Let me tell you about a timeless being who just happens to be real. Someone who has brought comfort, joy and satisfaction to a majority of the 100 billion people who have walked this earth. This story encompasses epochs and empires - a heroic tale, huge in scope and steeped in the millennia of human existence. Like any great saga it can not be told in one sitting. So folks, without the benefit of CGI and name superheros, let's begin with the origins story.
Throughout history, high achieving showboats like scientists, athletes and artists, messiahs, philosophers, kings and queens have been revered for their thoughts and deeds. Good luck to them. For my money the really special person through the ages has been the Good Cook. With skill and love they took the bounty that the Lucky Hunter provided, and with inspired alchemy, produced something way yummier than just simple nourishment.
The Good Cook was not content with hunks of flesh, sinew and bone chucked on the fire. He or she was not satisfied munching raw nuts, grains and greens. They got sick of mono-flavored meals and one ingredient dinners. Call it a gut feeling, but the Good Cook knew that there was something more.
They would have faced resistance for sure – scorn, impatience and ridicule. Food tasted better cooked but anything else delayed getting it in your gob. Why waste time to change what already worked? The kill 'em, burn 'em and eat 'em crowd no doubt hated all this sissy mucking around with their tucker. Until they tasted it.
Imagine that curious prehistoric cook with a blade of shiny obsidian and a basalt grinding stone, hunkering down to analyse processes and ingredients. Imagine that mouth and that brain sifting through possibilities, alert to subtle differences, making choices. Through trial and error they came across some winners.
Nixtamalizating maize with lime or ash made it healthier, safer and tastier. Medium rare meat, crispy crunchy on the outside but juicy inside, got the most happy grunts. Fermented seeds and fruit in water made singing and dancing lots more fun. Fat dripping from roasting meat could be caught and reused for basting or making pemmican.
Mixing and matching food, though limited by season and environment, resulted in culinary brainstorms. A pile of fresh bones cooked with these particular herbs produced a mighty tasty soup. These berries roasted with dove was just brilliant - actually way nicer than sweaty grungy sex on the muddy cave floor, but don't tell the hubby. These inquisitive epicureans got as complemental as anything, collecting, preserving and carrying spices and herbs. If truly blessed by the gods they even found salt. When they identified the sweet spot in a mix of ingredients and cooking techniques - then they'd reproduce it again and again for the tribe. In a harsh world with little in the way of comfort and luxury, the first Good Cooks got a lot of love. In increments, century by century, all around the world, these scientists of the sensual invented cuisine.
You know that time-travelling guest list question – who would you invite to a dinner party? Well I wouldn't invite Kit Marlowe, Ava Gardner, Jimi Hendrix, Bessie Smith, Cleopatra or Modigliani. No, I'd want Mesopotamian mamas and Mesolithic cuisiners, the Maglemosian gravlax artistes and Cuddie Springs bakers. All them old school cooks. And not just to sit and eat, but to cook too. I'd learn how to make a menu of early homo sap favorites, a veritable smorgasbord of antediluvian chow. Mammoth liver ceviche and Toltec tamales - flamingo filled. Saber-tooth steaks and Egyptian locusts fried Sebilian style. Salted sturgeon with reindeer quark and mashed wapato with smoked American eel. All washed down with Cauim and Sura and Mead. It would be a feast for the ages.
I'm fascinated by these pioneers of the palate. Who first stuffed a bird with herbs, fat and grain? Who originally understood that first industrial microorganism – yeast - and knocked out a bakers dozen? Who first mixed egg and flour, rolled it out in strips and boiled it to make pasta? By God that's clever. And who first glazed a leg of boar with wild honey! Utter genius.
I love them for what they did. I honor them each time I cook. Such invention, such transcendental bliss - bestowed upon us from a distant age. Those unknown icons made breakthroughs of far more value than ballistic missiles, tuxedos and Donkey Kong. They undoubtedly changed the tone and tenor of human existence. Hell - I believe they changed our collective souls. Those paladins of the piquant deserve memorials in city squares and their visages carved upon mountainsides. If only we knew who they were.
So the next time someone cooks you something really nice, take a moment as you eat and reflect upon who they are. They're not just your talented other half, friend or family member. They aren't merely a fine cook or chef in an eating establishment. They are something more. Dwelling inside them is an immortal persona. Take a sip of your drink, attend again to your lovely food, and ruminate on a lineage stretching back into the mists of time. Those heroes laid the foundation for what you're now enjoying. If you're feeling it, then make a toast to, or buy a drink for, the Good Cook who just made your meal.