Chewing: A brief history

You'll never see a fat chimpanzee in the wild. Chimps spend about six hours a day chewing their diet of raw fruits and vegetation to absorb enough energy to survive. That explains their wide mouths and chunky teeth, not to mention their lack of time for extracurricular hobbies. (Now you know why your trendy raw foodie friends are thin, but listless.)

In his new book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, bioanthropologist Richard Wrangham argues that when homo habilus (handy with tools) became homo erectus almost two million years ago, it wasn't his mastery of a hunting spear that swelled his brain and shrank his mouth and guts. Rather, it was his discovery of cooking, which softened food, streamlined the chewing process and expedited the absorption of more calories, thereby freeing time and energy for other pursuits. Humans, Wrangham says, "became evolutionarily wedded to fire."

Discovering roasted animal protein was a positive step for civilization. Our current adulterous fling with sugar and the deep-fat fryer has, alas, proved evolutionarily disastrous, as David Kessler's The End of Overeating, excerpted in these pages, makes clear.

To cut a two million-year story short, future anthropologists will conclude that humans enjoyed an unselfconscious and harmonious relationship with food between the first bite of a roasted mastodon butt and the first bite of a Big Mac. After that, food lost its innocence, and became a source of mental and physical obsession.

The most dynamic cultures between McFlintstones and McDonald's were those attentive to healthy culinary variety and refinement of service. Such cultures valued communal eating, hospitality and a well-regulated social life, which, taken together, nurture civic bonding and intellectual synergy.

It's no coincidence, for example, that intellectually unevolved societies such as the Huns and Franks were indifferent to food-based hospitality rituals or feasts. We read plenty about "mead halls" and "ale-benches" in Beowulf and other warrior sagas, because alcohol, not cuisine, governed what coarse social life there was.

Conversely, the ancient Athenians embraced food culture as a celebration of their growing civic confidence. Proof lies in the plethora of cookbooks accompanying Athens' great cultural blossoming in the fifth century B.C.E. after routing the Persians in several key battles. Humourist Lynkeus of Samos wrote The Art of Grocery Shopping. Athenaeus of Naucratis wrote a 15-book treatise of food and food-ways. The Athenian Julia Child of this era, Archestratos, that "Daedalus of tasty dishes," shopped as fussily as any modern gourmet, only buying his wine from Lydia and his bread from Phoenician bakeries.

The profession of catering was invented by the Greeks of this period -- apparently caterers from Italy and Chios were the most popular -- and culinarily indifferent Greek cities, such as joyless Sparta, became the laughingstock of Athenian humour for its boring food.

Rome was a custom-borrowing society, and elite Romans happily scooped up Greek food culture. But what we remember most about Rome, food-wise, is the period of its decadence, symbolized by disgustingly overwrought banquets and the vomitorium. We haven't gone so far as to install vomitoria in the bathrooms of fast food restaurants (perhaps an idea whose time has come back?), but in many respects our society's enslavement to the hyperpalatibility of junk food recalls the excesses of Rome in its self-destructive decline.

Our society's love-hate relationship with food has produced two eating castes. Neither is true to Epicurus' ideal of ataraxia -- the pleasure one receives from tranquil satiety, arrived at through an exquisite synthesis of culinary perfection and personal restraint, a standard achieved by the French, as well as certain Asian and Mediterranean cultures.

On one hand today we have our food patricians. They are neither tranquil nor satiated. They are so anxious about food, nobody is quite sure if they actually enjoy eating. But they do know the protein, fat, glycemic, caloric, sodium, gluten, fibre, hormone and mercury content of every morsel they and their children consume. Moreover, food patricians know where their food was grown, whose labour was exploited to produce it, how big its carbon footprint is, at what temperature it starts to lose its nutrients and what its cancer-fighting properties are.

On the other hand we have our more numerous food proles, indifferent to food facts around health and to their own dehumanizing addiction. They are obsessed with consumption of food, but remain unclear on the concept: Chewing tree bark six hours a day is healthy; chewing Doritos six hours a day ...not so much.

Pace George Orwell, if there is any hope of triumphing over Western civilization's fast food "oppressors," it doesn't lie with the proles. The price of living in a free society with ready access to cheap sugar and fat is, sadly, the freedom to eat ourselves to death.