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Biotech Science

Cooking Stimulated Big Leap In Human Cognition 473

Posted by kdawson
from the yet-another-preprocessor dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "For a long time, humans were pretty dumb, doing little but make 'the same very boring stone tools for almost 2 million years,' says Philipp Khaitovich of the Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai. Then, 150,000 years ago, our big brains suddenly got smart. We started innovating. We tried different materials. We started creating art and maybe even religion. To understand what caused the cognitive spurt, researchers examined chemical brain processes known to have changed in the past 200,000 years. Comparing apes and humans, they found the most robust differences were for processes involved in energy metabolism. The finding suggests that increased access to calories spurred our cognitive advances, although definitive claims of causation are premature. In most animals, the gut needs a lot of energy to grind out nourishment from food sources. But cooking, by breaking down fibers and making nutrients more readily available, is a way of processing food outside the body. Eating (mostly) cooked meals would have lessened the energy needs of our digestion systems, thereby freeing up calories for our brains. Today, humans have relatively small digestive systems and allocate around 20% of their total energy to the brain, compared to approximately 13% for non-human primates and 2-8% for other vertebrates. While other theories for the brain's cognitive spurt have not been ruled out, the finding sheds light on what made us, as Khaitovich put it, 'so strange compared to other animals.'"
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Cooking Stimulated Big Leap In Human Cognition

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  • So... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:14PM (#24575853)

    ... if we feed animals with cooked food they will start to get intelligent?

  • Enabler, not cause. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by fastest fascist (1086001) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:22PM (#24575953)
    Sounds to me like cooking provided an opportunity to grow a bigger brain, but I don't think it explains the need. Something else in the environment made having a bigger brain increase the odds of reproduction, and cooking made it easier to provide the nutrition needed for that brain.

    In any case, I don't see how we're "so strange compared to other animals". Seems to me we're remarkably similar, I can't think of any fundamental differences between us and other animals that are more than a matter of degree. Well, I don't know of any animal religions.
  • by kesuki (321456) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:29PM (#24576035) Journal

    how many generations have pigs been slopped from table scraps?

    do domesticated pigs have higher IQs than wild boars?

  • by argent (18001) <peterNO@SPAMslashdot.2006.taronga.com> on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:37PM (#24576123) Homepage Journal

    The singularity model (some say fantasy, some say theory, call it what you will) is basically that once technology can be used to improve intelligence you get a feedback loop that leads to a society and environment that is literally incomprehensible to the people on the low side of the singularity. This is usually proposed in terms of *designing* brains that are smarter than the ones that designed them, but there's no reason to rule out less fantastic advances as part of the same process.

    I think this qualifies as a singularity, from the point of view of the pre-humans.

  • by BhaKi (1316335) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:49PM (#24576265)

    to start stabbing pigs and eating meat

    Humans didn't START eating meat. They always were.

    instead of just plants

    There was never a stage in human evolution which involved 100% herbivorous diet.

    Humans at first only ate meat. Very soon, they started eating plants too. And much lately, some of them disliked meat and became vegetarians.

  • Re:Wait, what? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Adambomb (118938) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:55PM (#24576325) Journal

    well, i suppose that's why they're so tentative and saying it is not yet linked as causation. What they're most likely referring to is the possibility of humans accidentally cooking food, realizing it was tastier/giving them more energy, and THEN moving on to deliberately invent things.

    Seems like a fair shot in the dark, but it's not entirely without basis. Invention isn't always a proactive process, sometimes things just happen and critters decide they prefer it that way.

  • A better explanation (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @06:55PM (#24576327)

    A much better explanation comes from Dr. Temple Grandin in one of her books: Animals in Translation. She posits that humans and dogs co-evolved, allowing humans to develop their cognitive side at the expense of their sense (smell, hearing).

    A lot more convincing argument than cooking, imho.

  • Perceive things (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Deliveranc3 (629997) <deliverance@nosPAM.level4.org> on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @07:11PM (#24576435) Journal
    One of my English profs said "Everything is representation." and he's right in a very literal as well as metaphorical sense.

    Everything is programmed into us except our reaction to the first stimulus we receive.

