The origins of cooking cannot be exactly traced, but for sure, it has evolved significantly. For cooking to be possible, the discovery of fire must have happened first. Most likely, the first person who discovered how to cook has done it by accident. Maybe, raw meat happened to fall in a fire, and man has found out that it was tastier and easier to chew. Since then, the rest was history.
It was believed that primitive humans have begun to cook 250,000 years ago by tossing a raw piece of something into the fire. The first method of cooking was roasting, where a fish or a bird was placed on the end of a stick and held over an open fire. Some scientists say that the Peking man roasted meats, but there wasn’t enough evidence to support the claim.
It was the sole cooking technique until the Aurignacian people of France started to steam food wrapped in leaves over hot embers during the Palaeolithic Period. Pottery was introduced during the Neolithic Period, and humans learned to cook in clay pots and used containers made of wood and antlers. The earliest dish was a crude paste, made by mixing water with cracked kernels of wild grass. When dropped on a hot stone, the paste will turn into bread, which was the Stone Age version of the Romans’ pulmentum or the Italians’ polenta.
Egyptian wall paintings that date back to 4000 BC show that ancient Egyptians used cooking methods such as roasting, broiling, frying and boiling. There were also Biblical references to ancient methods of cooking, and early carvings from Assyria and Babylonia indicate use of charcoal in cooking pans. Baking came during the invention of the oven, and the first ever oven discovered dated back 6,500 years ago. During 168 BC, the first baking guild was established in Rome.
The civilization of Mesopotamia brought one of the biggest developments in human history. Plant irrigation and cultivation, as well as plant and animal domestication, were done by people of Mesopotamia since 9,000 BC. Crops such as grains, barley, wheat, beans, peas, lentils, leeks, turnips, onions, radishes and garlic were being planted during 3,000 BC, and the Mesopotamian diet is usually made up of such. People knew how to take care of sheep, cattle and ducks for food. They also hunted pigs, deer, game birds, gazelle and fish. Generally, meats were smoked, dried or salted for preservation, and were cooked by roasting, broiling or boiling.
Boiling and stewing were done using pots placed near the fire, or in cauldrons suspended over a fire by hanging from a tripod formed by three poles joined at the apex or by fastening chains attached to a beam. A basic dish was made up of lentils, beans and grains.
When the Egyptian civilization began around 3,100 BC, more types of animals were domesticated and more food-bearing plants were grown. By then, the nobles and the rich were served with elaborate stews which were prepared with more sophisticated cooking methods. Meanwhile, the peasants’ basic meal consisted of bread, onions, fruit and beer. The leavened bread was also believed to have been first prepared in Egypt.
The Roman Empire made cooking into an art form. During the 1st century AD, simple meals were replaced by elaborate banquets, and chefs specialized in disguising food. That time, the earliest collection of recipes that survived in Europe was also written, and it was known as the Apicius, or De re coquinaria. The compilation was done in between 4th and 5th century AD.
In the Middle Ages, what people eat depends on who they are. During feasts, large numbers of invited guests were served different dishes of varying number and quality of courses according to social status. The rich always ate better than the poor (and it looks like it has never changed, even today).
The average men had no kitchen; but in castles, monasteries and palaces, there were huge kitchens equipped with all kinds of cooking wares and utensils. Huge houses had bread made in tall ovens, and their dinner included a roast, white bread, quarry, and a custard or pudding.
From the 1400s through the 1500s, spice trading became popular, and more ingredients had been gradually added to recipes. Portuguese vessels reached South Africa, India and China to trade spices. These were used generously to create savory and flavorful dishes.
The Renaissance period brought in famous cooks and notable advancements in cuisine. That time, Italy had the most famous, skilled and creative chefs in Europe who took fine dining into new levels. The banquet tradition and the flavors of Medieval times were carried over to the Renaissance.
