Why we love smoke

Smoked ribs

The days are getting longer and the sun is warming up the Northern Hemisphere, which means that it’s grilling season. The smell of a backyard barbecue makes our stomachs rumble in anticipation of a burger, steak or even grilled vegetables. But why are we so drawn to this primitive cooking method? Jim Shahin of The Washington Post sets out to answer that question.

We have to travel back almost two million years to begin to understand our attraction to smoke.  Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham, in his 2009 book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, theorized “that cooked food helped us evolve because it took less time to digest, leaving more time for us to do other things, like invent the wheel.” He goes on to postulate that “We are not like other animals…In most circumstances, we need cooked food.”

According to Marcia Pelchat, a sensory scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, “That smoky smell is a really strong stimulus,” because the scent appeals to a primitive part of our brain “called the limbic system, which houses emotion and long-term memory. Smells trigger personal memories as well as atavistic, or ancestral, ones.”

Even non-meat eaters admit to loving smoke. Paul Breslin, a professor of nutritional science at Rutgers University, tells this story. Several years after swearing off red meat, he saw two halves of a skinned goat hanging in a butcher’s window. “It was really gross to me,” he says. “The very same day I saw this, I remember walking through West Philly and someone was having a barbecue, and the smoke wafted over their back yard, so much so that it made me start salivating and even made me a little dizzy.” He pauses. “How is it possible: the idea of being repulsed by meat, but smelling smoked meat made me weak in the knees?”

Our love of smoke is borne out by recent cookbook award nominations, which include Smoke: New Firewood Cooking, and Where There’s Smoke: Simple, Sustainable, Delicious Grilling, along with an EYB pick for 2013, Smoke and Pickles by Edward Lee. The Washington Post article linked above includes a quote from Chef Lee as well as more detailed science. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go light up the grill.

Photo by Deb Lindsey courtesy Washington Post

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