Chinois

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.

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42 Wonderful responses to “Soulcraft: The Real Reason We Love To Cook”

  • Control Weight

    Definitely one of the few things that we can still enjoy doing, of course, makes us more human, we can use all our senses, we enjoy cooking, love cooking, and the result is very satisfactory because it leads us to spend a pleasant time with the family and friends … nothing technological.

  • Cash Loans

    If you’ve never cooked full time for a living before, I suggest keeping the day job and then taking on a weekend or evening gig prepping or cooking somewhere for six months. This will give you a good idea of whether the hot, humid, loud, exhausting life of a cook is something you really want.

  • generic drugs

    Good review. Cooking in a restaurant kitchen adds a different level of physicality. I love that feeling of being muscle-tired, not just brain fatigued at the end of a day.

  • Michelle

    It may be a little too late to add to this post, but I also wanted to say that one of the main reasons I began cooking was because I live in ‘fast food capital of America’, Oklahoma City, and I was just plain hungry and needed something better to eat. Later it was about providing healthy, nutritious meals for my family. And last but not least, it was about power. In today’s world there are very few things we have complete control over – and I wasn’t about to relinquish this power of allowing a corporation to decide what my family eats. It was about taking control and reclaiming a basic human right to fresh, healthy food. Little did I know at the time that this would develop into such a passion.

  • Nila

    Speaking as someone who is a relative newcomer to the art of cooking (have only been cooking for the last 4 years or so), I can wholeheartedly agree that there is something almost viscerally satisfying in not just the act of cooking, but more importantly (to me, at least) in the act of sharing the results of cooking with friends/family. I love that what I make is being enjoyed by other people. Cooking for oneself is nowhere near as satisfying to me as that. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy cooking for myself, but I just LOVE IT when I can cook for others. It is also a big reason I get such satisfaction out of preparing food for charity (something I do at least once a week). Making food for other people absolutely feeds my soul!

  • Chad

    It might make sense, but the evolution angle is not the way to go. This is just the latest of theories of what drove human evolution with VERY scarce evidence from a scientific standpoint. I work with evolution every day and I don’t know a single evolutionary biologist who would think this is hypothesis is anything more than a fad in certain circles with very little scientific evidence (much like all of evolutionary psychology. Oh snap!).

  • ruhlman

    chad, i agree that it’s not a new theory of evolution but it does seem a credible enhancement of our understanding of human development. I too work with evolution every day and I think i’ve gotten her to stop texting at the table.

    kate, make the dutch oven bread in ratio. double the yeast and you’ll see how it works. most critical phase is letting it rise before baking imho

  • Kate in the NW

    minnie:
    I marvel at breadmaking.

    No matter how many times people swear it’s easy, I swear it’s NOT. I am not new-age-y at all, yet I persist in the belief that yeast has preferences – and they do not include me.

    Poor, deluded folk such as I benefit greatly from friendships with the Fellowship of The Breadmakers, the Chosen Of The Yeasts. I am lucky enough to have just such a connection. We trade meat and wine for bread, and it works out just fine.

    On just such elemental things are the very deepest alliances made…
    To each her own….

  • minnie

    i have found, that since i started making my own bread (admittedly, sometimes i cheat and use the bread machine), that we actually eat more bread. before, a loafwould go moldy before we’d finish it, and i have 2 teenage boys. since i’m using King Arthur white whole wheat, we’re probably eating better bread, as well (and i’ve used the same recipe tomake hotdog & hamburger buns as well). i have an associate’s degree in culinary arts, and i’m daily amazed at the way so many people marvel at such a simple skill as bread-making

  • Ben

    Oddly enough, I was thinking the exact same thing about why I like cooking so much after reading the review. I’m an English teacher now (stories also seem to have an evolutionary benefit) but often find the concreteness of cooking relaxing, especially during heavy grading times. I had a cubicle job for a few years, which drove me nuts.

    Michael, I heard you on “Around Noon” today, and I plan on picking up Ratio soon. I do come up with my own muffin recipes, but I keep looking back at cookbooks for baking powder / soda ratios.

  • Non Dire Gol

    I’m crazily looking forward to reading Mark Kurlansky’s new book, FOOD OF A YOUNGER COUNTRY. Pre WWII writing and recipes.

  • Marlene

    For me it is not so much the act of doing something physical with my hands after a days work, although the kitchen is the first place I head to when I’m stressed, or worried, but also when I’m happy. Cooking is vital to my soul.

