In the mood for a revelation? Ask firefighters how they feel about fire. Their response may surprise you. Firefighters spend their entire careers laying their lives on the line. Whether they’re battling ripping house fires full of toxic combustibles, hiking mile after treacherous mile to combat raging wildfires, or sacrificing it all amidst the horror of a terrorist attack, firefighters are on the front line when it comes to battling the lethal force that is fire. So you might find it curious that firefighters actually love fire.
Are they crazy? (Yes.) Are they obsessed? (Most definitely.) Or are they simply adrenaline junkies? (C. All of the above.). Firefighters are an unusual breed. Think about it - cops aren’t infatuated with the criminals they cuff. Oncologists aren’t enamored of the cancer they annihilate. So how can firefighters love what they spend their whole lives fighting? The answer: because they are human. And there’s something about fire that humans simply adore.
As a firefighter-turned-archaeologist, I’ve spent a lifetime preoccupied with fire. As a firefighter, I saw its lethal side. I waded through charred wreckage, broke the news to grieving loved ones, and saluted the caskets of fallen comrades. As an archaeologist, I’ve explored fire’s positive dimensions: its deep human history, the fundamental role it has played in culture, and the visceral connection we have with this phenomenal force.
Perhaps it’s our ancient association with fire that has so ingrained it in our psyche. Evidence for its use goes back almost a million years, far longer that our species has roamed the earth. Homo erectus appears to have been the first to habitually use fire, and we find their ancient campsites, replete with butchered bones and beautiful stone tools, dotting their primordial landscapes. Fire provided warmth for our ancestors, despite the frozen grip of repeated ice ages, and gave them protection against predators stalking their primitive campsites. Fire provided light during their primal nights and formed the nucleus for social gatherings, where they exchanged information, manufactured tools, created art, and told stories. Fire was a catalyst of human culture.
As modern humans arose in Africa some two hundred thousand years ago, venturing forth to lay claim to the globe, they adopted fire, making it one of the most essential tools in their prehistoric toolkit. But the most important application for fire predated the arrival of Homo sapiens. In fact, we moderns may have never evolved had it not been for the invention of fire’s most essential role: cooking.
Cooking transformed us. The advent of cooking, especially of meat, was pivotal in the evolution of our species. Meat provided the valuable nutrients necessary to fuel our ever-expanding brains, but it was the cooking of meat, along with plants, tubers, and anything else our ancient brethren happened to toss on the barbie, that streamlined our digestive tracts and fueled our giant brains.
Cooking transformed humans because cooking transforms food. If you don’t believe me, hack off a hunk of raw sirloin and give it a chew. When you’re finally able to swallow (about twenty minutes from now), I’m betting you’ll be requesting the rest of that steak “medium well.”
Cooking jump starts digestion. In meat, it does this by breaking down the muscle fibers. Cooking also makes meat safer. The heat of cooking kills off pathogens, such as Clostridium and Staphylococcus, which hide out in undercooked meats just waiting for the chance to sabotage your gut.
Cooking also releases nutrients and calories – not only in meat, but in vegetables, as well. And aside from the nutritional benefits of cooking, most foods simply taste a whole lot better when cooked. Which would you prefer? A raw potato eaten apple-style or a steaming baked spud covered in butter and sour cream? (OK, I’d eat my shoe if it were covered in butter and sour cream, but you get my point.)
Cooking, like fire, drew people together. Even today, humans love to congregate and cook. What’s more fun than hovering around the grill, surrounded by the silky fragrance of cooked meat and wood smoke, or assembling in the kitchen on Thanksgiving, as that golden-brown turkey emerges from the oven? Cooking brings us together, forges social bonds, and encourages sharing – all traits necessary for human society.
As for firefighters, the opportunity to sit down at the end of a busy day and swap stories over a hearty dinner plays a fundamental role in the cohesion and morale of a fire station. And ever since I traded my helmet for a trowel, dinner just hasn’t been the same.
Stay safe out there.
Here's an excellent read on the subject!