The menu during the Renaissance period has greatly expanded. You can find a large selection of foods like pasta, bread, hard biscuits, wine, rice, cheese, pecorino, pizza (with no tomato sauce yet), sausages, omelettes, meatballs, pork, fish and small birds or game. People developed a taste for giblets of butchered animals. Soups and stews were staple foods and were eaten both by the poor and the rich. Cakes and flan became popular for desserts. Olive oil was used in cooking. Milk and dairy products became a need, and most households could make their own cheese.
In addition to spices, fruit and citrus became basic flavoring agents. They also used light sauces made of aromatic plants or fruit, to be mixed with bread, flour, eggs or almonds.
In 1533, Catherine de Medici arrived in France from Italy. She brought her master chefs with her who carried Italian staples like broccoli, artichokes, veal, baby peas and pastas. The French court tasted, and the country’s cuisine started to produce the most complex and refined dishes in the West.
When Louis XIV was king of France, his second wife founded a school that granted blue ribbons for girls who won honors in cooking. Up to now, the blue ribbon is a symbol of high quality in food. His steward, Louis de Béchameil, had the béchamel sauce named after him. And during his term, coffee was popularized in the French Court because of his ambassador of the Turkish government.
Other processes on handling food were developed in the coming centuries. One of the biggest changes came in the mid-17th century when the cast-iron range was developed and began to replace open fireplaces. It radiated more heat and burned less fuel than typical fireplaces. The first instance of cooling was recorded in 1748 when William Cullen at the University of Glasgow tried to produce refrigeration. It was successful, but did not advance past the laboratory stage. The first refrigeration machine, however, was developed in the US in 1844. Meanwhile, the tin can was invented as a tool for preserving food in 1810. Its development was triggered by the problem of feeding military forces in the field. In addition, gas was first used for cooking during the 1840s – and since then, the use of gas in the kitchen has been popular.
The 1700s and the 1800s brought us our fast food favorites. The sandwich was invented by John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich in 1762. The Margherita pizza, the first relative of the pizza we know today, was invented in 1889. Meanwhile, the first hamburger and steak sandwich were sold in 1895.
In 1765, the first modern version of the restaurant appeared in Paris and was opened by a soup salesman named Boulanger. That was also the year when the word “restaurant” was used for its current usage for the first time. And by 1789, just before the French Revolution began, there were already 100 restaurants in Paris. Some of the most notable chefs of this period include Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who published the first book on the fine art of gastronomy, La Physiologie du gout, or “The Physiology of Taste”; and Marie-Antoine Careme, who was the first “celebrity chef” as he served European royalties and pioneered in early French haute cuisine.
It was during the 1860s when the first cereal and margarine were introduced. That decade, Kellogg started to manufacture toasted wheat flakes and other vegetarian foods in the US. Margarine was developed using beef fat as primary ingredient.
20th century cooking
During the 20th century, science and technology became significantly advanced, so food preparation and preservation were greatly affected. Processes like refrigeration, freezing, heating and canning had improved, making preservation of foods a lot easier.
The use of electricity in homes also started in this era and it paved the way for the development, manufacture and use of electric kitchen appliances. The first electric range was introduced in 1914. The microwave was invented in 1947. Other kitchen gadgets like mixers, waffle irons, coffee makers and blenders emerged during this century.
Food preparation had become a lot easier even for non-cooks because of the development of packaged mixes. Ready-to-cook mixes for baked goods (like pancakes, cookies and cakes), instant coffee mixes and powdered milk and chocolate, as well as easy-mix sauces like gravy and curry became very popular.
The American cuisine largely evolved and developed during this era. In 1931, a perpetual best-selling cookbook entitled The Joy of Cooking by Irma Starkloff-Rombauer was published. The cookbook, which celebrity chef Julia Child considered as “a fundamental resource for any American cook,” is a comprehensive compilation of classic American and European recipes with detailed discussions of every aspect of food preparation and clear explanations of culinary techniques. It enlarged the American cuisine as a whole, and it has sold more than 18 million copies.
The history of cooking is very broad and long, and new kitchen developments are still being made throughout the years. There are still a lot to improve and discover, but the stories of inventions and developments are too wonderful to not appreciate because they are the reason why we enjoy food so much today.