As early as 1.8 million years ago
Fire-kissed food is easier to digest and more nutritious than raw food is. Some anthropologists argue that cooking was the essential step that allowed early humans to develop the big brains characteristic of Homo sapiens [see “Case for (Very) Early Cooking Heats Up”].
30,000 years ago
Agriculture began around 12,000 years ago, but early Europeans were baking bread many thousands of years before that time. In 2010 scientists found surprising evidence of starch grains on crude mortars and pestles at sites in modern-day Italy, Russia and the Czech Republic. The starches came from the roots of cattails and ferns, which early humans pounded into flour, mixed with water and baked into bread.
Bread was portable and nutrient-dense and resisted spoilage. It was also a nutritional step backward. Comparative studies show that Neolithic hunter-gatherers ate a more varied and nutritious diet than Neolithic farmers. And from the perspective of energy consumption, hunter-gatherers were far more efficient: a farmer would have to spend 10 hours to grow food with the same number of calories that six hours of foraging could provide.
Then why bother with bread at all? Anthropologists debate why farming became dominant, but one thing is certain: bread and agriculture were codependent. As societies began to rely on bread as a major foodstuff, they were also forced to expend more effort on agriculture (and vice versa).
The birth of beer is hard to place. The oldest physical evidence comes from pottery shards in Iran that date back to 3500 b.c., but archaeologists such as Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania suggest that the first ale may have been produced as early as 7000 b.c. as a by-product of bread making. Early societies quickly embraced the accident: ancient Sumerians may have diverted as much as 40 percent of all grain to beer production.
Modern-day brewers, with help from archaeologists, have attempted to re-create ancient brews. McGovern has partnered with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery to ferment ancient Egyptian and Chinese beverages, whereas Great Lakes Brewing Company, with help from researchers at the University of Chicago, is brewing beer based on a 3,800-year-old ode to the Sumerian beer goddess Ninkasi.
No written records predate the arrival of Spanish explorers in the Americas, but the earliest archaeological evidence for maize domestication dates back around 8,700 years. Early Americans would soak kernels in a lime solution to create masa, releasing nutrients in the process.
The earliest evidence of wine making has been found in the Zagros Mountains in Iran. Seafaring Phoenicians then spread the practice westward from Lebanon to Egypt and the Mediterranean.
Take milk, place it in a ruminant's stomach, then churn. Scholars suggest this method is probably not too far off from how cheese was invented. The earliest evidence for cheese making comes from 7,000-year-old archaeological sites in Poland, where milk fat remains were found in holed ceramic containers that could have served as rudimentary strainers. Yet with the domestication of sheep and goats as early as 8000 b.c. and of cattle a millennium later, it is possible that cheese making has been going on for longer.
Like other formative foodstuffs, cheese was most likely a product of necessity. Cheese, yogurt and butter could be kept longer than fresh milk. Neolithic humans also could not digest lactose—the gene for this adaptation has spread only in the past few thousand years. Bacteria used in cheese making ferment the lactose in milk into lactic acid, making dairy products easier to digest.
We can't say for sure what the first types of cheese were, but geohistorical backtracking yields some clues. Populations in hot regions such as the Middle East and South Asia would most likely have used a lot of salt to help preserve their cheese, a practice still seen today in the feta and fetalike cheeses of the Middle East, Greece and Southwest Asia. Cooler climates require less salt for preservation, making way for the growth of local microbes that add the characteristic flavors of such famous cheeses as Roquefort, Swiss and Brie.
A raw olive is inedible in its bitterness, but farmers in the eastern Mediterranean have been fermenting olives in lye and pressing them for oil for thousands of years.
Oil made from palm berries—a shelf-stable and cheap staple of modern-day processed food—has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs.
Ancient Mesopotamians were the first to pack vegetables in vinegar to preserve them for out-of-season consumption.
The first evidence of this popular dish comes from preserved millet-based noodles in an earthenware bowl in northwestern China. The wheat variety, commonly associated with pasta, arose in China 2,000 years ago and spread west from there.
