Souls of Cooks

Slipping like honey off  a silver spoon, all the words build up to an earth-shaking, and revolutionary, crescendo.

For the first time in history, cooks’ words crisscross the globe,  through thin wires and invisible waves of energy, thanks to the Internet. Never before have the words of so many cooks reached so many people, making history daily.

Not necessarily chefs — though some are or consider themselves to be, most of these cooks stand over the heat day in and day out. And then they reveal all, even down to the burns on their hands or the lacy rivulets of sweat dripping from their foreheads. And what cooking — back-breaking as it can be — does for their souls as they see their work feed their hungry families and friends.

Especially that, the soul part.

Historians of the future, what treasure they will find, provided that data files don’t suddenly vanish.

Cook in Front of the Stove (Pieter Aertsen)

For now, searching for a diary, a journal, a packet of letters written by a woman in fourteenth-century Normandy or thirteenth-century London or seventeenth-century Virginia is akin to a battering ram hitting an impenetrable stone wall. Trying to get inside the minds and souls of women like those portrayed in the seventeenth-century paintings of Pieter Aertsen, a vain effort.

True, early recipe books exist. Tattered pages, with slivers of parchment or paper missing, filled with cryptic handwriting twisting and turning in time-bleached ink, like a prism these manuscripts record only one facet of the cook’s soul. The food, the dishes, the kitchen layout, menus interlaced here and there, marginal notes. Everything, but the cook’s personal story.

At least not those of female cooks.

But how grounding it is to read of women cooking, of that hard daily labor, year after year. Cooking, something that works even when outside the door the wolf howls or the banshee screams.  As Gladys Nichols says in the Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery:*

Photo credit: John Carr

People say I make good squirrel dumplings. You just boil your squirrel like you would a chicken. Get it good and done and put your seasoning in it. Then make up your flour like you’re going to make biscuits. Squeeze you off a little dough and roll it or cut it out. Have your squirrel boiling and just drop the flour dough in there, pepper and salt it, and boil it till it’s good and done. I have got a lot of compliments on my dumplings. And then you can make gravy in your squirrel with just a spoonful or two of flour mixed with milk. Pour it in your pot and cook it. Most people, I think, like the gravy better than they do the dumplings.

In other words, Brunswick stew, simplified. With a little smidgen of soul tossed in.

Words of cooks. A swarm, unfettered by rigid social restraints and gender-enforced mental coffins.

Revolutionary, yes.

*The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery, by Linda Garland Page and Eliot Wigginton (1984). Numbering 12 volumes, plus extra books like the cookbook, the Foxfire series provides crucial information about old ways of managing day-to-day life in the rural mountain communities of Appalachia, including detailed instructions for the squeamish on how to clean squirrels for the cook pot.

To be continued …

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

3 thoughts on “Souls of Cooks

  1. Hi Waverly,

    I agree, most of us “live” pretty far away from our food sources and coming to face to face with it can be challenging. A story I often tell about this happened to me in Morocco. People kept telling me that I should get really fresh chicken, not chickens that had been slaughtered and dressed. Like the ones back home. So one day I walked up to a different vendor in the market, one who sold live chickens. He’d kill them for you, if you preferred (I did!). I pointed out two chickens I thought looked good and the seller grabbed them, threw them on a plastic tub, and weighed them, feathers and feet and all. At that moment, I caught the chickens’ beady little eyes looking at me and I basically said, “Forget it.” I headed straight to my usual vendor and bought two pre-slaughtered chickens, wuss that I was.

  2. What a treasury your site is!
    Squirrel hunting…..are we so removed from our food sources that most of us could never conceive of such a thing? I think it is still a popular sport in rural communtities….at least in the South I know it is. I have never had the stomach for eating it myself, but I am told it can be pretty good fried. Then again, what isn’t good fried?

  3. Following your example, I posted a list of favorite food blogs earlier today, and of course I included yours…

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