Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

In search of an active kitchen

Cooking as liveliness

April 22, 2011

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.

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.

There are 11 comments on this item
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1. by Fasenfest on Apr 22, 2011 at 9:57 AM PDT

We are steadily separating out the fashion from the function of cooking. Thanks for you inquiry and post.

2. by vintagejenta on Apr 23, 2011 at 12:13 PM PDT

I often wonder if we would all love cooking from scratch so much if we HAD to do it every day. Like you said, it’s elective, but I know there are days when I’d much rather order in (especially after a long day at work) than dirty more pots and pans that I’ll have to wash later.

It is laziness? Or is cooking and keeping house a full-time job that we simply don’t value enough to recognize as one?

3. by Caroline Cummins on Apr 23, 2011 at 10:04 PM PDT

Joan — This is one of the better arguments I’ve heard explaining the philosophy and politics behind urban homesteading/radical homemaking. Thanks!

4. by Fasenfest on Apr 24, 2011 at 7:36 AM PDT

I have been reading tons of historical accounts about the quest for self reliance. From the start the effort was challenged by the access to land - who and what had rights to it.

We are all aware of this story even though it is taught in the fuzzy narrative of progress. But within that narrative is the other side of progress. It is the one of exodus and the slow and often coercive effort to convince a populace that everything one needed could be better and more effectively done by someone else off the land-- be it sweatshops or cute shops.

Granted, this is a very long history with twists and turns, advancements and failures (no history is without it all), but punctuated throughout is the essence of why we don’t cook or grow our own food or have deep support systems for any of it. Deep within that history are the reasons we tend to look at cooking as either a fancy fascination or drudgery.

To a certain extent we are all in exodus -- off family lands, separated from family cultures, serfs working for someone else and not really getting ahead in the effort. Not anymore. Not really.

Yes, it might seem like we are just cooking dinner or growing vegetables but I think the effort is connected to larger effort. It is connected to the history we share and the future we are hoping for. Let us not dismiss the philosophy or politics of radical homemaking (or householding) as mere idealistic ramblings but a tribute to, and respect for, those who would only wish to have a few pots and pans, a little bit of land, and a modicum of security to enjoy it all in. Yes, we all have better things to do at times but really, let’s not forget that history nor that very real future we hope to hand off to our children.

5. by joanmenefee on Apr 25, 2011 at 6:42 AM PDT

There are more than a dozen fantastic interventions on this topic in the Fasenfest canon, but this one is still my favorite:

I sometimes think that we North Americans truly believe that effort is a sign of error. Perhaps fetishistic athleticism contradicts this point, but our general insecurity about what leisure looks like has played a role in populating our houses with devices that claim to save us labor, as if avoiding labor were the only purpose of life.

I think if we reform our attitude toward work, we would go a long way toward creating a saner, more generous and sensuous infrastructure. Then, even if it’s been a long day, we would so look forward to connecting with home in the form of onions or bacon or tomatoes, that our fatigue would float away. It seems possible, though it is quite hard to imagine. Objects, though sometimes unpredictable and certainly perishable, are beautiful; cooking, in the end, is touching and manipulating that great variety of objects and making them part of ourselves. How do we get that message embedded in our habitus? I guess that is another question I am trying to ask.

6. by Fasenfest on Apr 25, 2011 at 7:27 AM PDT

Thanks Joan. I also think less makes for more. I have been thinking about streamlining to the point that my larder is made of some ten to fifteen ingredients reworked to be the meals of our table. Not fancy or far flung but healthy and easy in the way they will end the endless search for the latest flavor and culinary invention. Will it make jack or jill even duller than he or she already is? (though dull may not be the word) or will it allow us to spend some of our free time on the other things we care about. I have been thinking of menus and foraging in a whole new way. In one of those historical accounts I read of native americans who had more time than their euro-american transplants if only because they didn’t fuss with all that stuff.

I enjoy your lyrical and thoughtful writing.

7. by JudithK on Apr 26, 2011 at 9:04 AM PDT

A valid argument for cooking at home. There are so many factors in play here.
Generational loss of cooking skills means people don’t know the fastest, easiest way to peel carrots or chop vegetables.
Frustration could be a factor if food isn’t turning out looking like it does in a magazine.
Relentless marketing use of the words “Quick” “Fast” “Easy” have the effect of making us think cooking is difficult and slow.
You are right, we need to embrace and revel in the pleasures of the kitchen.

8. by Sarah Gustafson on Apr 29, 2011 at 12:55 PM PDT

I love this article. I get much enjoyment and stress relief from cooking a nice meal. If you haven’t ready it already you should check out “The Unprejudiced Palate: Classic Thoughts on Food and the Good Life” by Angelo M. Pellegrini.

9. by joanmenefee on May 6, 2011 at 7:19 AM PDT

Thanks for the book recommendation, Sarah. I will check it out. I am glad to know there are so many articulate people thinking through these issues with such passion and sincerity. This gives me hope that Cooking 2.0 (or 5.0?) will play a role in transforming North American society.

10. by GeoDiva on May 6, 2011 at 10:54 PM PDT

I love to cook... mostly. When we inherited my brother’s three kids and our grandson (all within 2 weeks and all quite unexpected), I was suddenly dealing with 4 kids that had existed on boxed Mac n Cheese, instant potatoes, cereal, white rice and PBandJ, with a pizza or Whopper thrown in for good measure. Transitioning to a healthy, balanced diet wasn’t going easily. I also work 8 hours a day and now had more people to wash, cook, and clean for. And these kids had all been abandoned... how do I give them each special time with the demands of job and home management?
Each of the four cooks dinner one night a week. I just advise and assist, showing them how to wash, cut, measure, mix, and what spices to use. At first they looked through magazines and cookbooks for their recipes and menu ideas. We were eating wonderful meals, but busting our grocery budget every month. Then we went to “transitional” meals. The first person makes a meal, then the next one has to come up with a completely different meal using the leftovers, and the third person uses the leftovers from the second meal as a base for the third meal (usually a hearty soup). Now I just let them know what main ingredients are available to them that evening and let them decide what they will make with them. No more struggling to get them to eat their fruits and veggies. My grandson used to eschew sauce on his spaghetti, but found he made a mean spaghetti/pizza sauce and now he’s crazy about it.
What amazes me is how much they still look forward to “their night”, and we rarely eat out because the food at home is better than anything we could get in local restaurants. More than that, they have a sense of creative fulfillment, pride, and self-sufficiency in being able to make an attractive and balanced meal within a modest food budget.

11. by vintagejenta on May 7, 2011 at 5:45 AM PDT

@GeoDiva - That is such an awesome story! I wish my mom had made us cook when we were younger. She tried when we were teens, but by then we were lazy and uninterested. Getting kids involved in cooking is I think the only way to get them to truly love veggies. Case in point: I kinda liked veggies as a teen and in college, but now that I’ve been cooking for myself and others for a few years? I love vegetables!

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