Food Writer Analyzes Grilling

Karl Marx wrote that history is driven by the sequence of modes of production, but modes of food production may not have been what he had in mind.

Even so, renowned chef, food writer, and host of PBS’s “Primal Grill” Steven Raichlen argued that barbecue played a key role in human evolutionary and cultural history during a lecture Tuesday night in the Geological Lecture Hall of the Peabody Museum.

Raichlen, whose career as a food writer has focused almost exclusively on open-flame cooking, guided audience through global grilling culture, starting with its prehistoric invention, in his lecture, titled “Man Food Fire: The Evolution of Barbecue.”

Raichlen has gained particular acclaim for his blending of the study of cooking with broader scientific and literary narrative.

In Tuesday’s presentation, Raichlen began with a detailed comparison of prehistoric skulls.

Human’s early ancestors, such as Australopithecus and Homo robustus, had huge jaws designed for the laborious task of chewing raw meat and plant matter, Raichlen said.

It was not until sometime in the era of Homo erectus—some two million years ago—that fire was first harnessed, Raichlen explained. It was almost certainly an accidental discovery, probably from lightning or lava

“In any case, someone tasted and uttered the first grunt of gastronomic pleasure,” Raichlen added.

Raichlen proceeded to describe the numerous evolutionary benefits conferred by our prehistoric ancestors’ consumption of cooked foods.

The human jaws and teeth shrank, with easier matter to chew. Our brains grew, Raichlen argued, because they had more fuel—cooked food was easier to metabolize.

Human culture got a head start, according to Raichlen, as the division of labor developed: one group stood around tending the fire, while another ventured forth to hunt.

“Barbecue begat civilization,” Raichlen said.

The talk ended with a series of pictures of grilled foods from around the world, including spit-roast lamb from Azerbaijan, grilled eggs from Cambodia, and French mussels cooked directly on a bed of pine needles—“the best two-ingredient meal on the planet,” said Raichlen.

Directly after the talk, a barbecue and beer tasting was provided on the third floor of the Peabody Museum. The food was provided by Jason Bond of Cambridge’s Bondir Restaurant and included lamb belly in buccaneer sauce and charred spring onion. Cambridge Brewing Company provided the beer.