A maid and a cavalier look out at us from a 17th century kitchen in Pieter Cornelisz van Ryck’s A large kitchen still life with a maid and a gentleman. She’s scaling a fish and he’s pouring back some water or wine. Practices of a day and time, very much like today, though the clothes might be different, and probably most of the animals would be in smaller parts and shrink-wrapped. In Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, “cooking” is read as an act which appropriates and enunciates, establishes a present moment, and offers rules of play with all who talk and listen within what it means “to cook.” Cooking as an enterprise, as a journey, occurs as a strategy in designated places and generates any number of relationships: chef, waiter, restaurant critic, home-cook, recipe collector, customer, shopper, food activist, food blogger, foodie, etc. As a tactic, cooking allows for any number of idiosyncratic moves despite boundaries or circumscribed areas of performance, despite recipes and skills. A tactic can let in what the strategy wants to keep out. The combination of the two allows one to cook instead of being cooked, with a nod to Frank Underwood.
The luxury, opulence and culinary skill of Iron Chef creates a vast gulf between viewer and the camera-laden stadium kitchen. When we watch we are the excluded, those who will never cook like this, in fact the word “cook” seems a bit plebeian in this context, better to say warrior. Challenge and danger lurks everywhere, being brought front and center with Iron Chef Gauntlet. We watch as the other, and yet the show only exists because of us–those outside the barracks who will these serious-looking men and women into existence.
Who are you to think you can enter a kitchen and perform skilled transformations of animals and vegetables? Note the cleavers and knives. And this testosterone-filled obstacle course not only appeals to highly-prized culinary warriors, but also those who want to wear their own fancy aprons and high hats–the contestants of Chopped. Of course, this tradition of combining cooking and a military-styled, no-prisoners-taken approach goes back to August Escoffier and his brigade de cuisine with its positions (chef de cuisine, saucier, garde manger) and rules of behavior, including the famous “Oui, chef.”
The executive chef or chef de cuisine molds their kitchen staff into a machine which each night must prepare immaculate food; when that level of skill does not appear, a tirade made ensue. Consider the battle-carnage of Kitchen Nightmares.
Consider the opening of Full Metal Jacket.
Along with the kitchen comes the cookbook, veritable encyclopedia and guide to etiquette when battling with fire and water, from Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire to the Larousse Gastronomique to Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. The recipes root themselves in terroir and Ἀρετή, the words prescribe exact measurements, knife cuts, and ingredients. All is foretold, and if you have the skill and “sense,” you can defeat the linear movement of time by again and again preparing French Onion Soup.
I love getting away with things, whether it’s a pun, an unexpected thought that opens into a sentence then a paragraph, discovering a book I wasn’t even looking for, a memory that comes unbidden as I realize the movie I’m watching has much to say about my own life; or, taking onions off the flame when they’re not frying as they should per the recipe, and instead broiling them so the desired result occurs. Idleness is also a wonderful tactic, it looks as though nothing is happening but within the “doing of nothing” and boredom, any idea may pop out and take one off on an adventure; as Theodor Adorno writes, Whoever doesn’t entertain any idle thoughts doesn’t throw any wrenches into the machinery.
In the kitchen, it’s all about tactics as I decide to only cook with what I have in the cupboards and refrigerator, relying on what I’ve learned and can imagine. So I mix flour and eggs, knead, then turn sheets through a pasta machine until clusters of fettuccine top my son’s t-shirt.
Maybe I’m out shopping, wandering to the butcher glass, and thinking yes, I’d like to do something with a lamb’s neck.
Or it’s a fish head that strikes my fancy, and fancy is very much a tactic, and I place the head in a pot with whatever berries, herbs, leaves, and stalks I have.
Sometimes I make adobo sauce on a whim and pour it over a chicken which then ends up in my smoker.
Maybe I decide I want a culinary experience through a screen, not “Food Network,” but something more transgressive like wedding cooking and cannibalism.
Maybe as I sit and muse on the similarity on shopping for animal parts at the butcher and the names of the parts that comprise my or any other human’s body, I imagine sitting my friends down to dinner, and raising our glasses over what they believe to a Michelin-starred performance, but actually might be a bit more ethically radical–though, as always, aesthetically tasteful.
And then sometimes it’s just my son, my cookbooks and various bones.
To quote and alter Certeau once more, whenever I “cook” I return to the hunger and practices of an ancient world digging out bone marrow, pounding root fibers into a paste; I enact knife and fire like cooks in nineteenth-century restaurants of Paris or recently-freed slaves in Virginia, chefs as well, who stir the pot of all that’s kept them alive. I’m not a professional, but a traveler of time and space at home, Australopithecus afarensis in 21st century Houston. Maybe a bit like Doctor Who. Bon Appétit!