    The more similar the programming the more identical we are... Travelling to different cities around the world I found that people had similar ways of viewing things.

    It's the interaction between different viewpoints that creates the tension that produces innovation.

    A brilliant mind sees things more clearly, a genius sees things differently.

    Taking a step back and asking what you're really trying to accomplish can make all the difference, that's the great thing about programming... we solve a problem forever the better you become the more global your solution...

    "God sees the grain of sand in the beach and also the world in a grain of sand."
  • Our teeth are strangely structured if we first ate only meat. I suspect we were omnivores from the start with some populations sticking to fruit, others to nuts, maybe even shellfish or fish or whatever was handy.

    That is the only way to explain how and why we became so travelled... we weren't stuck to only one kind of food.

  • by VoidEngineer (633446) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @07:24PM (#24576567)
    Something else in the environment? How about *everything* else in the environment. Or, more simply, the environment itself.

    This is 150,000 years ago. These people had no electricity, no medicine, no civilization... basically, they had nothing. Average life expectancy was something around 30 years, if that. Break a leg, you're dead. Get the flu, good chance you're dead. Run into a saber tooth tiger, you're definitely dead. At this point of history that they're talking about, humans were *not* at the top of the food chain, there was no civilization where a person could seek shelter, there were no medications, diet was iffy. And there were plenty of nasty animals running around ready to eat a person!

    Something else in the environment? I don't think you appreciate just how difficult it is to live off the land and survive out in the wilderness. Particularly when you're not at the top of the food chain.
  • Mr. Darwin approves (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Eil (82413) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @07:30PM (#24576613) Homepage Journal

    "For a long time, humans were pretty dumb, doing little but make 'the same very boring stone tools for almost 2 million years,'

    Yeah, and life itself was pretty dumb for 3 billion years, floating around in oceans being lazy and photosynthesizing for food. Until about 1 billion years ago, one of them said, "screw this, I'm going multi-cellular so I can _earn_ my food."

    This is not news, this is evolution. Some species was simply bound to evolve advanced mental capcity at some point.

    (Though you wouldn't know it from watching American TV.)

  • Re:AUGGGHHH (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Rei (128717) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @07:36PM (#24576677) Homepage

    Actually, this implies just the opposite. Cell membranes (meat) are easy for the body to break down. Cell walls (plants) are quite difficult, and cooking greatly facilitates their digestion. Cooking meat usually somewhat increases its caloric density (by driving water off, making it denser), but *decreases* its total calories (by driving fat off and breaking some proteins down). Cooking plants doesn't increase their calories, but generally makes them more bioavailable. It also lets you eat a more diverse variety of plants; many wild plants are toxic in their uncooked form, and heat denatures the toxins. In many more, heat won't denature the toxins, but repeated boils in changes of water can get rid of them. And, apart from some certain hunter gatherer societies (such as the Innuit), most hunter-gatherer groups get about 80% of their calories from plants.

    So, really, it's just the opposite of what you're suggesting.

  • by Denial93 (773403) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @07:49PM (#24576795)
    Those results are outdated as it has been found the pigeons will immediately revert to normal behaviour once they are out of those tiny cages.

    However, it has been found that primates occasionally react to thunderstorms as they do to rival members of their species (baring teeth etc.), which implies they personify forces of nature to a degree. Stewart E. Guthrie, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Fordham University, has written about that.
  • Re:well.... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jandrese (485) <kensama@vt.edu> on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @08:08PM (#24576939) Homepage Journal
    I saw a TV special on raw food people once. It was a house with like 20 hippies living in it. The one guy was all gung ho about "raw" food and was going on and on about how cooking destroys the food man, but the rest of the people (in the background) were clearly not enamored with his leafy vegetable "burrito". The guy's attitude was so "holier than thou" that I wanted to smack him in the mouth. Seriously, it was like the guy who became a Vegan to one-up his vegetarian friends, but then moved in with a bunch of other Vegans and had to figure out a way to one-up them.
  • by ChrisA90278 (905188) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @09:00PM (#24577327)

    You can say it is "more than a matter of degree" But then so is walking on a see-saw. Walking up the beam a foot is just like walking up the beam 13 inches. Until you get ot he balance or tipping point. Many things in science and biology are just a matte of degree until you reach so threshold.