Pre-Olmec civilizations in Central America ground the beans of cacao pods, mixed the powder with water and shook the mixture, producing a foamy drink. More than 3,400 years later Hernando Cortés brought the beans to Spain, where sugar was added for the first time.
Chinese cooks were the first to salt pork bellies not only as an early form of preservation but also as a way to bring out the flavor of the meat.
Jiang was the precursor of flavorings such as miso and soy sauce that are used across East Asia today. According to the ancient Chinese text Zhouli (Rites of Zhou), jiang was made by mixing meat or fish with salt and liang qu (a fermentation starter) and leaving the mixture to mature for 100 days. Like many other fermented foods, its discovery was probably accidental, but jiang's dissemination across East Asia was anything but. The rise of Buddhism across Asia in the first to seventh centuries a.d. most likely brought jiang to both Korea and Japan.
According to Sanskrit texts, cooks in India processed sugarcane into giant crystals through boiling and cooling extracted sugarcane juice. Nearly a millennium later Indians invented easy-to-transport granulated sugar, which launched the global sugar trade.
One of the first mustard recipes, collected in the Roman cookbook De Re Coquinaria, called for a mixture of ground mustard seed, pepper, caraway, lovage, roasted coriander seeds, dill, celery, thyme, oregano, onion, honey, vinegar, fish sauce and oil.
The first kimchi was pretty tame: cabbage fermented with salt. Once the Japanese invaded Korea in the 16th century, taking with them red chilies that Portuguese missionaries had brought to Japan from the New World, Koreans started incorporating fiery elements into the dish.
Sushi started as a means of fish preservation in Southeast Asia, where salted fish was covered in boiled rice and left to ferment for months. The rotting rice was then scraped off and discarded (because of the waste, sushi has always been a dish for the wealthy) and the soured fish consumed. The process is much like dry-aging beef today—you lose some of the product to rot, but the remainder is more tender and flavorful. By the time of 19th-century Japan, the process of long fermentation was eliminated and the tangy taste replaced by the introduction of vinegar into the rice mixture.
Tofu's origins are mysterious, but the first written record appears in the stories of Chinese writer Tao Ku. He writes of a vice mayor who was so poor, he was forced to buy tofu—a coagulated gel made from cooked soybeans—instead of mutton.
Although dried cod had been feeding the Vikings since the ninth century, salt changed it from a local foodstuff to a global phenomenon. Salt allowed for cod to be readily dried and preserved even in wet, humid or warm environments, such as a fishing boat. The change began when Basque sailors met Viking fishers and their vast supplies of cod near the Faroe Islands during the 10th century. By figuring out how to preserve the fish onboard, the Basques found their piscine cash cow. Catholic edict at the time dictated a meatless meal on Friday, which drove salt cod's popularity. Soon the Portuguese, the French and the British began to fish for cod. Over the next few centuries salt cod sustained the long journeys to explore the New World. The rest, as they say, is history. Too bad the fish that brought them there is almost history, too.
Contrary to what your second grade teacher may have told you, George Washington Carver did not invent peanut butter. The Aztecs were making a paste of ground raw peanuts in the 15th century.
Coffee is a Western obsession, but its roots lie in the Arab world. The most credible claim to the origin of coffee comes from Yemeni Sufi monasteries in the mid-15th century. The monks wrote of a coffee trade between Yemen and Ethiopia, where the beans originated. (It is unclear exactly what was going on in Ethiopia at the time because no records survive.) Yemen eventually cultivated its own native crop of coffee from Ethiopian stock, and from there it spread to Egypt, Damascus and Mecca. By the 16th century coffeehouses, or kaveh kanes, had spread across the Arabian Peninsula.
Coffee was first administered for stomachaches, torpor, narcolepsy and other ailments. Yet coffee was not merely curative; several Arabic writers noted its powers of sociability. Perhaps too much so: the culture of coffee and coffeehouses, with their gossip and game playing, prompted the governor of Mecca to declare a ban on the drink in 1511. After a 13-year caffeine headache, the Turkish Sultan Selim I overturned the ban.
