I recently hit up the Clouston & Hall store in Canberra. They’re an academic remainders store and they often have excellent cookery books hugely reduced. The book I was really excited about in the latest catalogue was independent UK researcher Dr Frances Short’s Kitchen Secrets: The Meaning of Cooking in everyday life. It promised that it would explore
the thoughts, values and opinions of home cooks, their practices and experiences, and the skills and knowledge they use to prepare and provide food. It provides new and challenging ways of thinking about cooking, examining and often contesting commonly-held beliefs and theories about the role of practical cookery lessons, dinner parties as showcases for culinary flair and the negative effect of convenience foods on home cooking and kitchen skills.
It was a very unsatisfying book, but as we all know that’s the next best thing to a really good one, right? For an overview of Short’s arguments, check out this journal article from 2003 (pdf), and you can also read extracts on Google Book. Her writing is clear and unfussy and there were some parts I found very interesting, such as her careful dissection of the “family meal” as an unquestioned and unassailable good and her findings about which types of home cooking parents were more likely to involve their children in.
Kitchen Secrets was developed from Short’s PhD thesis in sociology and her exploration of claims that domestic cookery is becoming deskilled has been significantly influenced by food historian Rachel Laudan’s 2001 polemic A plea for culinary modernism.
It will help to briefly look at Laudan first. The full text is here (pdf), but to give a potted version of her argument, “culinary luddites” have conflated the terms “natural” and “unprocessed” with “good food” and in doing so they display ignorance of the history of food. In the past survival has demanded that all but the richest perform endless backbreaking work to make highly monotonous diets safe let alone palatable. Laudan says that historically wherever people have an opportunity to eat more processed food that requires less work to prepare, they have taken it.
My problem with Laudan’s argument is that I don’t accept that the leap from wheat kernel to bread is the same as the leap from bread to McDonalds. In saying so, I don’t underestimate the hours and expertise that making raw agricultural ingredients into food takes (for a very entertaining example in relation to the journey from corn to tortilla, read Dave Arnold at Cooking Issues).
It frustrates me that Laudan builds an air of legitimacy by footnoting research arguing that European peasants were stupefied by adulterated food for 500 years or essentially hibernated through a bad winter, but she doesn’t name and shame any “culinary luddites”. She does give the them credit for foregrounding that we “need to know how to prepare good food, and we need a culinary ethos”, but she’s very upset with the ethos of nostalgic agrarian utopianism she insists they are demanding we adopt. I could find you a back-to-the-land hippie who believed the crap that Laudan is arguing against but what persuasive or political power do they have anyway? The exercise would be a pointless waste of everyone’s time – at it’s heart Laudan’s argument is posturing against a strawfoodie.
Her provocative stance certainly has managed to generate attention for her ideas a long time; when a snippet of Laudan’s piece was published in the New York Times last year, she blogged that she was “just relishing the thought of responding to the flood of hostile comments. I love controversy.” More recently in Australia, her spittle-flecked food-politics troll mantle has been adopted by the Institute of Public Affairs’ Chris Berg, in this recent piece for Fairfax “Dig in, don’t wait. Our slow food nostalgia is misplaced.”
Right, so that was a little less brief than I intended, but I jeez I feel better. As I was saying, Short has applied Laudan’s scepticism to claims that none of us can cook anymore. It certainly not an argument that I’ve ever supported, and it something I’m active about both personally and professionally.
Short points out that many terms in this discussion have remained undefined, terms such as “pre-prepared”, “convenience”, “raw” and “natural” and she agrees with Laudan’s view questioning whether food really can be divided into “two nice, neat groups”. (link) It’s disappointing that the only response to rejecting “two nice, neat groups” is to throw your hands up in the air and stick to one meaningless group.
None of her interview subjects express a view that prepared foods are unacceptable, although for different types of meals they might rely more or less on processed or packaged ingredients. Short asserts that “Kitchen technologies and their offspring, the trimmed, par-boiled, floreted, deboned and ready-to-steam, are regularly proclaimed as the scourge of home cooking” (link) or, even more alarmingly, “the scourge of good diet and family health and unity”. (link) Her subjects’ universal lack of anxiety about using processed ingredients makes me think that the prevalence and vehemence of these “proclamations” is being overstated.
I’d rather buy bottled passata with an ingredients list that said “tomatoes, tomato juice” and avoid the BPA lining in canned tomatoes, but I certainly don’t think anyone credible is pointing at canned tomatoes as a scourge of home cookery. What’s the point of clinging to the inclusion of items such as canned tomatoes and rice in the “processed” category if it’s only you and Rachel Laudan putting them there?
Short’s argument is much stronger when she points out that there is no consensus in ordinary life or academic practice of what is meant by “cooking” and “cooking skills”. In addition to concrete skills such as “baking” or “chopping”, she describes a range of tacit skills that are built from experience and learned knowledge, extending from the ability to open the oven and inspect a dish and know at what stage of cooking it’s at all the way to the organisation, planning and emotional work it can take to cook every day for fussy children.
To me the ability to look in the fridge, garden and pantry and whip up something delicious is the mark of a good domestic cook. My definition also includes an element of domestic economy, which would amuse my friend Chris who was astonished that I don’t have a budget for food shopping. What I mean is that there is no food waste in this house. Every usable morsel is eaten by us, the chickens or the worms. There’s a hint of class-based distaste for that kind of frugality in some of Short’s subjects, who don’t want meals to appear as if you’d “bunged your leftovers in” (link)
My parents both worked and eventually my mother got sick of cooking as well as doing all the rest. I was brought up with Deb instant mashed potato and frozen vegetables that were favoured because they didn’t go off in the crisper. I don’t know why I struck out against that way of eating so vehemently. I still try and do all the cooking at my parents’ house rather than eat that way.
My list of “acceptable” processed food will differ from yours (unless you’re Tammi :) I do make some things “from scratch” that are almost exclusively used in bought versions. By Short’s and Laudan’s arguments, is the hoi sin sauce I make using miso and malted barley from the Co-op and Megachef oyster sauce just another assembly of processed foods?
My list of “unacceptable” processed foods will differ from yours too – I find chilled packaged “fresh” pasta a ridiculous invention and will either make fresh pasta or, more commonly, used dried pasta. I’m under no delusions – I am what’s described in the book as a “food hobbyist” and I’m clearly more than a couple of standard deviations past the bell curve of processed food eating – to the extent that my use and consumption of processed food surprises people sometimes. For instance the lovely @charlotteshucks responded when I tweeted that I was making the kids chicken drumsticks with lemongrass and Maggi seasoning sauce for dinner recently “wow, never thought I’d hear you singing the praises of Packet Food … #worldupsidedown”. Fortunately she wasn’t on twitter when I posted a couple of days later “I think y’all will realise how crook I’m feeling if I tell you we’re having Crust pizza for dinner”.
I think what I ultimately found most disappointing about the book was that although Short was a chef for 15 years before becoming a scholar there is nowhere detectable in the book a passion for food beyond that academic fascination. Particularly where a book has begun as a formal qualification-directed research project we can’t judge it for what it’s not about. But how can you talk about cookery skills and how people cook without talking about how it tastes?