Cooking: A Faustian Wager.

It’s a scene out of Goethe’s Faust and a print by Jacob II de Gheyn (1600)–a witch’s kitchen.  Lord knows what’s bubbling in the cauldron.  It’s an old legend.  A magician strives for all knowledge and power crafting a bargain with the Devil, and rules over the world for a few years, but then plummets to hell.  This is what leapt to mind as I started reading “Why Cook?” the introduction to Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

In ancient Greece, the word for “cook,” “butcher,” and “priest” was the same –mageiros–and the word shares an etymological root with “magic.”  I would watch, rapt, when my mother conjured her magical dishes, like the tightly wrapped packet of fried chicken Kiev that, when cut open with a sharp knife, liberated a pool of melted butter and an aromatic gust of herbs.  (4)

To butcher, bake bread, use the magic arts–I think of Circe.


She ushered them in to sit on high-backed chairs,

then she mixed them a potion–cheese, barley

and pale honey mulled in Pramnian wine–

but into the brew she stirred her wicked drugs

to wipe away from their memories any thought of home.

Once they’d drained the bowls she filled, suddenly

she struck with her wand, drove them into her pigsties,

all of them bristling into swine–with grunts,

snouts–even their bodies, yes and only

the men’s minds stayed steadfast as before.

So off they went to their pens, sobbing, squealing

as Circe flung them acorns, cornel nuts and mast,

common fodder for hogs that root and roll in mud.  (256-268)

Transformation with drink and food occurs throughout the Odyssey.  Eat the lotus, “honey-sweet fruit” and you forget about home.  Trouble at home, Helen will slip drugs into your wine so you will sleep.  Polyphemus, the world’s favorite cyclops, transforms men into animals into food with one gulp, as do the Laestrygonians.  The dead in the underworld drink blood to speak, while above Odysseus’ men are warned not to dine on the cattle of the sun–they do.  Odysseus’ adventures underscore the importance of hospitality–without an honoring of the guest/host relationship you may just end up on the dinner table.

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Faust desires the knowledge and power that magic offers.  He opens a book and studies “the sign of the Macrocosm.”

Ah–enchantment at the sight of this

Suffuses every sense, what lovely verve!

I feel new-burgeoning life. with sacred bliss

Reincandescent, course through vein and nerve.

Was it a god that fashioned this design

Which calms the tumult in my breast,

Floods my poor heart with happiness,

And with a secret thrust divine

Makes Nature’s powers about me manifest? (430-438)

Interpreting the Macrocosm reveals to Faust the possibility of bindning Nature “in his clasp.”  He reads how “one common weft contrives, / Each in the other works and thrives!”  A knowledge of all-disciplines celebrated in one art.  Read how Carlo Petrini defines gastronomy in Slow Food.

Botany, genetics, and the other natural sciences, in its classification of the various kinds of food, thus making possible their conservation;
physics and chemistry, in its selection of the best products and its study of how they are processed;
agriculture, zootechnics, and agronomy, in its concern with the production of good and varied raw materials;
ecology, because man, in producing, distributing, and consuming food, interferes with nature and transforms it to his advantage;
anthropology, because it contributes to the study of the history of man and his cultural identities;
sociology, from which it takes its methods of analyzing human social behavior . . . (Translated by Clara Furlan and Jonathan Hunt).

And on.  The chef, the gourmet turns into Faust turns into Circe learning the secret knowledge that brings together all books and matter.  A secret language of transformation where a carrot or a pig becomes something other than itself, which we transform through cooking into water, fats, sugars and protein.  In other words, into material which makes us up as well. Where might this knowledge and skill take us?  What will our ethics be?


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