Cooking With Fire


Evolutionary then and now?

It’s midsummer and I’m tending a campfire under a clear, star-filled sky at an elevation of 7,500 feet. As I watch the red-orange embers and listen to the crackle of burning logs, I find myself pondering the meaning of fire to our early human ancestors. For them fire meant more than an opportunity for soulful reverie; it was an evolutionary boon that provided protection from cold, security from predatory animals, and improved nutrition resulting from adding heat to their raw diet of wild game and foraged plants.

Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard and the author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (Basic Books, 2009), points to cooking as a key factor in our evolution from ape to human. “[Our] human digestive system is two thirds the size of a chimpanzee’s or great ape’s.  We have somehow adapted to having a small gut, small teeth and small mouths.  This adaptation of our species results from not having to put large amounts [of raw food] through our gut and retain them and ferment them for many hours. It seems very clear that cooking is responsible for increasing the quality of our diet.” Wrangham posits that this change took place 1.8 million years ago with the evolution of Homo erectus, the earliest example of Homo sapiens. Aside from making food safer, adding delicious tastes, and reducing spoilage, cooking increases the amount of energy our bodies obtain from food.

Bauman College— eating for health and well-being

Whatever the style, “cooking is a chemical process where the application of heat alters the structure and flavor of the food, making the digestive process more efficient and nutrition more absorbable by the body,” says Ed Bauman, founder of Bauman College, a nutrition and cooking school with classes in the Bay Area.  By the 1990s, when Bauman realized his calling to teach principles of eating for health, the role of women as custodians of the proverbial “cooking fires” had been supplanted by their desire to pursue a work life outside the home. Bauman acknowledges that his school’s approach is a bit of a throwback to times when community was a basis for spiritual strength, the properties of plants and herbs were more common knowledge, women took prime responsibility in providing nutrition to their families, and home remedies were recognized as sound preventative care.

In promoting an understanding of why people eat and how they can create more-conscious eating habits, Bauman describes four levels of behavior: eating for pleasure, eating for energy, eating for recovery, and eating for health. As we expand our awareness of our motivations, we can learn to make choices that are not based only on pleasure or the need for energy, but that also take into consideration longer-term goals for health and well-being. At Bauman College, students are first introduced to the biology and physiology of human digestion. The teaching emphasizes that the assimilation of food depends on many factors, including frame of mind while cooking and eating, lifestyle, social and spiritual environment, and mediation of stress. The food we eat becomes us and when digested efficiently has the ability to restore immune competency and resilience.

It’s plainly obvious that despite the availability of scientific knowledge, most of us make our food choices based on factors other than health and sustainability.  When we reach for that steak in the supermarket, we don’t really consider the fact that animal protein requires a far greater quantity of resources to produce and more bodily energy to digest than do vegetable proteins. This is not an argument against eating meat, rather an argument for examining our habits and evaluating our lifestyle choices for the sake of our own health and that of the planet.

As we continue to witness the commercially motivated denaturing of food and the corresponding disintegration of health in our population, there is still reason to take heart. According to Bauman, “We are in the midst of a renaissance that is happening from the grass roots. We are seeing a resurgence of home gardens, home schooling, and a genuine heart-based culture.”

Self-care and family care are a part of this awakening, as we realize that we can no longer live with an attitude that says, “I can indulge in eating whatever foods I want, and when I need a stent for my heart, I’ll get it.” We are recognizing that animals have rights when it comes to their treatment as food sources. Food is a common denominator as we reevaluate how we can sustain ourselves and the planet. The consciousness that each person brings to the task will make a difference.

Bauman acknowledges that no diet is right for everyone, and encourages experimentation to learn what foods are digestible and nourishing for an individual’s constitution. This way of thinking echoes principles from the science of Ayurveda, a system that Indian sages developed thousands of years ago and which is still used by millions of people in India today. Ayurveda defines three doshas, or energetic make-ups, of both the individual constitution and the qualities of food, and teaches how to balance them in order to create a diet for optimal health.


