Why Do We Cook?

Pig rs
Indonesia (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

What does it mean to cook? Some – Harold McGee for example – would say that cooking means to prepare food by heating, while others, such as historian Rachel Laudan, extend the definition to include modes of preparation beyond heating. I tend to agree with the latter and not the former.

So, with that sticking point out of the way, why do we cook? And why ask that question? Looking at literature from the past, at least among the elite, questions surrounding the pleasure of eating and drinking appeared. Grave goods held food and cooking utensils and other culinary-based implements. Clearly for people who did not have to cook, examining the philosophy of food and eating seemed just another pleasure-ridden activity of daily life (think, too, of Brillat-Savarin, with his Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste), 1825).

As we do more often than not these days, we who do not need to lift a wooden spoon or even turn on the stove if we choose not to.

I began contemplating this current human condition as I turned the pages of one of the still-irresistible glossy food magazines, the multitude that the post office delivers to my door every month. And there it was. With a bit of amusement, and admiration I must add, I read the advertisement for soup stocks produced by a major company.

Arranged in a nine-block grid, the center grid reading “Why I Cook,” superimposed on a black background, the ad consisted of delicious food photographs surrounding the center and giving reasons for “Why I Cook.”

Top row:

To feed my creativity

Because a new ingredient is like a new toy

To show my love

Middle row:

Because I love food

Why I cook

To feel like an artist

Bottom row:

To unleash my inner chef

Because my kitchen is my sanctuary

To remind me of home

All of these phrases represent excellent, if not somewhat self-absorbed, reasons to cook, past or present. Contrast these reasons to prepare food with those listed in the 1909 edition of Mrs. Beeton’s The Book of Household Management, originally published in 1861. Note that the authors (not Mrs. Beeton, as she died in 1865) stress many of the theories touted by the new science of nutrition/home economics. (See my two previous posts about her: Part I and Part II.

  1. To render mastication easy;
  2. to facilitate and hasten digestion;
  3. to convert certain naturally harmful substances into nutritious foods;
  4. to eliminate harmful foreign elements evolved in food (e.g. the tinea or tapeworm in beef and mutton; trichinae in pork; the ptomaines resulting from tissue waste);
  5. to combine the right foods in proper proportions for the needs of the body;
  6. to make it [food] agreeable to the palate and pleasing to the eye.

In Chapter 5 of Michael Symons’s excellent A History of Cooks and Cooking (“What Do Cooks Do?”), Symons delineates many of the reasons that cooks cook. Many touch on the same points raised by the ad.

But there’s something that troubles me about that ad, and I want to go back to that.

These reasons for cooking reflect our modern (and affluent) Western culture, where food appears in great abundance. Many writers today approach cooking this way, as an activity of choice.Look at the piece by Michael Ruhlman, which probably started the ball rolling with that ad.

And they’re right; cooking today can be a pleasurable choice, if several criteria are met.

  1. The cook knows how to cook.
  2. There’s ample money available to buy food.
  3. And food exists in easily accessible variety.

When it is possible to just stop by the grocery store and pick up a roasted chicken and pre-packaged, pre-cut salad ingredients, and throw a meal together in a few minutes, prior to collapsing in front of the television or computer screen, cooking today  is a far cry from the 30 hours a week that the average American woman spent cooking in the 1920s. Employed women nowadays spend about 4.4 hours a week cooking, according to the USDA (2007). People over the age of 15 years spend about 67 minutes per day eating and drinking as a “primary activity,” while spending another 23.5 minutes eating and 63 minutes drinking per day while engaged in other activities, like watching television. (USDA, 2011) Prior to the technological innovations that allowed women to only spend 30 hours a week, women/cooks likely spent most of their waking hours in the kitchen or preparing food in some manner, unless they had servants, who did the work surrounding the daily tasks of cooking.

Yet for the vast majority of women [people], even if they do not spend a lot of time cooking nor subscribe to the reasons given in the ad or Mrs. Beeton of 1909, cooking until recently has been a primary activity, because cooking (and the preservation and processing of food) – not just the growing and gathering of food – ultimately means the difference between life or death.*

So the answer to the question, “Why do we cook?,” I believe, ought to be, “So that we may live.”

In other words, cooking isn’t just about you. It’s about perpetuation of the species.

See also:

Can It! The Perils and Pleasures of Preserving Food, by Gary Allen (2016)

Cooks & Other People, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery (1995)

Cuisines et cuisiniers, de l’Antiquité à nos jours, by Marie-Laurre Verroust (1999)

Histoire de la cuisine et des cuisiniers : Techniques culinaires et pratiques de table, en France, du Moyen-Age à nos jours, by Jean-Pierre Poulain and Edmund Neirinck (2004)

*It’s always perplexed me how so much attention has gone into the study of the growing of crops and care of livestock, but so little has been done to determine just what happens to those raw materials once women (or men) applied heat or other treatments. I recall a survey done in Zambia, and written up by Pauline Whitby. Sponsored by the National Food & Nutrition Programme,  Zambian Foods and Cooking (Lusaka, Zambia, 1972), a booklet of 68 pages, contains a wealth of information about the state of cooking in Zambia between 1969 and 1972, including step-by-step descriptions of how different grains are prepared for pounding, followed by recipes using the pounded grain/flour. I wish other countries produced similar materials.

Pork market rs
Pork for Sale, Indonesia (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

© 2013, 2016 C. Bertelsen

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