    Many of us are never going to work in a professional kitchen. So as home cooks, maybe the right question is to ask ourselves why we cook. Well, we all like to eat but so do lots of people who never bother to learn how to cook. For me, cooking is not only a passion, but a form of relaxation and of fun. It is also an expression of caring. I cook because its as close as I can get to sharing a piece of myself with family and friends. When I offer them something I’ve made, I’m offering them a part of me. If that makes any sense. It’s caring enough to give them the best I can offer. And caring enough to be willing to take the time to make it so. During my brother’s illness, I cooked for him, because that was the best way I knew to care for him and support him. I couldn’t cure him, but I could nourish him, and in the process, calm myself and nourish my soul.

    From all things, does food fall. There is a reason why the kitchen is the central place in most homes, and why so many memories are remembered as being around the table, the dinner’s mom or dad made, the chicken soup you were brought when you were sick, or the warm milk when you’d had a nightmare and couldn’t sleep. The popsicles and ice cream when you had your tonsils out

    Food that I have cooked is my offering of love to my family and friends It’s that simple for me. Your milage may vary. :)

  • David in San Antonio

    I started getting serious about cooking (and baking bread) many, many years ago as a grad student. When people would ask, I would say that cooking provides a way to get immediate results, either for good or otherwise, unlike so much of the academic life.

  • luis

    Right, cooking is a skill and its something we do with our hands. True. It is liberating to be able to dictate some of your culinary destiny and say no to industrial food. It’s a wonderful skillset to have.

  • Lamar

    Just a quick note for the previous poster (Michelle).

    If you’ve never cooked full time for a living before, I suggest keeping the day job and then taking on a weekend or evening gig prepping or cooking somewhere for six months. This will give you a good idea of whether the hot, humid, loud, exhausting life of a cook is something you really want.

    You may love it, but in case you don’t, you still have that nifty thing that is so hard to come by these days (a job). Good luck!

  • Michelle

    This post came at a poignant time as I am stuck in a dismal, gray, cubicle all day long, and am currently contemplating a job change, and going to work for a small cafe/catering company. It would mean a cut in pay, but I have become so dissatisfied in my current situation, that it really is time to go. Life is too long to spend it doing something you hate. Also, I actually look forward to chopping and stirring and puttering about the kitchen each and every night. I enjoy the creative process and using all of my senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, even sound, while cooking.(Note: I tried cooking with my iPod on once and it didn’t work. I never appreciated how much one relies on the sense of sound during the cooking process until I did this.)

    You are right Ruhlman, cooking does accomplish so much more than we realize. At work in my maze of grey cubicles, I feel like Gregor Samsa, only in the form of a rat with a tail and whiskers. But at home cooking, I feel human again.

  • Bob Y

    For me, cooking embraces two distinct pleasures. The first, “Feed Me” in the MFK Fisher sense of succor and comfort and good food and good people. The second: transformation. When, in the first series of the blessed Julia’s TV show, she instructed us to use cornstarch to thicken the sauce – and it thickened! My first trip to Paris, and that was it. A lifelong devotion.

  • Wilma de Soto

    For ME, this is quite right.

    To be able to put great food on the table every evening, no matter when I come home, that my husband would not hesitate to bring someone home to eat is proof that I have “made my bones.”

    Learning cooking basics lay the foundations from which all great dishes could emerge.

    Although I may have begun with Fannie Farmer, I have progressed because I learned the basics, and great chefs with whom I have had classes, (the late J.L Palladín for one), really loved my food.

    So I do NOT have Jacques Pepín’s technique (who does), I can cook!

    -Wilmita

  • Robert

    I think Kate and Jerry are definitely on to something. Not only are “knowledge worker” jobs lacking in the physical element but much of it also involves a lot of interaction with other people and spending lots of time trying to explain concepts, solve problems, and persuade people to behave in certain ways. After a long day of this sort of abstract “work”, there’s definitely something soothing about coming home and focusing on something very tactile and direct like cooking dinner. It works for me, anyhow.

  • Jerry

    I spent 20+ years in the electronics industry, last 12 as a software engineer. I now work a 40 hour week cooking pizza. Less money, At 62 I should retire, but I enjoy the work.

  • Bruce Libby

    It seems as if a lot of the posters have the same experience as I do, after a hard day thinking alot (and sitting in front of the computer) cooking is very relaxing, whether it is mac and cheese from the box or looking at the pantry and figuring out how things will taste once I put them together. I get to use all of the senses I don’t use all day at work- touch, smell, taste,sight, all of it working together

  • kristin

    It is the satisfaction you get when making a truly satisfying meal for your family, friends or self and knowing that they appreciate it.

  • Kate in the NW

    The flip side, of course, is that if you are someone who DOES work hard physically for much of the day, you may not want to cook too, for the very reasons you cite.

    I’ve noticed that after a particularly challenging day with the horses, I’m all [i]about[i] that beautiful prepared food aisle at Whole Foods. I soothe my aching conscience with the thought that at least it’s made from good ingredients, and made by decent, fairly well-paid professional cooks who might not be employed if it weren’t for over-tired folks like me.