“Empty foods are not nourishing and do nothing to sustain our health and immunity.

Why should we not eat food that will nourish some aspect of our being?” asks Shunya Pratichi Mathur, Ayurveda practitioner and founder of Vedika Gurukula, an Emeryville-based school offering immersion in the ancient self-healing discipline. When we try to answer this question, Mathur reminds us, “We hold an unconscious belief that we cannot be more healthy than we are, creating a lack of personal responsibility for our own health and happiness.” Vedika’s mission is to ignite a desire for health and realize the truth of the mantra “Ahum aarogyam,” translated as “my inner self is in perfect health.”

As a preventative approach, Ayurveda addresses several levels of human experience: physical, mental, spiritual, and social. To enhance the functioning of mind and spirit the science recommends yoga, meditation, and mantra recitation to support greater mental clarity and stability.  The Ayurvedic system of anatomy and physiology defines and explains the interconnectedness of bodily functions, how food supports a chain of regenerative activity, and how immunity is at the core of a fully functioning human body. It posits that when we have health at the physical, mental, and spiritual levels, the human instinct for doing good in society is naturally awakened, and we experience more of our true nature by serving humanity. The most basic building blocks for this evolution of human nature are the food we eat and the vitality of our digestive system.

By 5000 B.C., when Ayurveda emerged as a science, humans had made great strides in strengthening their digestion by using fire to break down food before it was eaten. The rishi (seers or saints) of ancient India revealed the nature of fire and its role in providing nourishment to the body. They describe the inner digestive fire or “agni” that is responsible for overall health via the digestion and distribution of nutrition to every cell.

According to Abhijit Jinde, a visiting teacher at Vedika, “Biological health depends on honoring the central role of the digestive fire, feeding it food with balanced qualities, cooking with ghee and spices to regulate food qualities and potencies, and attending to environmental factors such as seasonal variation, lifestyle choices, and mental stress.” He adds, “In Indian philosophy the inner biological fire is a reflection of the divine fire that also has a hunger to be satiated with great respect.  Conscious feeding of the body becomes an act of devotion that fulfills the psycho-spiritual practice of acknowledging the divine consciousness that underlies all creation.” With this in mind, eating is not merely a chance to fill your stomach but a ritual that is tied to nourishment at many levels of human existence.

Looking at the images and messages expressed in our popular culture, we can see a contorted view of what food is all about. We make choices based on calorie count, fad dieting, expedience, and flavorings that blind us to natural tastes, and then we add food supplements to compensate for nutrition that we are not getting. Our pre-human ancestors evolved despite their apparent lack of insight into the rational of what they ate. Is it possible that with our access to scientific reasoning, we have a greater responsibility for our own species’ evolution?

We’re in the midst of a food movement that urges us to slow down and change our relationship to food: how we grow it, where we source it, how we transport it, what foods we eat and how we cook them, and what environment we create surrounding the experience of eating. We may be reaching a turning point in the evolution of our bodies, minds, and souls that requires us to make choices that are more conscious about food and health. Are we up to the task? Vedika Gurukula and Bauman College seem to think we are.

Zucchini with Onions

This recipe is from Vedika’s Sanjai Mathur, who describes it as “a light recipe with a sweet effect, perfect for summer.”

½ pound zucchini, peeled and diced
1 onion, chopped
2 teaspoons ghee (clarified butter)
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
Salt to taste
Fresh coriander leaves to garnish

In a pan, heat ghee and add cumin seeds, swirl until fragrant.

Then add chopped onion and sauté until opaque.

To the onions add turmeric, salt, and zucchini and mix well. Cover, reduce heat to medium, and cook for about 12–15 minutes, stirring occasionally. When zucchini is sufficiently cooked, garnish with coriander and serve.

For more information about classes, community events, retreats and clinics, check out their websites: and  Suzanne Saucy is a freelance writer with interests in health, the arts, consciousness, nature, nourishment, and community. She can be reached at

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