Monday, June 18, 2012

Prometheus Unbound

            According to Greek myth, Prometheus had stolen fire from the gods and gave it to mortals. For this the gods condemned him to be chained to a large boulder, where, every night, an eagle would eat his liver. Forever.
            Maybe Prometheus’ punishment was just. Imagine eating constantly eating raw antelope. Imagine constantly freezing, even in Sub-Saharan Africa. Imagine being constantly being attacked by insects, lions or the dark.   
            But controlling fire was not just a matter of stealing it. Fire is a complex chemical reaction involving oxygen, fuel and an ignition source. Unless all three elements are present, a fire will not start. It’s still a wonder that humans managed it at all. While dates for man’s earliest control range from 1.7 million to 400,000 years, for most anthropologists, incontrovertible evidence of controlled fire appears around 125,000 years ago.

         Fire has had a remarkable effect on our own evolution. According to the anthropologist Richard Wrangham, the ability to cook food with fire was the defining moment in evolution: it explains the shift from the more ape-like Homo habilis to our modern ancestor, Homo erectus. As cooking makes food more bioavailable, more energy could be devoted to human brain and body development than on digestion. Although direct evidence of cooking, such as ash deposits and carbonized animal bones, is often lacking in archaeological records, Wrangham argues that smaller teeth and larger brains suggest fundamental changes in eating habits from raw to cooked.
But the most interesting aspect of Wrangham’s thesis is on human sociality. Before fire, everyone foraged for him or herself. You eat what you can find. But as cooked food takes time and effort, it soon becomes a valuable resource. Wrangham argues that it is this need to protect food that formed the need for social bonding between sexes.
While some anthropologists dispute Wrangham’s interpretation of the archaeological evidence, there is little dispute about the importance of fire to humanity. What Wrangham does not discuss in detail is how early man may have prepared food. What kinds of tools did they use? How did they manage heat? How did they know when food was done? Modern kitchens and recipes with their measurements and standards cannot answer these questions.
For Niklas Ekstedt it is this standardization in modern cooking that has erased the ancient craft knowledge of our hominid ancestors. Reading 17th and 18th c. Swedish cookbooks, Ekstedt noticed the inordinate amount of attention paid to cooking fires. As a challenge to himself and the dining establishment, the owner/chef of the eponymous restaurant Ekstedt in Stockholm has based an entire menu only using wood-based fire. There are no gas stoves, no electric ovens, no pacojets- only open fire, a hearth oven and a wood burning iron stove.
The tacit, embodied knowledge of how to build a fire and how to cook over fire cannot be written down. It is this knowledge Ekstedt wanted to recover in his restaurant. Ekstedt admits the learning curve was steep. In an experience he likens to Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki, building the restaurant and the menu required the staff to set aside past experiences: “We all started from scratch.” Everything, from how to build the fire itself, to which woods were best for cooking, and which utensils and cooking equipment functioned best, demanded a complete re-thinking from the team’s culinary training. . Hardware warehouses replaced kitchen supply stores. Soldering irons, heavy gloves and blacksmithing tools became commonplace.
Diners have also had to test their palates. Ekstedt still uses traditional Scandinavian ingredients, but the fire and custom utensils make for new dishes. Damp seaweed is used to package mussels inside a wire basket. Lobster is smoked in a chimney. In a twist on using traditional cast iron cooking, Ekstedt incorporates the iron itself into the dishes. By throwing acid into his cast iron pots, iron leeches into sauces, purees, and garnishes. The result is diners saying, ”I haven’t tasted this before.” 
            The most unpredictable factor of all is the fire itself. As Ekstedt acknowledges, “No one is bigger than the fire.” Just as cooking changed social relations for early man, the fire in Ekstedt’s kitchen has changed the hierarchy of his kitchen. There is no “I” in fire. “Everything I know I learned from my team.”
            Karl Marx called Prometheus “The greatest saint and martyr of the philosopher’s calendar.” Although fire’s gifts have been many, perhaps the greatest gift lies in society. For Niklas Ekstedt, the revolution has just begun.