    Rockets are that way too. Every one of them will fall back to Earth, until you make one just fast enough and it escapes gravity never falls back. There are many examples. What we'd like to know about humans is when and where that "tipping point" occured. We inched along for 2 million years then bang, took over the planet in only 100,000 years. What caused us to change to quickly?

    While other animals do pass on knowlage to their offspring humans crossed some threshold in their ability to do this. Possibly it was the accumulation of knowledge over many generations that forced us to become specialists and divide labor.

  • Re:AUGGGHHH (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gstoddart (321705) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @09:30PM (#24577547) Homepage

    Button mushrooms are just about tasteless. It's impossible for them to be yuck.

    Only uncooked.

    If you fry mushrooms in a little butter or oil, grill them slowly, or simmer them for a little while until they give up their liquids, their taste and texture changes quite a bit.

    There's a lot of flavor in mushrooms and there's a lot of umami [wikipedia.org] in them -- basically it enhances the flavors of other things. The texture changes from a slightly dry and chalky one to a 'meatier' denser bite. Grilled portabello mushroom goes well into a bun like a burger, and also makes a fantastic taco filling cut into strips.

    Button mushrooms may not be the most flavorful of all of our mushrooms, but, properly prepared there's a lot of taste to be had in button mushrooms. In a curry for example, mushrooms bring a lot of their own flavor as well as soaking up a lot of the other flavors, you just have to know how to cook 'em right.

    I usually cook between 2 and 4 lbs of mushrooms per week -- trust me, they're quite tasty. =)

    Cheers

  • psychotropics (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Haxx (314221) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @09:34PM (#24577573) Homepage

    Several articles have been published stating a possibility that early humans eating plants containing psychotropic chemicals as part of thier diet for generations may have lead to advanced cognitive thinking. Psychotropics can also lead to run on sentences.

  • by myrdos2 (989497) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @10:03PM (#24577785)

    Ten years ago I helped raise Russian wild boars. They have incredible instincts. We used to joke that the boars had a wiretap inside of our kitchen. In the morning, we'd discuss which boar to kill. We'd get all ready, load the gun, and step outside. The pigs would look up from behind their fence, give a grunt of alarm, and the one we had chosen would run off into the bush. The rest would settle down and continue eating.

    Trapping them for transport was also quite challenging. We had a small pen with a portcullis-style drop down gate. You'd drop the gate by pulling on a string. It was easy enough to lure the boars in there with food, but dropping the gate was another matter entirely. Even with ten meters of string, the boar would run out before we got close enough to pull it. We had to resort to seemingly unnecessary measures like 50 meters of string, which would be pulled while out of sight behind a building.

    But if we weren't trapping anything that day, we could get as close as we wanted and they'd stay happily eating in the pen. They could also tell when the electric fence was down, and there'd be escapes if the power was out for more than a few hours.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @10:15PM (#24577855)

    At no time in history have humans had access to more calories than we do now. In the US in particular we are in danger of eating ourselves to death. I also notice a lot more stupidity. Bush was elected twice, after all. If that isn't direct evidence of stupidity on the part of people with too easy access to calories, I don't know what is.

    You want to see someone who is smart? Let someone go a couple days without eating and you'll see creativity in action.

  • Re:well.... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by carlzum (832868) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @10:23PM (#24577915)
    There was (is?) a "raw foodist" restaurant near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. They did things like bake pizza in the sun, which seemed more like serving poorly cooked food rather than raw food. I thought it was a stupid idea, I'm glad to see there's evidence that it is indeed stupid. There are plenty of sound arguments for reducing or eliminating meat consumption, but a strict raw food diet smacks of self-satisfied douche-ism.
  • by PitaBred (632671) <slashdot@pitabre ... rg minus painter> on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @10:37PM (#24578013) Homepage

    Just FYI, average life expectancy was low because lots of children died. Means (which is what is typically meant by average) are a pain in the ass like that... they don't take into account the shape of the curve. If you made it past childhood, you stood a fair chance of hitting 45-50 [wikipedia.org]. Then it started going downhill again.

