Photo of chinois by Donna
For those who love to cook but have trouble articulating exactly why, have a look at a terrific article in the NYTimes magazine by Matthew B. Crawford (adapted from his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work). This Ph.D left the white collar world to run his motorcycle repair shop and describes what we stand to lose by giving up working with our hands.
As I've written in my books about chefs, I believe that one of the reasons for our return to cooking after a generation's embrace of prepared foods and frozen dinners is that we are removed from the physical world (by the nature of our cubicle lives, from the increasing hours bug-eyed before screens) that we have become disconnected from our own humanity; when we cook, which is something every able-bodied person can do, the tenuous threads to our very nature grow stronger, and this feels good. The threads grow stronger still when we cook and then sit down with our friends and our families to share the efforts of this physical labor.
In Wooden Boats, I wrote about these issues as well, after a year in a yard that built wooden boats, planks bent around frames, fastened with brass screws and sealed with cotton caulk. And I discovered and wrote about the wisdom that boat builders accrue by bending wood around wood every day. I wrote about "The Workmanship of Risk," and the importance of being able to fail (something that is actively ignored in corporate America, as the above article humorously describes, and it is also the difference between a homemade cake and one made from a boxed mix).
Cooking accomplishes so much more than we realize. Learning to cook, building in Crawford's words "a library of sounds and smells and feels" that allows us to get better at our craft, something we achieve through practice, not through books, not only gives us the pleasure of working pleasing materials in our hands, the pleasure of craft, and a concrete result we can see and smell and taste and offer, the act itself truly does make us more human. And our bodies like this, our whole being likes this. Which is the ultimate benefit of the work of cooking.
UPDATE 5/27: What timing! Times book review today of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. The scientific argument for the ideology above, and a new theory of evolution (yes, a new theory of human evolution).
From the review by Dwight Garner:
“The extra energy gave the first cooks biological advantages," writes author Richard Wrangham. "They survived and reproduced better than before. Their genes spread. Their bodies responded by biologically adapting to cooked food, shaped by natural selection to take maximum advantage of the new diet. There were changes in anatomy, physiology, ecology, life history, psychology and society.” Put simply, Mr. Wrangham writes that eating cooked food — whether meat or plants or both —made digestion easier, and thus our guts could grow smaller. The energy that we formerly spent on digestion (and digestion requires far more energy than you might imagine) was freed up, enabling our brains, which also consume enormous amounts of energy, to grow larger. The warmth provided by fire enabled us to shed our body hair, so we could run farther and hunt more without overheating. Because we stopped eating on the spot as we foraged and instead gathered around a fire, we had to learn to socialize, and our temperaments grew calmer.
But there's a downside: it also altered gender roles; because cooking took time and energy, it left the lone cook vulnerable to thieves; it was women who cooked and they needed protection of a male, thus creating a male dominated culture. Marriage, the author argues, began as "a kind of primitive protection racket."
Highly favorable review, short and compulsively readable book, highly nuanced argument. But we sensed this all along.