From rainbow-hued, enameled stewpots to lightweight, nonstick frying pans, the metal and ceramic vessels we use to heat our food are such an everyday aspect of the kitchen that they’re easy to take for granted. But make no mistake: The invention of the pot was, after fire, one of the most important innovations in cooking. You’ll want to hug your favorite skillet after coming along with us on this journey, which ranges from some of the earliest clay pots ever found in what’s now the Sahara Desert, to the British round-bellied cast-iron number that kick-started the Industrial Revolution, to a legal challenge in Ohio that raised the question of Teflon’s health and environmental impact. Plus, can science help us find the perfect pot or pan? Listen in to find out.
In our last episode, we covered one of the most important innovations in human history: cooking food over fire. But, although cooking may have made us human, it is the invention of pots that made us into cooks. As Bee Wilson, the author of Consider the Fork and a frequent Gastropod guest, explains: “Pots led to cuisine itself. To me, it’s the great beginning of cookery.” Tens of thousands of years ago, the invention of pots brought with it life-changing benefits: prolonged cooking could slowly break down plants like yams and cassava that would have otherwise been inedible; the process releases more starches from foods and therefore more calories; long boiling kills harmful microbes and thus makes food safer; softened food like grains could be fed to babies, allowing children to be weaned earlier and leading to yet more children and early population growth; and finally, the ability to create dishes that were cooked slowly and indirectly, mingling many different ingredients, made the business of eating a lot more delicious.