When did we start cooking for each other – and why?

Attitudes towards food have taken many forms over the millennia. But when did the preparation of food evolve from a practical necessity to a ritualised indulgence? History has clues.

By Simon Ingram
Published 22 Nov 2022, 10:20 GMT
Ralph Fiennes plays jaded, ritualistic celebrity chef Julian Slowik in new movie The Menu – a character ...

Ralph Fiennes plays jaded, ritualistic celebrity chef Julian Slowik in new movie The Menu – a character at the centre of a demanding, exclusive restaurant where events take a sinister turn.

Photograph by Searchlight Pictures / Disney

It’s hard to overstate the impact on humankind when, at some point between 400,000 and 1.8 million years ago, a bright ancestor of ours discovered that something happened when food and fire came into contact. Not just something tasty, but something good.  

The idea caught on. Our once mighty, raw meat-ripping jaws slimmed down. Our bodily systems adapted to food that had been warmed and tenderised, releasing carbohydrate and protein and piling energy previously used for digestion into warmth, hunting and more cerebral pursuits. Primitive techniques such as wrapping food in soaked leaves over a fire to steam it and cooking using hot stones developed further with the advent of pottery, and the ability to create compound dishes and more sophisticated meals. Gradually, we evolved away from wholly raw diets altogether. We became dependent on cooked food as a species.

And then something else happened. At some distant juncture in history, humans started cooking for each other. Food became a societal ritual, as well as a practical necessity. A chance to communicate, to give and receive – and to show off. It’s a trend that continues.

Early mealtimes

The advent of cooking and its subsequent benefits – less energy and physical architecture required for digestion meant smaller guts, more energy for cerebral tasks, and eventually a bigger brain – were the start of us. Around 12,000 years ago the rise of agriculture saw fruit farming and grain production join the rearing of livestock. Rice, barley, sorghum and wheat grown at scale saw a revolution in human feeding practices and a subsequent population explosion – if, with the increase in civility but plunge in dietary diversity, not necessarily a health revolution. For better or worse, hunters and foragers became farmers.

8,000 year-old rock art on Chinhamapare Hill in the Vumba Mountain Range, Mozambique, and what appears to show a hunter-gatherer group on a hunt. Modern research speculates that hunter-gatherers did not operate in purely family units, rather egalitarian, open social bands of up to 25 people, with social complexity developing over thousands of years.

Photograph by ivanbruno / Alamy

For practicality, some scholars believe eating and sharing of resources was practised in small social groups since the first humans, hence the anthropological birth of the meal time, though it's unlikely palaeolithic people had a schedule, with much nutrition opportunistically consumed whilst foraging.

As civilisations blossomed and people began to live in bigger settlements, other factors – such as travel, or times of war and celebration – likely saw food eaten on the move, or outside. The first food to have been given as a transactional exchange was probably between master and worker: like that served in the numerous ceramic bevel-rimmed bowls unearthed in what was Mesopotamia, for instance – likely distributed as rations to construction labourers or soldiers some 5,300 years ago.

From the same locale, though a little later on, came recipes. The earliest surviving of these likely to be the scripture on three tablets, discovered in Iraq and thought to be 3,700 years old. Written in Akkadian, an ancient Babylonian script, one is said to contains 25 recipes for stews and other dishes – including pigeon soup – in 75 lines, breaking down the key ingredients, instructions and even the name of the dish. The tablets were likely used as aide memoirs by the domestic workers of high society, such as those attending to a great establishment like a palace or religious site. It is likely at a similar juncture the ancient Egyptians, with a culture defined by great construction and grand ritual celebrations, had similar habits; artefacts abound suggesting the prolific cooking and enjoying of food, just nothing specific written down about what, or how.

The 'recipe tablets' held in Yale University's Babylonian collection contain methods for making a selection of simple dishes. Found it what is today Iraq, they date from around 5,000 years ago. 

Photograph by Yale University

Food and class

However, the habit of Egyptians to furnish the tombs of the dead with everything needed for the afterlife, including food, have given us a good idea not only of what they ate – but of how food mirrored class. 

