Ian Tattersall, curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History, says that some anthropologists believe that we tamed fire before we were even human. “When the first prehumans came out of the trees and moved to the African savannas,” an event Tattersall says took place about one and a half million years ago, “they were primarily fruit eaters. In order for them to make a living on the plains, they would have had to eat meat.” But with vegetarian intestines, these hominids would have had a very hard time absorbing animal protein—unless it were broken down through cooking.

The first prehistoric gourmands used fires blocked with stone and probably fueled with dung. However, when it comes to the contemporary cook’s fuel of choice, celebrity chef and author Mario Batali loves wood: "It provides without a doubt the most delicious and unique flavor and is the most versatile heat source." When asked to describe his ideal flame-based cooking arrangement, he enthuses, "I would have a wood-burning oven, a wood-fired grill, and a six-burner range with a stainless steel plancha (all with natural gas)."

Open-fire cooking, also called hearth cooking, is a modern throwback to those prehistoric times. With nothing more than a standard household fireplace (or fire pit) and a few cast-iron or earthenware pots, its practitioners produce multicourse meals—from soup to dessert—the way people did before the kitchen as we know it was developed. William Rubel, in his book The Magic of Fire (2002), claims that hearth cooking offers a greater range of fire temperatures and that a more "three-dimensional" placement of the cooking vessels can produce dishes with flavors that are stronger, richer, deeper, and more striking. Stovetop or fireplace, each is a step up from the raw diet.

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