A Cook's Diary

The Origin of Grilling as a Cooking Method and Why We Gather Around Our Food

Earlier today, we had grilled pandan chicken for lunch. During the meal, my younger girl, Alex, asked where grilling as a cooking method originated. I told her that, as far as I know, it originated everywhere because the first cooking method in human history is cooking directly over fire. Not exactly grilling as we know it today—with a rack and charcoal underneath—but outdoor cooking with minimal tools and equipment. Just a live fire, a primitive pit and skewered animal carcass.

The Origin of Grilling as a Cooking Method and Why We Gather Around Our Food

Image credit: Hedwig Storch (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

That I might not have given Alex a comprehensive and satisfactory answer bugged me. What I really meant was that, during the Paleolithic era, there were humans in different regions of the world and it looks like they all learned to cook. The conversation played in my head over and over long after the table had been cleared of soiled plates, spoons, forks and drinking glasses. And, as I indulged in my favorite past time—overthinking—I came up with more questions than answers.

When did man start cooking his food?

Man did not cook his food until he was able to control fire. But how and when exactly the primitive man discovered that meat is tastier and easier to chew after it had been exposed to fire, no one might ever know. Perhaps, lightning hit a tree, a forest fire ensued and animals died in the fire. In the aftermath, man tasted the meat of the burnt animals, liked the experience so he started cooking meat instead of eating it raw.

The popular belief was that man was able to control fire some 500,000 years ago during the Paleolithic era, and that was about the same time that he started cooking his food. There are some, however, who say that man started cooking his food much earlier—around 1.7 million years ago or even earlier. Because these beliefs are at the mercy of relics and fossils already discovered, we don’t know if the date will change once more with the discovery of more relics and fossils in the future.

Why do we gather around our food?

I imagine our ancestors during the Paleolithic era. They used dried leaves, twigs and logs to light a fire. They skewered the carcass of an animal and cooked the meat over the fire. They were all there, gathered around the fire, and after the meat was done, they cut portions from the cooked carcass and ate. Right there.

The Origin of Grilling as a Cooking Method and Why We Gather Around Our Food

Image credit: Allentchang at en.wikipedia (Own work Transferred from en.wikipedia) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine us today during meals. We put food on the table, sit around the table and eat our meal. Why do we? Why is the dining table so constructed so that the diners sit around it when it can be one long structure set against the all where the diners sit only on one side? Is the dining table a result of social evolution—a natural progression from the primitive cooking fire?

What if we modify the scenario? Let’s put the cooking pot at the center of the dining table. Yep, like a hot pot. Have you ever wondered why many people consider hot pot dining so much fun? Isn’t it so much similar to the primitive man’s way of cooking food and then gathering around to share it? Despite our modern stoves and pans, hot pot dining is essentially a gathering around food and a shared cooking and dining experience.

The Origin of Grilling as a Cooking Method and Why We Gather Around Our Food

Image credit: 663highland (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Then, there’s the fondue. It may be smaller than the primitive cooking fire and melted cheese is not the carcass of a slaughtered animal, but still… you can’t miss the similarity. Fire at the center and diners around it. The tools may be different and the food more refined but we still do as our ancestors did. We gather around our food.

Why do we? What makes the experience of dipping pieces of food in a common bowl so good? Why does it translate to warmth and intimacy? The obvious answer, of course, is that there is an unspoken bond among people who gather around their food. Whether the bond is based on blood or shared life experiences doesn’t really matter. Even when strangers sit down to meal, as the meal progresses, they find that they are no longer strangers to each other.

The outdoor grill: human collective unconscious or tradition?

We use three kinds of grill in the house—two indoors (electric and stovetop) and one outdoor (using charcoal). Indoor grills are convenient but cooking on them don’t excite us as much unless we put the grill right on the dining table like we did on Christmas day.

And yet, when we grill outdoors with charcoal, the grill is like a magnet. At one point or another, we find ourselves hovering around it despite the smoke that blow on our faces. Instead of wincing, we relish it as though in anticipation of the food that will momentarily go into out mouths.

Just what is it about an outdoor grill that makes us feel good? Is it just “for a change” or is it something deeper—like, perhaps, a subconscious attempt to mimic the cooking practices of our ancestors?

If we are to believe Carl Jung, there is a human collective unconscious that binds us to our ancestors and their experiences. Jung write in “The Significance of Constitution and Heredity in Psychology” (1929):

The existence of the collective unconscious means that individual consciousness is anything but a tabula rasa and is not immune to predetermining influences. On the contrary, it is in the highest degree influenced by inherited presuppositions, quite apart from the unavoidable influences exerted upon it by the environment. The collective unconscious comprises in itself the psychic life of our ancestors right back to the earliest beginnings. It is the matrix of all conscious psychic occurrences…

Now think about the outdoor grill (or the camp fire on the beach, for that matter). We embrace it but we don’t exactly know why. Is it an illustration of Jung’s “human collective consciousness” or am I just overthinking all this?

Perhaps, it’s something simpler and Jung’s “human collective consciousness” does not apply at all. Perhaps, it has more to do with childhood memories. We remember carefree summer days and the grill in the backyard. We think of our youth and times spent on the beach with friends building a fire and downing bottles of beer around it. Perhaps, it is the emotions we experienced on those occasions that we recall.

Perhaps, perhaps…

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