  • by icegreentea (974342) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @10:52PM (#24578119)
    Some nutrients will break down in the cooking process. Others become more available. Cooking vegetables tend to increase the amount of calories, but also loses some micronutrients in the process. Given today's world (1st world anyways) where getting calories isn't too much of a concern, then they can judge that eating raw is 'worth it'. Should be noted that meat doesn't really gain much for being cooked.
  • Cooking (Score:2, Interesting)

    by zogger (617870) on Tuesday August 12, 2008 @11:29PM (#24578341) Homepage Journal

    Cooking could make a lot of foods more digestible (and softer, useful when there is no dental care...), but it has an additional benefit that would have helped ancient man evolve tech faster, and that is, it kills parasites and bacteria, etc. Those folks who cooked their foods would have lived longer because of this, and had time to take their acquired memories and knowledge and keep trying out new things/new tasks, finding more efficient ways to do things. That just takes time, and having "elders" who lived decades longer would have certainly helped out. And then having elders who were smart and had a lot of wisdom to pass down but were starting to get frail would have meant that those societies who took care of their elders would have developed social cohesion earlier, which would have meant a more rapid "brain multiplier" effect because of having a lot of accumulated knowledge in a small geographic area which was available to more people.

  • by arminw (717974) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @12:31AM (#24578695)

    ....we would never would have such big brains ...

    If the size of brains were a measure of intelligence or how much of a given brain is used, elephants should be incredibly smart. Just as there is more to the capability of a computer than its raw hardware, so too, is there more to intelligence than the size of a brain. Just as a computer is a careful combination of software and hardware, so it is also with human intelligence. There is the physical hardware of the brain, but there is also the nonphysical software, the mind. Just as in a computer the hardware and software interact to form the total experience, or if you will, its intelligence, so too it is with people.

    Just as the basic software that runs a computer is not utilizing its total hardware all the time, so too, the software of the human mind does not always fully utilize the capability of the hardware of the brain.

    The whole purpose of this thing we call education is nothing more than a downloading of (mostly anyway) useful information and programming into what was originally a largely empty information processing hardware we call brain. We still know very little about exactly how much information and programming this cranial hardware can accommodate and exactly how it operates.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @02:08AM (#24579191)

    [teaching/learning purely through communication] does not occur in the animal kingdom.

    ...as far as we know, we're the only species capable of abstract concepts and associated reasoning...

    Actually, neither of these is any longer true since experiments beginning in the 1960s (I think; perhaps the relevant work didn't begin until the 1970s).

    Chimps do communicate symbolically in ways that still aren't clear today. One of the now classic experiments is to sequester a group of chimps, show *only* one of them a (fake) snake or food or other stimulus, reunite the group, then release them into the experimental area and observe their behavior. Through means not yet understood (some proto-linguistic communication it is thought), the whole group reliably acts appropriately even though only a single member was given knowledge of the stimulus. They find the food quickly or steer clear of the threat. Sometimes the insider even lies about the location of food, sending the group to one corner while he makes a bee-line for the hidden food.

    Locke's claim "Beasts abstract not" has also been overturned, particularly by language experiments (chimps do recombine language in novel ways that demonstrate knowledge of abstract meanings and abstract application to novel situations).

    Nobody really thinks chimps or any other non-human animal is likely able to do mathematical abstraction or philosophical introspection, but chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and probably several other higher primates demonstrably do abstract. They also communicate symbolically, as do the cetaceans, and even honeybees.

    As for the "spirituality" argument, humans are not unique on that front either. Humans, Neanderthals, and at least some other contemporaneous members of the genus Homo had similar and sometimes overlapping "religious" culture, as seen in burial practices and artwork. The difference between humans and chimps is slim indeed, even though humans are not descended from chimps. The differences between humans and the now-extinct contemporaneous members of the genus Homo are smaller still, to the point that humans and Neanderthals (and possibly others) could interbreed.