For European travelers and explorers of the 16th century, coffee was another curiosity of the Orient. In one of the earliest allusions to coffee by a European, in 1582 German physician and botanist Leonhard Rauwolf described a “good drink which [Turks and Arabs] greatly esteem.... It is nearly as black as ink and helpful against stomach complaints.” In a move of early modern marketing, Venetian merchants started importing coffee from the Middle East in the late 16th century as a luxury drink. By the mid-17th century the French, the British and the Dutch all had the buzz.
Joseph Priestly, the British natural philosopher who discovered oxygen, invented carbonated water after placing a bowl of water above a brewery in Leeds, England.
To satisfy the vegetarian diets advocated by Seventh-Day Adventists, John Harvey Kellogg and his younger brother, Will Keith Kellogg, developed corn flakes in 1894 as part of a diet regimen at his Battle Creek, Mich., sanitarium.
German agricultural chemist Karl Ritthausen originally discovered glutamic acid, of which monosodium glutamate (MSG) is just one variation, in 1866. Much like his contemporaries in Germany, Ritthausen was part of a growing field, started by a founder of organic chemistry (and inventor of nitrogen-based fertilizers), Justus von Liebig, to look at the chemical basis for naturally occurring substances.
About 40 years later a Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, who trained as an organic chemist in Germany, tried to replicate the success of his German colleagues, especially that of von Liebig, who became wealthy from creating dehydrated beef stock. Ikeda, like Liebig, wanted to find a way to do the same for Japanese cuisine—that is, create a means of chemically reproducing the flavor of kombu dashi, a staple seaweed-based stock. In 1908, after evaporating a large quantity of dashi broth, he found a residue, tasted it and realized it was the essence of Japanese flavor. Publishing his results in the Journal of the Chemical Society of Tokyo in 1909, Ikeda declared that his study had found that seaweed contains glutamates and that glutamates create the familiar yet theretofore undesignated taste umami.
The first iteration of what became Spam was called “Hormel spiced ham,” and it was just cured pork shoulder in a can. Competitors quickly launched their own versions. To differentiate his product, Jay Hormel changed the recipe in 1937, grinding up the pork, adding salt and spices, and encasing the meat in an aspic gelatin. Most important, Hormel rebranded the product with the catchy name “Spam”—short for “shoulder of pork and ham”—before World War II broke out. The U.S. Army, deciding that Spam was the perfect tent food, bought 150 million pounds of it over the course of the war to feed Allied troops all over the world. In the postwar years, wherever U.S. troops went, cans of Spam followed.
During the Korean War, it became unofficial currency; surplus cans flooded the black market and were used to pay for doctors' visits and military intelligence. To this day, Spam remains a popular product across Korea and the rest of Asia, with Spam added to traditional foods such as kimbap and chanpuru.
Robert C. Baker, a food scientist at Cornell University, ground up chicken parts and coated them with breading as a way to increase demand for chickens in upstate New York.
HIGH-FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP
The search for sugar substitutes began as early as 1806, when Napoleon Bonaparte offered a huge reward to anyone who could find a chemical work-around to the British blockade of the French Caribbean sugar plantations. A century and a half later American scientists discovered a way to use enzymes to convert glucose in cornstarch to fructose; in 1967 Japanese scientist Yoshiyuki Takasaki created a cost-effective industrial process. Food companies loved the low cost and the ease with which liquid corn syrup could be dissolved into sodas.
Scientists at General Foods worked for years to create a powdered orange juice substitute, but their concoctions had unpleasantly bitter tastes. They succeeded by abandoning their ambitions to include all of O.J.'s vitamins and minerals.
This nutrient-dense, vitamin-fortified food product made from peanuts, vegetable oil, powdered milk and sugar was designed to help severely malnourished children gain weight.
The first public taste test of in vitro meat is scheduled to feature a burger grown from bovine stem cells.