Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping-houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-color’d taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of day.

Shakespeare – King Henry IV

‘A fair hot wench in flame-color’d taffeta’. Fire is the image that hits the mind. Just how important is fire? Is it the thing that makes us ‘human’ (as Richard Wrangham proposed in his book last year – and which I’ve heard has been an idea propounded by other food scholars not as lucky as he to have their names bandied about as discoverers of this idea) because it allows us to cook therefore to want to gather together to share and be kindly and warm towards each other – eager to get our piece of the hunk of roasted meats?

Obviously fire has its downsides. Even corralled in a fireplace it may spark at the edge of the muslin dress so carefully worn to the tea party as in the 1802 James Gillray caricature above.

Fire is part of other things besides the warming of our common souls. The little family in this Hieronymus Bosch allegory of Gluttony (which is actually one of the Seven Deadly Sins no matter how strong the denials are from manufacturers of potato chips or foodies who lust after the latest seven-course meal by the hottest chef on the block) painted between 1475-1480 have their little fire to cook things set right there into the floor of the house – ready to use whenever the need arises. It looks as if a fat sausage is waiting to cook!


It makes sense that fire is a humanizing element, along with cooking.  It would seem to me that the singular benefits of warming one’s toes by the fireside would be as riveting a reason to bond with other humans as the idea of cooking food would be, though. Toes can get awfully cold in the winter-time. Or at least they did in the 1400’s as the fellow below shows us. It may be that even before that time there were cold toes.


Even cherubs can have cold toes, and cherubs are angelic.


So anyway. I think it’s a great notion to have (and a great scholarly thing to do to put together some proofs of it) . . . that cooking is the thing that makes us human . . . and  that the application of heat to food has created so much to bond us, to make us ‘better than animals’! But to me it is not the cooking. It is the fire. The fire, by itself, and the toes that can be warmed by it.

And both fire, and cooking – can have their downsides, their non-civilizing behaviors hinted at – their escape from the realm of being defined as excellent and wonderful. It can happen in an instant with the wrong food offered to a hungry person, or, as in the picture Arcimboldo paints for us here – when one of his fruit and vegetable heads gets struck by flames!


Cooking is such a dangerous art.


3 thoughts on “Fire

  1. Yes, Karen, the fire, by itself, contributed to our humanization. It is the fire hearth where we became family both as internal unity and in the external relation of hospitality (where, strangers received protection and a family’s care and were bound through sacred and strong social bonds with theirs hosts).
    For an ancient opinion on cooking-civilization matter see Athenion apud Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists. (Book xiv. § 80, p. 1056.): «This art (cookery) at first made the fierce cannibal a man; impressed upon his rugged nature the desire of better food than his own flesh; prescribed order and rule in all his actions; gave him that polish and respect for social life which now makes up his sum of happiness. ….. (Because of the art of cookery) mankind began to feel the joys of social life; The scatter’d tribes unite; towns soon were built and peopled with industrious citizens.» (transl. The Literature Collection)

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