I’m currently reading Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation both for fun and to mine it for sociological sources on the role cooked food plays in our lives. I have been greatly enjoying it, and it has inspired me to experiment with lacto-fermentation, baking sourdough bread and other kitchen projects. So far it is fact filled and yet very readable, he has a knack for writing to an educated audience that is fairly well informed but still wants to learn new things. That style might also be part and parcel with the lack of class analysis so far, which indicates that he is writing for an audience that views cooking as a valid intellectual and political interest, not a necessary part of daily life (it is both). To be fair, he has confined himself to the West, and in the West food that we don’t need to cook is increasingly available at all price points. It does become frustrating, however, to read cursory discourse about the role of second and third wave feminism in redefining women’s relationship to cooking, and even more prominently, the way capitalism has shaped modern cooking and eating habits, without a serious discussion of class woven throughout*.
Apart from my nitpicking of a scholarly and sociopolitical nature, Pollan contends that people chafe at the time demanded by cooking, see it as time wasted and better spent doing literally anything else. Is this true? It has made me sad as I read.
Pollan ascribes this low-grade dread of the kitchen as a battle between the desire to do fun or productive things (tv, read, email, etc.) and the “drudgery” of preparing a meal from start to finish. He goes on for pages about how everyone in the history of mankind has hated cutting onions, which I think is monstrously unfair to the onion, without which food would be an bland mess exactly 98.3% of the time. The other enemy of the desire to cook is time, or more precisely the lack of it. It is true that cooking different things every day is time consuming, and that many of the best cooking techniques take as much time as you can give, the more the better. But why, oh why, should that be imagined as time wasted?
He makes the comparison to alchemy, and I couldn’t agree more with the analogous elements of transformation of materials, scientifically described rituals, dedication to the experimental process.
But cooking is like alchemy is another, less purely material, sense. Cooking is a labor of passionate hunger of the spirit as well as the body. Certainly most days I don’t find the sublime while prepping carrots. But every day I return to the process of creating the elixir of life with renewed fervor. Part of me must continue to cook, to engage the materials and expose them to the elements of water, fire and air, possibly without end, possibly until, as a marketing guy Pollan quotes predicts, the alternatives to cooking are too good and it becomes obsolete. I doubt that will ever happen though. The calling of alchemical discovery is too strong in some of us, even if our privilege allows us to employ alternatives.
All that being said, I still haven’t convinced anyone that cooking isn’t a waste of time. I can’t think of what I could say that will apply universally. Instead, I can describe the pleasure I felt when I recently learned to dice an onion into regular little pieces. It was as if I was standing victorious on the field of battle. That same class I julienned a vegetable for the first time, and though I will probably never use the technique regularly, doing it then made me want to do a little dance of joy (not advised when holding eight inches of chef’s knife). Those moments arose out of what Pollan calls drudgery, a word that recalls the very antithesis of pleasure. Now every time I dice up an onion a feel an echo of that satisfaction murmuring through me, saying something like, “God you’re good, Homie.”
How is a thoroughly empowering moment spent reveling in developing skill a waste of time? If you had that feeling playing your instrument of choice, or a video game, or ball in the street, wouldn’t that be characterized as a perfectly normal positive? So why is it so hard for the people Pollan describes, himself included, to want to cook? It isn’t actually that hard when all the ritualistic mumbo jumbo is stripped away. Most cooking is popping things into a pot in this order: first veggies, then protein, then liquid. And then you just wait while a low fire does its thing. That is the basis of so many dishes across culinary cultures that it might be the basis of all cooking. Sauteeing, frying, poaching and certainly sous-vide and other high tech type stuff is completely secondary in my mind. Pollan also takes this approach, but he also validates this idea that cooking is hard and strenuous. It doesn’t need to be. Through the course of the book, he learns to take pleasure in the processes of cooking, but he never quite shakes the notion that this pleasure is hard won.
So far, he seems to be arguing that a combination of marketing, technology and wage labor has caused us to renounce cooking as a fact of life. Throughout the book he is attempting to overcome his 21st century resistance to the kitchen by learning from masters of various cooking approaches: barbeque, California cuisine, etc. I don’t have a complaint about that. In fact, I think it would be great if people let themselves reach back into their cultural and personal memories and remember the way cooking creates pleasure and community in their traditions. I also agree that capitalism has radically changed the way we approach food in the US, particularly through the commodification of ethnically coded products as exotic experiences.
In summary, I rebel against being told that something I love so much is just a chore that must be got through, even if most people do see it that way. Cooking, even the unglamorous slicing and dicing and blood and guts, just isn’t a chore. Not for me.
*Let’s not even start on the way race and ethnicity recreate any conversation around food, from the perspectives of nutrition or gastronomy.