  • Cooking == Rotting (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DynaSoar (714234) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @02:14AM (#24579215) Journal

    Cooking is forced decomposition. The "easier" calories are, as TFA says, from pre-processing otherwise difficult to digest material. Scavengers have been around for a long time. Where's the smart vultures?

    The pre-processing most relevant to cognition is making making the nucleotides adenylate, inosinate and guanylate easier to extract, from which the neurotransmitter glutamate is made. Glutamate availability is well documented as necessary to effective cognition. We are tuned to detect those nucleotides via the "5th taste", umami. Monosodium glutamate is to tongue receptors what benzodiazapines and narcotics are to the brain's GABA and endorphin receptors -- fake keys that fit the locks. Food treated with MSG seems "heartier" when tasted, and one might feel full sooner because the brain is easily fooled, but hungry again sooner because the stomach is slow, but not stupid. Chinese and similar cuisines are rich in glutamate containing foods, and frequently MSG is added (as "meat tenderizer" or "flavor enhancer") to the food.

    It remains to be seen whether the "intelligence" (more undefinable as you know more about it) is a beneficial evolutionary trait. We haven't been around in the "smart" version long enough to serve as proof. "Intelligence" may be nothing more than one mutation that provided a species one means to become the ecological equivalent of a cancer, and providing us with the ability to live in denial of our nature by deluding ourselves about "superiority".

    The superior design may well prove to be a scavenger (make no mistake, we are) with low water content and requirement, and cognitive abilities may prove irrelevant or even counter-productive. What species is expected to survive a nuclear war, and what species can conduct one?

    Evidence of scavenger nature in humans and cockroaches (and the delusional nature of the former) can be found in "social facilitation". Performance in enhanced by the presence of others. Cockroaches run mazes faster when they "know other cockroaches are watching". Bugger*. How can they have what in us we consider to be a highly complex (ie. "social") behavior with no cognitive ability to speak of? They don't "abstract" being watched. Social psychology needs to check in with evolutionary biology. The scavenger that detects competition will do what it can to get to the calories fastest -- run faster -- and thus be more successful. Or it might just use its mutant powers to conduct rapid decomposition on demand as well as pretend it's not just rotten**.

    *,** Both double meanings unintended, but I'll take them.

  • by mux2000 (832684) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @03:20AM (#24579485)
    Painting Elephant [youtube.com]
  • by chthon (580889) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @03:23AM (#24579501) Homepage Journal

    When I was at school and had to learn hard for examinations, I always had more hunger than on normal days.

  • Layman's Title..... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by IHC Navistar (967161) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @05:02AM (#24579945)

    "Eating (mostly) cooked meals would have lessened the energy needs of our digestion systems, thereby freeing up calories for our brains."

    -----Brains don't "run off" of calories. Neurons use the differene in electrical potential, not heat (calories). Nerves fire based on differences in potential and maintaining resting potential (Na+/K+-ATPase). The only things consumed in brain activity are sodium, potassium, and ATP. The brain does not "burn calories", and does not need calories. Calories are a measure of heat energy. The brain functions by using electrochemical, not thermochemical, energy. Rather, it "burns" sodium, potassium, and ATP.

  • by Weedlekin (836313) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @05:03AM (#24579951)

    if we ignore all the other palaeoanthropolical evidence, i.e:

    1) Bones burned at high temperatures found in caves show that Homo Erectus was regularly cooking food 1.5 million years ago. This is unsurprising because we know they used fire, and and it doesn't take very long for those sitting around a fire to accidentally drop some food in it, fish that food out with a stick, and after eating it, discover that it tastes better than the raw variety.

    2) Humans didn't display any technological superiority over H. Erectus, and were technologically inferior to H. Neanderthalenis until around 40,000 years ago. That 40,000 year figure is crucial, because this is the period when we began to produce art, and our tool technology started to incorporate various innovations that H. Erectus and Neanderthal tools didn't have.

    3) H. Erectus kept evolving, and eventually developed a brain similar in size to our own (i.e. their brains doubled in size) long before modern humans appeared, while H. Neanderthalensis had a bigger brain than modern humans. It should be noted that H. Erectus is by far the most successful human species, having survived for almost 2 million years (followed by Australopithecus Aforensis, who was around for a million years).

