How the Gas Oven Changed Humans’ Relationship With Fire

The ability to turn flames on and off at will was “one of the single greatest contributors to human happiness in the kitchen.”

A black-and-white photo of a woman cooking a piece of meat in a gas oven
Bettmann / Getty

Humans are the only animals that cook their food, an innovation that changed the course of our evolution and the trajectory of the planet. But how did we tame those early cooking fires and put them in a box—and what can subsequent leaps forward in heating technology tell us about cuisines and culture? This episode, we’re taking you on a whirlwind tour through oven history and science, from the legendary roast beef of Old England—and the special dogs bred to turn the spits on which it hung—to the curious origins of the microwave in military radar technology. What do we gain and lose when our ovens change—and how might understanding that help with the quest to bring better cookstoves to the developing world?

As the biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham has convincingly argued, cooking was revolutionary. Heating raw food over a fire made more of its calories available and reduced the work required to digest it, freeing up so much time and energy that our ancestors could develop large brains, language, culture, and, eventually, all kinds of new cooking technologies. Inventing the techniques and technologies that moved us beyond an open fire, though, took time—both to develop and to be adopted. This episode, we travel with the food writer Bee Wilson and the historian Sara Pennell to 1600s England, to tell the story of one culture’s challenging transition from hearth to enclosed oven—a story that starts with a wood famine, involves the demise of a specialist breed of dog and a nostalgic song about the lost art of roasting, and ends up effecting a radical redesign of both the art of cooking and our relationship with fire.

In the late 1800s, the introduction of the gas oven tamed fire, making it something to be switched on and off at will, rather than carefully tended as if one’s life depended on it (which, in fact, it did). In the 20th century, the microwave promised to eliminate fire altogether, drawing on military technology to cook food using friction rather than flames. With the help of the food-science guru Harold McGee, the sociologist Elizabeth Silva, and the engineer Ashim Datta, we explore the futuristic promise of the microwave, as well as the science behind its failure to live up to the bold claims made on its behalf.

Finally, although ovens have come a long way in the developed world, an estimated 3 billion people around the world still cook over an open flame or inefficient wood stove. Michelle Nijhuis spent time in Guatemala to experience some of the environmental and health impacts of these cooking fires, which produce the equivalent of about 400 cigarettes’ worth of smoke every hour, on their users and the planet—and to try to understand why 40 years of efforts by nongovernmental organizations to deal with this problem have still not been completely successful. Can the lessons of 1600s England offer any insight for helping 21st-century Guatemalans? Listen now!

This post appears courtesy of Gastropod.