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.

What cooking really means

Intuitive leaps

By
August 24, 2012

When I was 14, 15, and 16, my mom routinely admonished me to lighten up. “You take yourself too seriously,” she said.

Later, though, she changed her tune. In fact, she spoke regretfully of all the times she had told me to be more lighthearted. She felt that writers needed to take themselves seriously because their perceptions of themselves and the world around them were the material of essays and stories.

I have gone back and forth about whether she was more correct in her first impulse or her second. Obviously, some sort of mental balance is in order. Failing that, writers, like everyone else, have to get through life as well as they can: imbalanced, but jogging in some comely direction.

I mention all this because I am approaching an anniversary of sorts: five years of trying to explain the meaning of kitchen life to you, the boisterous, mysterious readers of Culinate. I am a dinner guest who has really stayed a while.

Looking back on my posts, I experience vertigo. In my struggles to conclude my short essays decisively, I sometimes hector the reader: Don’t resent the time you spend in the kitchen; it’s your fault if you aren’t enjoying this eternal task; and my experiences should guide you.

Those messages, especially the last, are painful to see all in a column. For in my obedience to the forms and structures of writing, I have inadvertently suggested that I speak from some height.

Lest anyone be inclined to rush in and tell me that my writing is insightful and that I earn my pomposity, don’t bother. I don’t consider myself much more pompous (or needy) than anyone else in the blogosphere.

I do, however, want to be above average in the self-awareness department, and I want that self-awareness to lead me to greater insight.

Once we understand the primary purpose of a vegetable peeler, we internalize its basic properties and begin, in fits of need and mental restlessness, to see how those properties could be of use in the solving of other types of problems.

In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett writes about learning to cook with an Iranian refugee named Madame Benshaw. He says, “Language struggles with depicting physical action, and nowhere is this struggle more evident than in language that tells us what to do.”

Over the past five years, I have thought of my blog posts as descriptive, not prescriptive. Yet looking back, I can see I am mistaken. In any case, as Sennett suggests, writing about cooking (a physical act) has extended my ability to use my tool of choice (language) to grapple with the larger material world.

I have not offered many recipes, because I consider that a specialized form of writing beyond my capacity and will. The philosophy of getting into the kitchen and messing around is what I espouse. Really, it is the messing around that I am rooting for; I don’t much care where you do it.

Late in The Craftsman, Sennett explains how one of my favorite by-products of messing around — intuitive leaps — happens. He breaks this process into four overlapping phases: reformatting, adjacency, surprise, and gravity.

This is complicated stuff, and I am not sure I understand it fully, but here is what I have so far: As we return over and over to an activity (in our case, cooking), we become so familiar with our tools and materials that we eventually feel comfortable going beyond what the directions say (that’s reformatting and adjacency). Through habit and repeated exposure, we see relationships between things that were at first obscured by our own clumsiness and need to focus on absolute basics.

This concept helps explain both the “Good Things” section of Martha Stewart Living and the “Aha!” section of Real Simple. Once we understand the primary purpose of a vegetable peeler, we internalize its basic properties and begin, in fits of need and mental restlessness, to see how those properties could be of use in the solving of other types of problems. We get more out of what we have on hand, which is always a boost.

Surprise is the “aha!” moment, a bright burst of endorphins. Think of those name-brand peanut-butter-cup commercials, enthusing about an inspired combination of seemingly disparate flavors.

I am tickled by my own cleverness sometimes, and such narcissism overlaps healthily with my wonder at the beauty of the material world — the magical shades of tan and gold on a meringue; the way sucking on blackberry seeds fills my brain with a sense of liquid wood; or the complicated, precarious structures I make in my dish rack.

Sennett puts it this way: “Surprise is a way of telling yourself that something you know can be other than you assumed.” This is a good thing. Some of us look forward to getting up in the morning sheerly on the bet that the good surprises will outnumber the bad ones.

Gravity is not reverence, in Sennett’s view. It’s seeing that making beautiful things is not the result of magic; it is the result of work, some of it haphazard and much of it fruitless.

Problems will persist. This does not mean that our solutions are worthless or that the craftsman should abandon his or her work. This insight inspires us to quit looking for perfect tools and not be so mad at ourselves when we screw up.

However, this is not license to be self-satisfied. The trick is to be critical, but not paralyzingly so each time you embark on your craft.

My two greatest fears in life are making mistakes and being dull. A close third might be taking myself too seriously. Fourth, of course, is being unworthy of attention.

Maybe what my mom was telling me those many years ago is that it is best to steer a course between self-absorption and frivolity. That to understand the world, I needed to connect with it, but that I also needed to pull back and breathe sometimes.

The funny thing about cooking and its satellite tasks is that we only recently seem to be taking them seriously. Fears and pitfalls are never far behind “seriousness.”

Whatever your fears are, I wish you well as a fellow practitioner of the craft of cooking and as a person on the lookout for good surprises. Though the kitchen is no refuge from fear, it remains an engaging, object-filled place, and as long as it houses tools, it can be the seat of happiness.

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