If you stand on top of the stairs in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, you can witness the chaos of the kitchen that serves thousands of people each day. Women, men and children busy themselves making dough for rotis and mixing huge vats of dal and sabzi. You can’t hear words, just the clang of steel plates, some indistinct yelling of orders and the low hum of people at work. In the langar, seated on a long white cloth with a row of strangers, you would never imagine what goes on behind the scenes. There, you’re just one of many- cross-legged on the floor, eating a humble meal side-by-side.
“There’s something that draws us to the hearth”, Michael Pollan says in his documentary series Cooked, as a video montage of smiling families eating together plays on the screen. He’s right. As the langar would show you, there really is something about food that brings us all together.
And it’s not just the langar. In South India, people sit in similar such rows (known as panktis), eating on fresh banana leaves. During Ramzan, families break their day-long fast by sitting together to eat from one large thaali. This act of eating together is known as commensality. The word originates from the Latin words com- together and mensa-table. In its newer forms, commensality is found in the millennial YouTube fad “mukbang” (which translates to- “broadcast eating”), in which people shoot themselves eating meals while talking to the camera i.e. their viewers. The fad began in South Korea, where eating alone is frowned upon. Simon Stawski, a Canadian blogger who moved to South Korea in 2008 explained to Today Food-
“Dining is a social activity, and you don’t sit and eat alone. For those that can’t eat with others, they’ll more than likely stay home to eat alone, but they’ll still have the urge to socialize while eating, which is what I think mukbangers replicate.”
But when did this commensality begin? When did we first come together at the table?
It all seems to boil down to one fascinating human activity — cooking.
To understand the role that cooking has played in our lives, we need a history lesson. And this is not just any history lesson. We’re going back almost 3 million years to our ancestors. Before our ancestors became human, they had to first become human-like.
And so we find our origins in the australopithecines, who resembled chimpanzees in all aspects but one- they walked upright, much as we do. This one feature marks the beginning of the almost infinite thread that joins you and me to them. The australopithecines evolved into habilines, who had bigger brains than non-human apes. And thousands of years later, these habilines evolved into Homo Erectus (also known by some as Homo Sapiens), whose anatomy closely matched ours, and who, in time, would evolve into modern human beings.
But how did this evolution happen? What happened in that approximate period of 1.2 million years that fundamentally changed the australopithecines into Homo Erectus? The Homo Erectus walked and ran as we do, had our stride, and had bigger brains and smaller teeth than their chimpanzee-like ancestors. They looked more like us than any prior species. So what’s the missing link in our infinite thread?
According to primatologist Richard Wrangham, it has a lot to do with how we ate. Wrangham has spent years studying human evolution and one of his key findings is to do with the role that cooking with fire played in this process. We’ve all heard of how pre-humans found fire, and the image of an ape-like man nonchalantly rubbing two rocks together, only to accidentally light a fire is etched in all of our brains. But what he did with this fire may have brought us to where we are today. You see, when raw food is put over a fire, it changes completely. Suddenly, a hunk of meat can have a smoked flavour, berries can be reduced down to a syrup, and tough vegetables can be softened.
Cooking didn’t just increase the possibilities of what could be eaten, it also made eating ridiculously easier. Our chimpanzee ancestors spent almost 5 hours a day just chewing on raw food, and the body spent an immense amount of energy digesting such food. Suddenly, these energy requirements were drastically cut down. Our ancestors could now use this time and energy elsewhere- to think, imagine and discover new things. Consequently, it was around this time that brain size is said to have expanded, increasing their capability for new skills and deeper thinking.
But cooking also did something else that fundamentally changed us. Cooking necessitates dependence- on fire, as well as on the person at the fire. Most animals hunt and gather for themselves. But cooking, by nature, is a social act. Someone had to hunt, someone had to gather, someone had to stand by the fire and look over the food and someone had to protect the cook from possible thieves or predators that may have gotten attracted to the fire or the aroma of food. Cooking required people. Of course, today one can cook and eat a meal all by themselves. But we don’t face the threats our ancestors did. Even still, the sociality of cooking is evident in larger gatherings. Think of family ceremonies, festivals and celebrations- cooking and eating together tend to be a large part of these.
According to Wrangham, the social nature of cooking is also likely to have affected temperaments. If our ancestors had to be in close proximity of each other when eating, they had to be capable of peaceful interactions. Longer face-time with one another would have also facilitated some amount of empathy and the ability to read and understand expressions. Eventually, the act of cooking and eating together could have been a major factor in the development of social groups like families and communities. Males and females began depending on each-other for hunted meat and cooked meals, thus shaping their relationships. Cooking gave rise to a sense of ownership over food and rules of sharing. Even in tribes today, outsiders must ask or gesture for food appropriately in order to receive it and are not entitled to it as family members are.
There’s a reason then, that we tend to come together with food- at mealtimes, in social gatherings, in public festivities and celebrations. In many ways, that is what ensured the survival of our species. That sense of warmth and belonging at a family dinner was sparked millions of years ago when our ancestors gathered around the hearth to share a meal after a hard day’s work. It is what got us a seat at the table.