The final chapter of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, in Moses-like fashion, declaims the basis of all cooking: “The Four Basic Food Molecules.” Water, fats and oils, carbohydrates and proteins. H2O, of course, makes up not only most of what we eat, but our own bodies as well. As McGee states,
Leaving aside the fact that it shapes the earth’s continents and climate, all life, including our own, exists in a water solution: a legacy of life’s origin billions of years ago in the ocean. Our bodies are 60% water by weight; raw meat is about 75% water, and fruits and vegetables up to 95%.
The Presocratic philosopher Thales whole-heartedly agrees as cited in Aristotle’s De Caelo (On the Heavens) and Metaphysics. Above, from the middle panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, a blue globe surounded by human forms floats in water.
Others say that the earth rests on water. For this is the most ancient account we have received, which they say was given by Thales the Milesian, that it stays in place through floating like a log or some other such thing (for none of these rests by nature on air, but on water)–as though the same argument did not apply to the water supporting the earth as to the earth itself.
Most of the first philosophers thought that principles in the form of matter were the only principles of all things . . . Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says that it is water (and therefore declared that the earth is on water), perhaps taking this supposition from seeing the nurture of all things to be moist, and the warm itself coming-to-be from this and living by this (that from which they come-to-be being the principle of all things)–taking the supposition both from this and from the seeds of all things having a moist nature, water being the natural principle of moist things.
Of course, the first book of the Torah finds water at the heart of existence. The above painting by James Tissot, The Creation (1896-1902) offers an image of the opening lines.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.
A few lines later water is separated from water.
And God said: ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so.
This soupe kandia, from Chef Sean Brock’s trip to Senegal, and the mother of gumbo illustrates one of water’s great cooking attributes: dissolve and mix.
Water forms hydrogen bonds not only with itself, but with other substances that have at least some electrical polarity, some unevenness in the distribution of positive and negative electrical charges. Of the other major food molecules, which are much larger and more complex than water, both carbohydrates and proteins have polar regions. Water molecules are attracted to these regions and cluster around them. When they do this, they effectively surround the larger molecules and separate them from each other. If they do this more or less completely, so that each molecule is mostly surrounded by a cloud of water molecules, then that substance has dissolved in water. (794)
The next time you sink a spoon “full fathom five” into a bowl of soup or stew, consider the water molecule and it’s creation of where we are, who we are and what we eat.