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In Defense of Cooking

Why raw food isn't necessarily healthier than cooked

By Henry Hong | Posted 3/4/2009

In a pretty sad reversal, staying in to cook is an event for many of my friends, while going out, or getting something to go, is the norm. I suspect this has more to do with time management than any sort of conscious shunning of the practice, and the factors of convenience (fast food) and technology (processed/frozen food, microwaves) have been well explored. Still, this troubles me greatly because cooking food and the enjoyment thereof is truly what separates us as a species. Other creatures have language, wage war, use tools, sing, dance, and, as was recently discovered about dolphins, even take complex steps to make food more palatable. But only we humans use heat (energy) to alter the structure of the things we consume to better suit our needs.

Early on, of course, it was a matter of better extracting nutrients from tough plant foods that were difficult to digest, or that would otherwise require vast amounts of mechanical processing (chewing) to be of much value as food. It is when we learned to utilize heat to essentially supplant chewing as a means of nutrient extraction that we made the leap as a species-- well, the second one, the first being incorporating calorie-rich and easy to chew animal flesh into our diet. Cooking allowed us to get more nutritional value out of certain plants, and opened up new ones for consumption via heat's ability to render harmless plants that are toxic in their raw state. All these extra available calories allowed us to develop enormous brains with huge energy demands, along with a roomy skull and uncluttered heavy-duty mastication hardware.

We've been in the "Where shall we eat?" stage of society, as Douglas Adams put it, for thousands of years now, with cooking having graduated from tool of survival to art form and medium for cultural expression. And is there any greater accomplishment that an organism can achieve than taking one of the two great challenges of existence, acquiring sustenance, and not only master it, but also elevating it to the point of being a source of pleasure? (The other, of course, is reproduction, which for humans is generally fun and easy out of the box.) Cooking is not only what made us human, it's what defines us.

So one can imagine my reaction when a customer came into my restaurant and suggested I incorporate raw foods into my menu, which he deemed to be "pretty healthy," but would be made more "complete with some raw options." No, it wasn't, "Fuck off, dumbass!" I'm a professional after all.

Raw foodism has been around for over a century in the United States now, and was covered in this paper just a couple years ago ("An Uncooked Tour," Feature, June 21, 2006). From what I can gather, it boils down to the belief that enzymes in plants that would otherwise be destroyed by heat during cooking are somehow beneficial to humans when ingested. But no human society subsists solely on raw things, and you better be pretty damn sure of your information if you're going to decide that all the collective time and energy invested in cooking over the millennia was a waste of time. Regardless, the idea persists, and lately I've been noticing signs around Baltimore that "raw food" is becoming the new "organic" or "vegan." I'm hearing the term uttered just a little too loud and smugly in conversations, a sure sign that it's becoming some sort of badge.

I could give a shit what someone does or doesn't eat and why--whatever gets you off and all that--but making a recommendation as to what I serve at my place of business, or how I eat for that matter, amounts to proselytizing in my book. And then it's only fair you be able to answer some basic questions about the thing you're pushing. My questions ranged from how and why enzymes used by plants are necessarily beneficial to us humans to whether the benefits of neutralizing harmful compounds and microbes via heat shouldn't perhaps factor into what makes for an overall healthy and pragmatic approach to eating.

I pointed out to him that the human digestive tract secretes the necessary enzymes for digestion, conveniently referred to as "human digestive enzymes," and that there are foods like tomatoes and pumpkins that are way more nutritious as a result of cooking.

"What about toxins in plant foods that heat is used to neutralize?" I asked. "Did you know modern lettuce is the result of selective breeding and can be eaten raw, but originally lettuce was toxic unless cooked? Plus, cooking kills things that would otherwise hurt us--not everything that grows in dirt is meant for us to eat."

For that matter, do plants exist merely to serve as food? Even fruit, which, granted, is designed to be eaten, serves a plant's reproductive strategy (via seed dispersion) rather than as a means to nourish us per se. It's really the other way around: We exist because we can extract nutritional value from stuff around us.

Alas, this particular raw foodist wasn't equipped to assuage my practical misgivings with any specific information, and instead began to explain how not cooking foods preserves "life force." At that point, my desire to remain civil prompted me to politely end the conversation, much in the same way I normally staunch potential conflict with the Jehovah's Witnesses that have recently invaded my neighborhood.

When the discourse veers from diet to quasi-spiritualism, I know it's a lost cause. Like many extreme diets, gaps in logic (and nutrition) tend to be glossed over pretty casually, in some cases with theories that wax uncomfortably close to dogma. The notions of consuming another organism's life force, and that things exist on Earth for the purpose of meeting our nutritional needs are, frankly, a bit freaky. Downright dangerous claims of disease immunity and of raw food as a cure for cancer should further prompt skepticism. But in the end, I think most can agree that incorporating both raw and cooked foods in one's diet is probably a safe bet. No shit. But that cooking is somehow evil or bad? Shit no!

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More from Henry Hong

Barbecue By Any Other Name (6/30/2010)
Or how to make Korean barbecue at a cookout

Air of the Dog (3/31/2010)
Will adding oxygen to alcohol keep you from getting hung over?

The Meat Generation (2/17/2010)
Reclaiming meatloaf before it becomes extinct

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