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.

Wabi-sabi cookery

Cooking is a constant history lesson

By
May 7, 2012

In this corner of eternity called the kitchen, I am constantly making space. Too often, I think, we consider our kitchen tasks as beginning the moment our hands touch food or food-making tools. To make dinner is to open that first drawer or door and grasp an object, be it a pot, a spoon, or a box of noodles.

Cookbooks nowadays give readers a time-to-table estimate, as if knowing how long it takes to make a dish is of much consequence. People tell me that this is a planning aid, but I don’t believe that time is the true barrier to home cooking. And in any case, these estimates also limit cooking time to the moment we begin a particular recipe or preparation.

For me, cooking usually begins with washing dishes. As I run the tap, soap and rinse the dishes, and stack them in the drain, I think about what I have been eating. A lot of junk food? Some good bread? The evidence is all before me. There might be a fine grit in the sink basin from vegetables washed there the day before.

Broadly considered, cooking is a constant history lesson. Crumbs accumulate; grocery lists curl against the fruit bowl; the same knives and cutting boards cycle in and out of the drain, while a pile of tart dishes and pie tins sits patiently on a low shelf. Recyclables collect near the door, a glass jar here, a plastic bag there. Some we denude of their labels, some we break down so they’re flat, and some we wonder about, not knowing for sure if they can be recast in a humbler or nobler form. As we struggle to make similar assessments of ourselves, we may allow these objects to linger at the kitchen’s margins.

Joan’s kitchen.

We eat through our bread and bananas speedily, but sometimes an avocado gets lost in the shadows of the fruit bowl, unseen until its skin begins to cave. These dramas play out billions of times planetarily. History, in other words, is carved into space at different rates and by different needs and habits.

The kitchen is a room in a house. It’s the room in which I do my most unfettered and practical thinking. So also it is a room in which I witness the most decay and change.

The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, according to the designer Leonard Koren, is an aesthetic appreciation of the evanescence of life. However, it’s one thing to mouth such a phrase and another thing truly to understand what it means. Wabi-sabi can be merely another curiosity to add to the pile of curiosities cluttering our minds, or it can inform our desire to clean, cook, and eat.

For people who make it their business to understand these things, wabi-sabi is most evident in the ritual of the Japanese tea ceremony. Again according to Koren, tea-ceremony participants “bend or crawl” into the tea room through an entrance that is purposefully designed to make them crouch. No brands are featured on the pots or cups, and the materials from which these pots and cups are made are matte and seemingly crude; instead, they bear the marks of individual human hands. All of these actions or attitudes are physical signs that the tea drinker eschews distinctions of rank and status and that he recognizes the temporary nature of life.

As I have shared with you in at least one past blog post, much of what I make bears the marks of my hurried and hungry temperament. I cottoned to the idea of wabi-sabi because the images most commonly associated with it — leaves scattered in a pebble field, weathered wood, rusting iron — speak to my aesthetic tendencies. I enjoy looking at strawberry leaves floating in a sink full of water, which is probably why I end up spending so much time in the kitchen. Patterns of formation and dissolution comfort me. I like irregularity and oddity. In short, I like pied beauty.

I experience wabi-sabi when I am buttering toast and the pat of butter tears the crisped bread. Or when I am clearing coffee grounds from the well in my French press and a few stray grounds stick to my wrist or fly and adhere to the wall. I am forever tearing my toast or picking coffee grounds from my sleeve.

The time it takes to make a meal matters to me, but what such an estimate fails to account for is how time in the kitchen structures the whole of life. Perhaps the cookbooks we write in the future will tell us how to occupy a kitchen, how to create a house in which every room is a workshop and laboratory. In this alternative reality, we wouldn’t spend so much time worrying about how long we have to spend there.

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