Dietary diversity was an indicator of wealth and status; according to Joan P. Alcock in Food in the Ancient World, the poor would likely subsist on bread, boiled vegetables such as onions and the occasional wild meat, while ‘the wealthy would expect to eat two or even three meals a day comprising vegetables, wild fowl, fish, eggs, and beef. Butter, milk, and cheese were also easily obtainable. Dessert would consist of fruit – grapes, figs, dates, and watermelons.’ Alcock references a Saqquara tomb of an unnamed female noble, where a well-preserved three-course meal was discovered including porridge, bread, fish, pigeon stew, cooked kidneys, beef ribs, stewed fruits, berries and cakes.

Joseph Coomans depiction of a Roman banquet, c. 1856. Recumbent dining was a feature of the Roman banquet – where meal times became a mixture of relaxation, entertainment, social mingling and (often excessive) nutrition. 

Photograph by Zuri Swimmer / Alamy

A Greek fresco on the south wall in the Tomb of the Diver, dated from 480-470 BC, depicts a symposium. An ancient Greek symposium was a meeting of, usually, men – who would drink and converse whilst recumbent. 

Photograph by VPC Travel Photo / Alamy

Though evidence is limited to inscriptions on tombs and tablets, feasts to mark religious observance of to honour the dead possibly would have seen classes uniting in their appreciation of food. High-level guests would have uniformly been served food as a gesture of hospitality, and an indicator of their host’s status. And in all instances, such food – particularly in a resplendently hierarchical society like Ancient Egypt – would have been grown and served to the upper classes by workers of the lower classes, with food the most common form of payment. Thus, the establishment of an industry dedicated to preparing food for others.

A similar class picture emerges from Ancient Greece and Rome. High-status Romans took social eating (convivium) to an art, with service supplied by domestic workers. With the empire’s wide geographical range, their diets diversified in content and distribution, whilst their habits established many of the social norms still observed today. These ranged from the proliferation of grand dining rooms (tricliniums) to ‘status seating’, where guests were positioned according to their favour.   

Some, such as the tendency to eat only one meal a day and the infamous recumbent dining – a practise of lounging, horizontally-inclined eating influenced by the East – did not endure in the West.

The Ancient Greeks were keen on it, though social drinking (a symposium) was a more common deployment of it. They ate bread, fish, vegetables such as chick-peas, olives and cabbage, and goat’s cheese and milk, with meat generally only eaten on special occasions. Those occasions, however, were grand; feasts and festivals, or displays of physical prowess such as the Olympics, with the meat often a slaughtered animal in honour of a deity. As recounted in Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, communal eating was of great social importance – and feast scenes were used in the former as moments to re-emphasise the class structure of the world it depicts.    

A Parisian banquet in the middle ages. Such opulent occasions across Europe often marked religious celebrations, and later became social statements, where people met around extravagant displays of food and wealth.  

Photograph by history_docu_photo / Alamy

Given its importance to their societies, thinkers in both cultures had a good philosophical chew on dietary customs. Some thought the eating of meat an inferior practice; some considered lavish banqueting in general was a sign of gluttony and moral decline, while others saw it as an indication of civility and status. Certain foods became staples of religious observance, such as bread and wine; fasting became a route observed by some, for medicinal, ethical or religious reasons.  

Dining out and the first celebrity chefs

But it wasn’t the fast but the feast that slid most evocatively into history, with food increasingly used as a measure of social status. The medieval banquets of Europe’s middle ages – around 500 to 1400 AD – were originally religious observances, but increasingly they became statements of decadence rolled out to celebrate weddings, funerals, events such as the appointment of a religious figure or the coming together of influential families. The exotic items on the menu would indicate the wealth and influence of the host – along with the refinement of the cutlery and crockery, the number of dishes served and, of course, the competence of those serving it.

In the 5th century B.C. Sicilian cookbook author Mithaecus was identified by Plato in his Gorgias as a celebrated cook of ‘tasty dishes’ – though ironically the philosopher chooses to suggest the chef and his ideas as being corrupting or even hazardous to the health: “[They] will first stuff and fatten men's bodies to the tune of their praises, and then cause them to lose even the flesh they had to start with.” This gives Mithaecus the dual honour of being both the first known chef to hold a public standing for his profession, and the first to be publicly torn down for it.

Why cooking was essential to our evolution
Controlling fire and cooking food gave Homo sapiens an essential evolutionary advantage – not only on a technical level, but also on a community level. Footage from the show "Origins: The Journey of Humankind".

