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.