I, myself, am a self-professed foodie. Unsurprisingly, the lockdown/quarantine life has been the perfect time for me to fulfil my New Year’s resolution and spend more time cooking and baking, experimenting with new recipes, and sharing the fruits of my labour with my neighbours. It seems that I am far from the only person who has used these uncertain times to refine their cooking and baking skills. Many people have been sharing their new, delicious (and more or less successful) creations on their social media, though the endless stream of sourdough breads found on timeliness and explore pages has drawn ire from some people as well. Cooking and eating is far from just nourishment to our species, which is a rarity in the animal kingdom. So why is it exactly that humans have developed such a foodie culture?
Chimpanzees and gorillas have a rather monotonous diet compared to us, even though they are our closest living relatives. Drs Karina Fonseca-Azevedo and Suzanna Herculano-Houzel, Brazilian neuroscientists, have researched the possible reasons we, as humans, have such large brains compared to our other primate cousins. Their research suggests that perhaps our large brains compared to both our bodies and our primate cousins’, might be a result of having learnt how to use fire to cook. As brains are energy intensive organs, many raw-food-eating primates have to spend more of their time eating than humans do. Moreover, a primate living off of raw food with a brain of our size would probably spend most of their waking hours eating. Perhaps, then, cooking, which causes us to take up many more calories in one go than consuming solely raw foods would, has been an evolutionary trade-off making our bodies smaller, our brains larger, and our feeding time more special.
Dr Julie Mennella, amongst others, has done research on how children develop preference for certain foods. Her research suggests that children innately have a preference for sweet things and a dislike for bitter things, as a result of our evolutionary history. Furthermore, her research suggests that we learn about our food preferences through exposure in utero and, for breastfed babies, through breastmilk. Though later on babies on solid food can learn to like foods they initially dislike through repeated exposure. In the Season 2 episode of Babies on senses, Dr Mennella rightly points out that for human beings, ‘food is much more than a source of nutrients or a source of calories. It gives us pleasure.’
So perhaps our culinary endeavours during this unsure time are just ways for us to grasp at something seemingly fundamental to our humanity – where we can see cooking and baking as a form of community, connectedness and comfort, even in darkness and uncertainty.
Evolutionarily there might be a reason we have started to cook more, and science gives us somewhat of a perspective of why we have developed such a foodie culture as a species. There is so much more food means to us on a personal, individual or cultural level than just explained by evolution. The science suggests us that we are already connected and involved in our family’s or culture’s food structure from when we are very little, our tastes ever evolving with the wider scope of exposure to different foods. Cooking can tie us to our family histories, can make us feel connected to those that have gone before us. We can find a kind of grounding and deep humanness in plunging your hands into dough or salad. Food is a way in which we show love and care, through which we maintain social connections with our friends and families. Our recipes are what we pass down to the children in our lives. So perhaps our culinary endeavours during this unsure time are just ways for us to grasp at something seemingly fundamental to our humanity – where we can see cooking and baking as a form of community, connectedness and comfort, even in darkness and uncertainty. The real test will be if we keep up our cravings for nostalgia, comfort and connectedness now lockdowns are easing and people are trying to find a new sense of normality in abnormal times. But one truth remains: food, and subsequently foodie culture, is integral to human nature, in good times and in bad!