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In search of an active kitchen

(post, Joan Menefee)

We’ve talked about the loss of a cooking culture (or multiple cooking cultures) as a loss of respect for traditional foodways (“Who cares what zurek is?”), as a loss of pro-social food behaviors (“So what if we can’t see our dining-room table for all the piles of bills and books on top of it?”), and as a force that has degraded local and seasonal food networks (“If you put enough salt on that December tomato, it almost tastes like food.”). 

Jean-Claude Kaufmann discusses this in The Meaning of Cooking, an excellent study of French attitudes toward food originally published by the French Ministry of Culture in 2005.

Less often discussed is the pacification process that increased dependence on ready-made or restaurant-produced food perpetuates (“Let’s not get the kitchen dirty tonight. Who’s up for pizza?”).

Pacification sounds like such a dreamy state. Imagine an infant with a nook in her mouth fighting to keep her eyes open.  

But pacification is the subduing of energy. Copious sleep, though great for growing babies, is not required in such great quantity for adults. Because convenience food comes to us nearly ready to eat, there is little question of our tinkering with it. Prepared food is the cultural equivalent of a nook. Yet I don’t think I want anyone sticking a piece of latex in my mouth until I doze.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="When we cook, we become molecule rearrangers."]

Conversely, when we make a meal from scratch, only the growing and shipping of the food are mysterious to us. We grab the carrot by its green top and decide how much we need. We sink the knife into a stretch of rounded flesh. We rummage the shelves until we find the right-size pan. We apply heat, salt, and oil; we toss the cubes in and listen for a tell-tale sizzle; we puzzle over the spatter of oil across the range. Our taste buds tingle as we feel a material thing soften and caramelize. 

Later, washing the pan, we scrape the bits of carrot from the surface and rinse it away, wondering about the reformed carrot’s final destination. 

In executing all of these tasks, we change the substance of that green-and-orange object and subtly change ourselves as well.

In that “from scratch” scenario, we see that we change food in the most literal and kitchen-bound sense, and thereby may see our power to alter all of the circumstances around us. We become molecule rearrangers — braisers, picklers, graters, mixers, freezers, and so on. These so-called brute acts can call upon judgment and imagination. They define us as actors as much as popping a burrito in the microwave defines us as sleepers.

When he writes about culture and philosophy, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu uses the term "habitus," or what later writers refer to as “a way of being in the world.” In Bourdieu’s view, tooth-brushing matters almost as much as voting; snacking and making love shape and reinforce each other because all of these activities are motivated by underlying beliefs and habits. 

You can think of a habitus as all of the beliefs and definitions that a person acts on without being conscious of believing or defining anything, plus the acts themselves. 

Bourdieu explains how ideologies get started and keep on trucking, how things like bottled water and single-serving ice-cream packages begin to feel natural and eventually inevitable. How the dining-room table becomes always and unalterably a place to park stuff and not a place to sup with kin.  

Cooking, which could and should be construed as a sign of creativity and liveliness, mostly conjures notions of drudgery, because its identity is reinforced by other aspects of our habitus we don’t consider related. People rarely, it seems, see themselves realizing their highest ideals as they’re blinking back tears mid-onion dice. But individual acts of slicing, rummaging, listening, salivating, and flipping, plus our perceptions of those acts (those pesky beliefs and definitions), are clues to who we are. And failure to partake of those activities also shapes us.

To be sure, many of us (especially Culinate readers!) enjoy cooking. But even we tend to view it as an elective activity. The really interesting stuff would start to happen if people without much time or money got a charge out of slicing an onion or making mustard from seeds of a home-grown plant.

I am not advocating a mindful approach to life, per se. I am talking more about creating institutions and social networks that affirm the necessity of an active food culture, of a habitus that emphasizes the value, beauty, and agency of making food, in all of its everyday incarnations. 

At this moment, I am trying to leap past individual consciousness-raising and reach for the higher bar of cultural reformation, just to see what it feels like to stretch further.  

Kitchens, home-economics classrooms, cooking schools, grocery stores, and community gardens are crucial political arenas, not because of what these spaces symbolize, but because of all the nitty-gritty stuff that people do there. If our social systems actually helped us value the work of cooking, then we individuals wouldn’t have to be so mindful.  

Mindfulness, after all, can also be tiring work.


reference-image, l