    3) H. Neanderthalensis had a more sophisticated culture than ours until 40,000 years ago (again, the 40,000 year break point). They buried their dead, had production lines for tools, and maintained a trading network over long distances while H. Sapiens was spending the first 100,000 years of our existence being primitive aboriginal bushmen in Africa.

    The best theory I've seen to explain why humans changed from a very long period in a static, very primitive state is that the climate changes caused by the Indonesian super volcano which led to the "bottleneck event" that nearly destroyed our species favoured the brightest and most innovative people who were able to formulate survival strategies that didn't occur to less imaginative individuals. The ice age which the event caused also wiped out the majority of H. Erectus and H. Neanderthalensis, so those newer, brighter humans were able to expand into new territories without having to compete with significant numbers of other human species who had been technologically, culturally, and physically superior to them before the bottleneck event occurred.

    The bottleneck event happened around 60,000 years ago. By the time its effects had completely disappeared, H. Erectus was extinct, H. Neanderthalensis had been depleted to a level they never recovered from completely (they lived in Europe and Asia, both of which were especially badly hit by the after-effects of the super volcano), and the entirety of H. Sapiens was represented by as little as 2,000 individuals living in small, scattered groups whose entire intellectual capacity was dedicated to the difficult business of survival. The fact that it took us another 20,000 years to reach a point where our culture and technology went beyond the levels that other human species had reached hundreds of thousands of years previously is an indication of how difficult the job of merely surviving was during that time, and how close we came to following H. Erectus and H. Neanderthansis into the oblivion of extinction.

  • by WileyC (188236) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @07:51AM (#24580731)

    Actually, the explanations are the SAME. In both cases, metabolic energy was shifted from one source (heightened senses, digestion) into brain power. Just in one case we used dogs and the other, fire.

    Every feature of an organism has a cost... humans shifted the cost from almost our entire structure toward brainpower. As it turns out, that was a good idea!

  • by uptownguy (215934) <UptownGuyEmail@gmail.com> on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @09:03AM (#24581475)

    Sounds to me like cooking provided an opportunity to grow a bigger brain, but I don't think it explains the need. Something else in the environment made having a bigger brain increase the odds of reproduction, and cooking made it easier to provide the nutrition needed for that brain.

    I'm quibbling with one word here, but evolution isn't really about need. Human-like animals didn't have the need for a bigger brain in the aggregate. The species was stable enough. For hundreds of thousands of years. Of course during those hundreds of thousands of years, individuals faced with immediate threats to their survival (attacking lion, river overflowing its banks, etc.) would have been well served by a bigger brain. As you said, cooking made it easier to provide nutrition needed for bigger brains so a critically larger subset of the population had bigger brains. Then, when those individuals were faced with environmental pressures (lion, flood, etc.), those with bigger brains were better able to survive that pressure -- and better able to keep their offspring alive. A human who could "figure out" the smartest course of action had a better chance of surviving and would live to cook another day. As more of these survived over time, the odds of reproduction, as you said, went up. It didn't have to happen that way. There was no need. It just happened to happen.

  • Re:AUGGGHHH (Score:4, Interesting)

    by gstoddart (321705) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @09:27AM (#24581775) Homepage

    There definitely are plenty of mushrooms that have strong flavors of their own! But as far as I understand, in everyday usage "mushroom" means the white button mushrooms without much flavor of their own.

    Not really. The white mushrooms are the ones you're going to see most often, and since they're cheap, it's what most people will buy.

    But, to those of us who cook (and, especially those of us who love mushrooms =) your supermarket will usually have trumpet, crimini, portobello,and shitake in addition to the ubiquitous white ones. Then there's usually several dried varieties which usually travel from someplace else -- like a lobster mushroom, which isn't a specific kind of mushroom, but one which has a fungus growing on it which makes it red and gives it a different flavor.

    Go to a Chinese grocer (or a good grocery store) and you'll find even more varieties of dried mushrooms, with much stronger flavors.

