Charles Lamb’s story in his “A Dissertation upon Roast Pig.”
Lamb’s story centers on Bo-bo, the son of a pig farmer who lives in China. He accidentally sets ablaze a house in which reside a litter of piglets. Bo-bo smells the savory scent of the roasting meat, and takes a fragment of the scorched pig skin to become the first human being to discover the glorious taste of “crackling.” After that he was enraptured and set to the meat with gusto, tearing off big chunks of it and stuffing it into his mouth.
When his father Ho-ti came around, he was absolutely shocked to see his son “eating fire” and devouring burnt pigs, and began to beat his son, raining blows down on shoulders. Bobo scarcely noticed! “You graceless whelp, what have you got there devouring? Is it not enough that you have burnt me down three houses with your dog’s tricks, and be hanged to you, but you must be eating fire, and I know not what – what have you got there, I say? When Bo-bo told him it was the pig, his father was horrified. But Bo-bo thrust some into his hands, which burnt his fingers. When he licked them to cool them off, he tasted the flavor of the roast pork, and then father and son together gorged themselves on what remained. 1
This story may be entertaining, if a little disturbing, but it is also ridiculous. Fire-roasting predates houses by thousands of years. It certainly predates domesticated pigs. It also predates agriculture, and it predates, of course, pottery for boiling or for making ovens. Pigs weren’t domesticated in China until around 7000 or 8000 BC, and by that time humans had already been eating roasted meat hundreds of thousands of years.
In fact, the earliest evidence of cooking, to date, places it as long as 800,000 years ago. 2
We can never know exactly how fire cooking was discovered, although it was almost certainly by accident. In that regard, Lamb’s story may not be too far off, as humans may have inadvertently come across burned animal carcasses — victims of lightning fires, for example. As man learned to control fire, he would also learn to replicate this accidental discovery.
Cooking meat, and then later cooking other foods that would otherwise be indigestible or deliver only meager sustenance, is one of the most important developments in human history. It made the foods more easy to digest and hence more nutritious. According to some theories, this provided the surplus energy to fuel the evolution of a large brain. Cooking was only the start. Humans learned to use fire any many different ways. The fire became a focal point of existence during all of human history after this development. You may not realize it, but this hasn’t changed! (Additional source: 3)
- Lamb, Charles. A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig. Boston: D Lothrop, 1888.
- Barnard, Alan. Social Anthropology and Human Origins. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2011. 44.
- Karlin, Mary. Wood-fired Cooking: Techniques and Recipes for the Grill, Backyard Oven, Fireplace, and Campfire. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed, 2009.