Can a writer, cook?


I have long struggled with the supposed duality of thinkers-doers, theory-practice, architect-builder, foodwriter-cook, design historian-designer. I was relieved by object-oriented radical philosopher Ian Bogost’s call for hybrid practitioners: the philosopher-chef, the philosopher-astronomer and the philosopher-mechanic. I am further soothed by Bill Buford’s 2006 Heat. Yes, I writer can cook and vice versa. There is hope for me yet.

Rave reviews of his book include terms like “dirty realism” and my favorite “existential journalism.” His brand of immersed journalism combines personal fascination (obsession) with in-depth social research. I suppose I feel the same awe about him as he felt following the energetic Mario Batali.

Here are four lessons I’ve learned from Heat:

1. In the kitchen as in life the space we take up is precious and worth defending.

  “I was accepted “inside” on a trial basis. “The question is of space,” Mario said. “Is there room for another body?” There wasn’t. There wasn’t room for the people already there. But somehow I squeezed in.”

“In the afternoon, if you can get a perch in the kitchen, you don’t leave it. You don’t answer the phone, run an errand, make a cup of coffee, have a pee, because if you do you’ll lose your space.”

2. Repetition is the key to mastery.

“One day I was given a hundred and fifty lamb tongues. I had never held a lamb’s tongue, which I found greasy and unnervingly humanlike. But after cooking, trimming, peeling, and slicing a hundred and fifty lamb tongues, I was an expert.”

3. Pressure helps develop (kitchen) awareness.   

“ You’ll learn the reality of restaurant kitchen. As a home cook, you can prepare anything any way anytime. It doesn’t matter if your lamb is rare for your friends on Saturday and not so rare when they come back next year. Here people want exactly what they had last time. Consistency under pressure. And that the reality: a lot of pressure.” He (Mario) thought for a moment. “You also develop an expanded kitchen awareness. You’ll discover how to use your senses. You’ll find you no longer rely on what your watch says. You’ll hear when something is cooked. You’ll smell degrees of doneness.”

4. The need to learn is a compulsion. Just give in.

“I found myself needing to understand short ribs…..”

“I needed to learn pasta.”

“ I was now preoccupied by the question of when, in the long history of food on the Italian peninsula, cooks started putting eggs in their pasta dough. Was this a reasonable concern? Of course not.”

So, learning from Bill Buford, I’ll take up and defend space, repeat until mastery, embrace pressure and give in to my need to understand cooking and how we eat both in the kitchen and in front of my laptop.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments?

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