As one cookivore to another…

Man is the only animal that blushes – or needs to. That was Mark Twain’s take on what separates humankind from the other critters that call Planet Earth home, but what really makes us different from all the other species?

Language? Heck, no. I listen to robins and finches talking their beaks off every morning. And who knows what wolves are communicating in those long and haunting arias they sing after sunset?

Use of tools? No, again. Chimpanzees use sticks to fish termites out of nests. Crows use rocks – and even parking lots – as anvils to smash open clams and mussels. My own dogs employ a tool to get out of the house and come back in whenever they please (that would be me).

Some say humans are the only animals who create art. I say, check out the construction of a Baltimore oriole nest before you make that claim.

Does the fact that we’re civilized set us apart from “lesser” beasts? Puh-leeze. Hitler? Mao? Pol Pot? Osama? The World Wrestling Federation? I rest my case.

Nope, according to an American professor by the name of Alfred Crosby, what separates you and me from lemurs, spider monkeys Australopithecus africanus and neon-butted baboons is … our ability to fry an egg. More particularly, Crosby points out that Homo sapiens is the only species on the planet that takes the trouble to cook its food. He says that simple difference has made all the, er … difference.

Cooking food is a knack our Stone Age ancestors picked up about 20,000 or 30,000 years ago. We’ll never know exactly which Cro-Magnon or Neanderthal first accidentally dropped his raw deer haunch into the campfire, gingerly pulled it out, brushed off the ashes, took a bite and said “Mmmmm!” but we owe him a ton, says Professor Crosby. He argues that cooking allowed our forebears, for the first time, to do some of the work of digestion outside their bodies. It transformed unpalatable or even inedible foods such as leathery meat and hard grains into relatively decent grub. A few million hot meals later, Stone Age man had evolved into a creature with a larger brain and a smaller gut.

Upgrading from carnivore to cookivore had an even bigger payoff – it forced humankind to get its act together. “Cooking, like hunting, obliged human hunters, gatherers, fire-tenders and cooks to plan and co-operate,” says Professor Crosby. “Chimps spend six hours a day chewing; cookivores only one.”

I wish I could take pride in my mastery of this one unifying characteristic that separates us from the lesser orders, but the fact is – I can’t.

I fricassee not. Neither do I barbecue, blanch, broil or griddle. Fact is, I don’t cook. I’m not proud of it but I’m also not sufficiently ashamed to sign up for a cooking course. I am fortunate enough to share a home (and a dinner table) with one of the most sublime food-fixin’ aficionadas in the nation, but if she went on strike, I still wouldn’t cook.

I’d just eat lots of baloney sandwiches.

Or perhaps I’d win the lottery and spend the rest of my life treating my sweetie to three squares a day in five-star restaurants. I’d be cool and sophisticated about it, though. Not like the American tourist I heard mouthing off in a Chinese restaurant last week. He was peering at the menu, reading out various dishes in a loud voice and guffawing over the strange and exotic names.

Then he came to Bird’s Nest Soup.

He waved for the waiter to come over, and then bawled, “You tellin’ me you serve actual bird’s nests as food?”

The waiter said yes and explained that this particular bird used its saliva to cement the nest together.

“Whoa!” yelled the tourist. “Are you saying I’m supposed to eat spit from a bird? I’m not paying good money to eat something that comes out of a bird’s mouth!” The waiter asked if he would perhaps prefer to order something else from the menu. “Yeah,” said the tourist. “Just fix me an omelette.”

Arthur Black has been nominated for and received just about every award available in Canada for writing, humour and journalism.