Evolutionary scientists have long debated what makes humans different to other animals. What is it that makes homo sapiens different to chimpanzees? Is it our high-brow love of celebrities and wide screen TVs, or is it our capacity for abstract thought that separates us from our tree-swinging monkey friends?
One hypothesis suggests that our ability to harness fire to cook food led to the growth of the human brain. As our bodies found cooked food easier to digest, our digestive tracts evolved into smaller, more efficient organs, allowing energy to be diverted to brain growth. With bigger brains came our ability to generate new ideas. Our capacity to create abstract art, nuclear bombs and coq au vin can probably be traced back to that first experimental caveman, the Heston Blumenthal of his time, who decided to invite some friends over to watch some mammoth racing and sparked up the first ever bbq to prepare some nibbles to feed his guests. I say caveman because it would be sexist to suggest a cavewoman's place was in the kitchen.
Humans are still the only animals that cook their food. I find this reassuring because the thought of a lion expertly stir-frying a gazelle freaks me out a bit. If it only takes the ability to cook and several millions of years for the brain to evolve, I would fear for my distant descendants living in a world of intelligent lions, even if they used their intelligence to create wonderful poetry to recite down the local watering hole.
Just as our brains have evolved over the years, so have our methods of cooking. We no longer bbq everything. In the pursuit of perfect texture and 'doneness' we roast, poach, boil, grill, fry, microwave, sous vide and steam. We cook using gas burners, electric rings, induction coils, Agas, multifunction ovens and water baths. Our preferences for cooking appliance are led by our budgets, our cooking abilities, the availability of fuel, and what we feel most comfortable cooking with. At the end of the day we have gone beyond our caveman ancestors, just applying heat to ingredients to make food more digestible. Our standards have improved and we want to cook things the way we like them, whether that's the perfect medium-rare steak or a softly poached egg.
Many of us are lucky enough to be able to choose our own cooking appliances and in general when buying a new oven or hob, we gravitate towards something we are familiar with. We tend to be loyal to a heat source, whether gas, Aga or electric, because we know how it behaves. Working in cookery schools I often see students forced to use a heat source they are unfamiliar with and it is amazing see the look of horror on their faces at the prospect of trying to cook with something they are not used to. I sympathise with them and reassure them that it will be ok.
As a professional cook I have also had to endure the pain of working with unfamiliar ovens and it is not uncommon that a tried and tested recipe that has been perfected using my own oven can go spectacularly wrong when using somebody else's. My first experience of private cheffing involved trying to cook a perfect beef wellington in a new client's Aga. I had never used an Aga before and the lack of temperature controls totally threw me. When I opened the door after the usual cooking time and probed the meat inside, it was still stone cold. 40 minutes later it was just about ready by which time the guests had drunk so many aperitifs they didn't really care. A lucky escape. If it was being filmed for Masterchef, there would have been dramatic music all over the place and multiple shots of my worried face, with the camera cutting to Marcus Wareing shaking his head in disbelief at the amateur standing in front of him.
Having recently moved to Bristol, I now find myself in a rented flat while we search for our long term home. With the flat comes a newly fitted kitchen, but not exactly fitted with my first choice of equipment. As someone who has always cooked on gas, and occasionally induction at work, the electric hobs were nearly a deal breaker when we were deciding on where to live.
"Why didn't they just fit induction?", I cry like a diva. "How the hell am I supposed to stir-fry a gazelle on THAT!"
But then I realise my first world problem is only temporary, and it won't be long before I can go shopping for a pyrolytic, self-cleaning steam combi oven, with slide and hide doors and Gourmet Flavour technology, the majority of whose functions I will probably never even use.