If you love to cook, you will love Richard Wrangham’s cooking hypothesis. This British primatologist proposes that we humans stepped away from the other apes (who still spend most of their time grinding bitter berries and fibrous roots between their massive molars) when we tossed those tubers into a fire and then drew out something infinitely more savory and digestible.
In his new book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, he suggests that when we tamed fire and began to cook our food, we increased the flavor and the volume of energy we can get from food — and at the same time reduced rot. Win-win. Wrangham’s theory is summarized in Scientific American: modern humans need a lot of high-quality calories (brain tissue requires 22 times the energy of skeletal muscle); tough, fibrous fruits and tubers cannot provide enough. Heat alters the physical structure of proteins and starches, thereby making enzymatic breakdown easier.
I’m all for cooking food. Guests gathering in my kitchen as we all prepare a meal is my favorite kind of get-together — but there is something so elemental about spotting a bramble laden with blackberries, followed almost instantly by the sensation of a mouthful of rich juice and nutritious seeds.
Last week, while contemplating our building site, on a day when I underestimated how much food to bring, I was more than fortified by a clump of ripe chokecherries from a low branch, as I carefully spit out the seeds and meditated on this dark, almost sweet fruit so rich in antioxidants. Earlier in the year I multitasked by munching peppery, young garlic mustard spears – simultaneously getting my daily greens and clearing out a nasty patch of invasives in my woods. (See my post Pass the Garlic Mustard, Please .)
Walking up Lloyd’s Lane and spotting a patch of the rare wild red raspberries, putting down my tools and pausing to enjoy their exceptional sweetness makes me feel a kinship with ancient ancestors who must have relished these gifts from nature as much as I do. (Well, probably a lot more.) These days I appreciate my wild food finds’ unconditionally organic quality and the way I can almost feel it revving up my immune system.
Euell Gibbons (biography here ) was my hero from my first year in college. My well-thumbed Stalking the Wild Asparagus gave a city slicker dreams of off living the land – an ideal I have never come close to achieving — yet.
Gibbons’ own survival during the dustbowl, and that of his whole family, depended on the wild food he foraged for them in that sparce landscape, and later, during his hobo period, he lived by what he could forage on the road. His books are full of practical information on how to find and prepare wild foods, and as I learn how to turn some of my acres to sustainable agriculture, I also want to make more and more use of the edible plants already growing there.
Last week, while pushing our way along a trail we did not clear this summer, Doug and I rediscovered a handful of wild plum trees that line the fence row along our eastern property line. Their fruits were starting to ripen, to an orange-tinged pink, and inside the biggest ones was sweet, musky flesh with eye-squintingly tart skins. Yesterday we went back with a tarp and a bag to shake the branches and harvest.
Wrangham, who has spent much of his life studying the way apes eat, notes that the typical fruit they live on is not like a grape or apple from your grocer’s produce bin, but something we spit out as too fibrous and bitter. I must admit that my pretty little plums, after that first burst of sweet pulp, do indeed have bitter skins.
So as a card-carrying human, I have elected to cook them. After searching online for a way to best process this precious bounty, I have found just the thing. Wild Plum Sauce. Check it out here . This site has every last detail needed to complete the project plus gorgeous photos.
With 44 acres, it’s a challenge to keep all the trails cleared, but the trail past the plum trees is now high on the list.
Let me know what you have been foraging!