Street food – probably the first kind of ‘dining out’ – became prolific with the rise of urbanisation. Fish was brought ashore in ancient Greece and fried and sold on the street; in ancient Rome, food sold on the street was an opportunity for commerce in places of dense population. These establishments were called thermopoliums – translating as a ‘place where something hot is sold’. Again, the issue of class goes hand in hand with the thermopolium; frequent diners were residents of homes which lacked the means to cook.  

Rise of the restaurant

Ancient China also had a prolific street food scene – and may lay claim to the first establishments recognisable as restaurants, according to Elliott Shore and Katie Rawso in their book Dining Out: A Global History of Restaurants.

Roman tabernae served drink and food in the UK as early as AD43, and originally catered for the legionnaires building roads. The taverns, inns and alehouses – and elsewhere in the world, caravanserais and khans – in the centuries that followed would feed and (usually alcoholically) water traders, travellers and later, the general public.

In Britain, the public house would arise from the patrons that enjoyed the premises’ conviviality as an opportunity to converse on local affairs. Many were often simply houses with an indication of their function prominent near the stoop; modern pub names such as The Blue Anchor, the Copper Kettle or The Plough are an evolution of the kinds of objects that served this function. But most of these establishments didn’t provide a choice of food, such as would be selected from a menu – the distinction that defines a modern-style restaurant.

Detail from a large Chinese scroll entitled "Going Up the River at the Qingming (Spring) Festival" by Zhang Zeduan. Dating from around 1100AD, the scene shows a bustling crowd and what appear to be street food vendors. The first documented restaurants – that is, a food establishment with a choice of food, made to order – were documented in China around this time.  

Photograph by Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy

Trade routes between the north and south of China during the Song Dynasty around 1100AD, and the disparity between the food in each (wheat- and millet-based food such as noodles in the north; rice in the south) bred a mini-industry of establishments providing travellers with diets that were more familiar.

According to Shore and Rawso, the first restaurants specialised in out-of-region cuisine, arriving at the Chinese city of Kaifeng, the capital of the Song Dynasty until 1127, ‘into a scene already thick with taverns and cookshops and stalls’. Their book references an 1126 memoir by political refugee Meng Yuanlao, who describes one such establishment: “Each person demanded something different. The waiter took their orders, then stood in a line in front of the kitchen and, when his turn came, sang out his orders to those in the kitchen.”

Singing waiters aside, Meng goes on to appoint the names dangtou, or pot masters, to those in charge of the kitchen, and zhuoan, to those in charge of the preparation tables. “This came to an end in a matter of moments and the waiter – his left hand supporting three dishes and his right arm stacked from hand to shoulder with some twenty dishes, one on top of the other – distributed them in the exact order in which they had been ordered. Not the slightest error was allowed.” Shore and Rawso note that the whole scene ‘seems modern, considering it is over a thousand years old.’

“The waiter – his left hand supporting three dishes and his right arm stacked from hand to shoulder with some twenty dishes – distributed them in the exact order in which they had been ordered. Not the slightest error was allowed.”

Meng Yuanlao, 1126AD

Though the specific history of early establishments is obscure, La Tour d'Argent is believed to be the oldest surviving restaurant in Paris – though it was a hostelry for long before that, dating from 1582. 

Photograph by Directphoto Collection / Alamy

In the West, the concept of the restaurant is perhaps surprisingly recent, dating from 18th century Paris. The word restaurant once formed the name of a dish – bouillon restaurateur – which was a stew of meat and vegetables and meant ‘restorative broth.’ As such the first places to serve it had a distinctly wholesome, almost medicinal ambience.

The first Parisian restaurant opened in a now obscure location on what became the Rue du Louvre in 1767, and bore the motto cribbed, with an anatomical tweak, from the Bible: “Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis, et ego vos restaurabo” (Come to me, all whose stomach is in distress, and I will restore you). The owner, Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, is believed to have introduced the concept of the menu – literally, ‘detailed list’ – as well as a choice of time and table, to the mix.

The rise of the restaurant business in Paris pre-dated the French Revolution. Then with the bloody fall of the aristocracy, it was enriched with chefs, previously employed by masters in the nobility, opening up their own establishments – and setting the recipe for the stratigraphy of culture and cuisine that persists to this day.          

Diets, be it for health or vanity, will come and go. Many are now going full circle, with a return to so-called raw-foodism diets, and an emphasis on unprocessed and whole foods. But however our tastes evolve, one thing seems certain: the restaurant is here to stay.

The Menu is in cinemas now. The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners.

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