    My aching body I soothe with a nice glass of wine… ;-)

    And I look forward to the days when I’m not too tired to cook…maybe that’s why I do so much more of it in the winter, when the weather’s not good enough to be at the barn all day…

  • Kevin

    I have been cooking a loaf of bread every Sunday for the last five weeks and I think one of the most satisfying things I have found is that I am starting to recognize when it is going right at different stages of the cooking. Like the stickiness of the dough and windowpaning and the smell of the bread in the house, and of course the taste and mouth feel when it is done to my liking. Same with omelettes, I have been trying to cook them on the weekends for breakfast for the last several weeks, and it was so gratifying to taste the creaminess on the inside without burning the outside. The end result for me is better food for my family and I get the satisfaction of knowing that I know what to do to cook the food correctly.

    The bread I’ve been making is all thanks to RATIO BTW.

  • Tags

    In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man may be king, but he’ll probably spend most of his royal time making sure his subjects have plenty of worthwhile things to do with their hands.

  • carri

    One more thought…I believe that the current economic climate is going to find alot of people moving from their desk jobs to work in the trades, if not for the necessity, but also for solace, in that there is alot of dignity in working with your hands, whether to create or repair or to harvest. It could be the one upside to this whole mess, maybe, for once, we’ll be able to find a plummer!

  • bakingepiphanies

    This one definitely got me thinking about what I’d been struggling with for years – the “respectability” of being a so-called knowledge worker, versus working in the trades. I agree that the current economic situation is causing people to re-examine what’s important, and what really makes them feel good. There is something about working with your hands that lets the mind rest and allows us to connect to a deeper more natural part within us.

  • claudia (cook eat FRET)

    i love this post so much and i can’t even begin to tell you all the reasons why…

    but first and foremost – my cookingg? is all in the doing. it is highly purposeful and therefore somewhat self-affirming.

    from there it gets all psychological and falls into the wayyyyy too much information category…

  • Bbq Dude

    As a PhD molecular biologist, I equate cooking with what I do at work. Both involve following protocols and a bit of improvisation, both involve mastering technique to achieve high-quality results, both involve playing with expensive toys… Though I confess, failure in the kitchen tends to be less drastic, and often still quite tasty.

    The overlap of technique, protocol and improvisation is why most chemists and molecular biologists make great cooks, in my opinion…

  • StumptownSavoury

    So right, Michael. I get significant personal satisfaction from carefully crafting some food, even when then end result cannot be rated a success. There is something very special about working on a food for hours, and then waiting for weeks or months before it’s finally ready to eat. And then to share it with others makes it even better. Experiences like this and the joy they bring are why I cook, teach cooking, and write about food.

  • Salty

    I’m on record as saying I’m not in this so much for the food but for actual physical act of cooking. I love to cook. Especially under pressure. It’s almost like a drug. The food came later.

  • carri

    It’s true, being physically tired and looking back on the days production (the only thing better than a full bread rack is an empty one after they’ve all sold!) is the way I’ve come to mark my success as a baker…it certainly isn’t in my bank account, LOL! There truly is no better reward than a room full of people grooving on something you’ve made for them…it in turn feeds us!

  • MikeV

    That’s it!

    I had the same thought when I read that article yesterday. “This is why I love cooking so much. It gives me something real to do, to help unwind from my day job of programming computers.”

    Of course, you do a much better job of saying this. Specifically: “bug eyed before a screen” sums up my life all to well. I nearly spit coffee all over my keyboard when I read that line.

  • Jess

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Michael. This post really speaks to me. I’m currently working on a PhD, and it is exactly as you (and Crawford) say: When I cook, I consciously trade in the university library for “a library of sounds and smells and feels,” if only for a little while. I sometimes feel like my brain is floating up and away, leaving my body behind. Time in the kitchen – and sharing meals with the people I love – keeps me grounded.

  • Patrick

    I’d have to disagree. The real reason I love to cook is because it means my girlfriend does the dishes.

    I’d rather mess around in a hot kitchen for 8 hours than clean dishes for 3 minutes. ;)

  • Rachel

    Agreed.

    When you take it one step further and cook with something you grow in your own garden there is an amazing whole body sense of satisfaction and connection.

  • Michael Natkin

    Yes! This is it exactly. For 20 years now, when people ask me why I like to cook so much, I explain that after a long day of programming, I want to do something in the physical world. Cooking connects me to all of my senses, makes me feel rooted and present, and allows me to use my creativity in a different way. Cooking in a restaurant kitchen adds a different level of physicality. I love that feeling of being muscle-tired, not just brain fatigued at the end of a day.