    For many of us, mushroom just covers the whole spectrum of tasty things out there. Include the whole spectrum of fungus, and you'll get up into things like truffles, which can be some of the most flavorful (and expensive) foodstuffs.

    Cheers

  • Re:AUGGGHHH (Score:3, Interesting)

    by NulDevice (186369) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @10:22AM (#24582857) Homepage

    More time-consuming intially, yes, but it also allowed a centralized location for food production. If you have a "farm", you don't need to travel as far to find food, and you can often generate enough of it to store for the non-productive season - which means you can stay in one place. Get a number of farms in similar areas, you have agriculture. Then specialization. Then towns and cities start to form. And so forth.

    Also, a lot of early agriculture was only slightly more advanced than basic hunting-gathering - wasn't so much "work the land, till the soil" as "hey, tasty stuff grows here, maybe we should make sure we leave enough behind so it grows there again next year."

    If you're interested in this sort of paleo-history, I recommend the book "After The Ice" which is a remarkably detailed look at the rise of civilisation, including basic agriculture arising from hunter-gatherer groups, after the last ice age.

  • Re:AUGGGHHH (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Reziac (43301) * on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @01:09PM (#24585967) Homepage Journal

    That's true, but at the level we're talking about in TFA, we're still mystified by seeds, and might have discovered tilling the ground with a pointed stick. Try that someday, if you want to experience real backbreaking labour... especially in grasslands. In fact, healthy grasslands are just about untillable, beyond a household vegetable patch that will take you a month to prepare, without plow beasts and the related technology (we're not even up to iron plowshares yet).

    "Good stuff grows here" is gatherer, not farmer, and requires no labour whatever other than occasionally going to pick the stuff, or driving off competing deer. Trouble is, it tends to be extremely seasonal. Frex, you've got about two weeks to harvest grains before they fall to the ground and you pick them up one kernel at a time .. not practical with pre-selective-breeding grains, which are very small (and avariciously competed for by small rodents).

    I used to harvest a sort of dryland precursor to rice that grows wild in Montana. It has big tasty seeds compared to most wild grasses, yet a whole day's work resulted in just one small bowl of food. In the same time and with less effort, I could have killed a couple dozen squirrels and had meat for a week.

  • by zooblethorpe (686757) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @01:14PM (#24586067)

    I think you might be a bit confused about how tofu is made. Fermentation has never, to my knowledge, been part of the production process, and it certainly isn't how tofu is generally made in Japan today.

    I lived down the street from a tofu shop for close on three years, and had occasion to see the whole process from dried bean to tofu block, which this fellow did every morning. Basically, he'd start with a lot of dried soybeans, cook them, mash them, add lots more water, and then boil the bejebus out of them. At some point when the resulting milky mixture looked right to him, he'd add a special sort of salt called nigari or "bitters", which would cause the proteins in the soy milk to coagulate -- much like adding lemon to simmering dairy milk when making paneer. He'd then remove from the heat, and when cool enough, use cheesecloth (though for him I guess it's really tofu-cloth) to press the curds together. He had wooden block molds for giving the tofu a shape, and then it was just a matter of sticking them in the fridge until it was time to cut off a chunk for the day's customers.

    The stuff called yuba in Japanese is basically the skin that forms on top of the boiling soy mash, and is essentially the same phenomenon as the skin that forms over simmering or boiling dairy milk. Some places in Japan even specialize in yuba, in particular one restaurant right across the river from the Tôshôgun in Nikkô, on the second story of the building on your left as you cross the bridge to leave the Tôshôgun and head back down to the train stations.

    Looking it up over at Wikipedia [wikipedia.org], I find that the nigari salt is usually magnesium or calcium chloride, derived from seawater. I also find mention of some fermented tofu varieties [wikipedia.org], but these seem to be specialty products created from regular unfermented tofu, and also appear to be Chinese. I never saw nor heard of them in Japan, FWIW.

    (As an aside, what is up with this ancient slashcode not correctly displaying the full range of Unicode? I can't even get macrons to show up properly in simple Latin Extended-A, let alone non-Latin charsets. Growl...)

    Cheers,

"The only way for a reporter to look at a politician is down." -- H.L. Mencken

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