QUESTION: Why do humans eat cooked food, even though all other animals eat it raw?
ANSWER: The veggie lobby has promoted the notion that the consumption of meat is an unnatural act, not merely unhealthy but actually a distortion of the human palate. Supposedly, charred flesh doesn't actually taste good. Our intestines don't even recognize it. Send a greasy burger down there and it gets mistaken for a shoe.Frankly we think only a dolt would deny that a burger tastes better than a bowl of granola. And have you ever eaten granola-and-fries? Nasty stuff!
We have a book here, "The Curious Cook," by Harold McGee, that says cooked beef has at least 600 "flavor compounds," compared with only a few flavor compounds for your basic staffs of life, like wheat and barley. Raw meat is also extremely bland. People like cooked food because it's not only more tender, and safer to eat, but because it tastes better.
It's a matter of chemistry: When food is heated, the complex sugars and amino acids break down into new molecular combinations, each of which has a distinct aroma and flavor. If you heat sugar, for example, it magically starts to smell really good. The fact that it also turns brown is why they call these heat-induced changes the "browning reaction."
The only foods that naturally have lots of flavor compounds are fruits. A strawberry has about 300 flavors, a raspberry about 200. McGee argues that all well-prepared food aspires to the condition of fruit.
QUESTION: Why did the great Inca empire fall to fewer than 200 Spanish invaders?
ANSWER: In the 1530s, just under 200 Spanish soldiers armed with swords, pikes, halberds, blunderbusses and other scary-sounding weapons (you can just picture someone being quartered with a halberd) sailed down the western coastline of South America and invaded the Inca empire in what is now Peru. The Spaniards were a vicious collection of mercenaries led by a former swineherd named Francisco Pizarro. The Incas were a civilization of 20 million people who worshiped their ruler (the "Inca" himself) as divine. The Inca at that time was a man named Atahualpa.
Atahualpa decided to pay the Spaniards a personal visit, both as a formal courtesy and to get a measure of their forces. With great fanfare he was carried on a throne of gold into the Spanish camp. But he never had a chance to chat amicably with Pizarro because the Spaniards pounced on him, bound him with chains and locked him up.
So now you'd figure the rest of the Inca army, thousands of armed men not far away, would rush forward and turn this little band of Spaniards into paella. But no. The army did nothing and let the invaders loot the empire of unbelievable amounts of gold.
Why were they so passive? It's certainly true that the firearms and horses of the Europeans intimidated the Incas. This small band of soldiers managed to slaughter at least 2,000 natives. But a more perceptive view is that the ant-like society of the Incas - a single leader ruling over a vast communal enterprise with no concept of the individual - led to disaster when the leader was killed, when "the charm that might have held the Peruvians together was dissolved," as William H. Prescott wrote in "The Conquest of Peru."
"Those Indians who let themselves be knifed or blown up into pieces that somber afternoon in Cajamarca Square lacked the ability to make their own decisions either with the sanction of authority or indeed against it and were incapable of taking individual initiative," the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa wrote recently in Harper's Magazine.
Oh yes, you might want to know what happened to Atahualpa. Pizarro wanted to burn him alive. But the Spanish were religious people, so they decided on a compromise. They baptized Atahualpa, so he'd be a Christian, with the attendant afterlife perks. Then they strangled him.
THE MAILBAG: Victoria Neufeldt, editor in chief of Webster's New World Dictionary, points out that, contrary to our recent assertion, "Q-Tip" is in the latest edition. This strikes us as progress.
Referring to the same item, a reader says he knows why Q-Tip boxes started running a warning in the early 1970s saying that you shouldn't put them in your ear: About that time, he says, a friend of his was cleaning out his ear with a Q-Tip when the phone rang. Well, we won't go into any other details, except to say that Q-Tips and telephones don't mix.