The value of cooking

This blogging thing can be a challenge when you find yourself working 10- and 11-hour days. But I must pause here to comment on two recent articles in the New York Times.

I’m a bit late to the party on the first, which I’ve seen reposted on blogs, Facebook and Twitter many times by now. In the May 24 Sunday Magazine,  Matthew B. Crawford offers “The Case for Working With Your Hands.” Crawford has a Ph.D. in political philosophy, but has found both satisfaction and remuneration in working as a motorcycle mechanic. He argues that in an age in which everyone is urged to go to college and “information work” is the focus of most career planning, people have lost sight of the fact that manual work well performed requires a significant amount of careful, intelligent and creative thinking. “Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience,” he says, and goes on to illustrate the complexity and intellectual engagement required of him daily.

His larger argument, though, is that physical work requires a particular kind of integrity, while office work can force a good thinker to quash moral considerations in the name of office politics or in the face of business planning over which the worker has no control. “An economy that is more entrepreneurial, less managerial, would be less subject to the kind of distortions that occur when corporate managers’ compensation is tied to the short-term profit of distant shareholders. For most entrepreneurs, profit is at once a more capacious and a more concrete thing than this. It is a calculation in which the intrinsic satisfactions of work count — not least, the exercise of your own powers of reason.” As you can tell from the phrasing here, he’s not talking solely about mechanical labor but about an entrepreneurial venture; however, his article suggests that if you develop expertise at work done with your hands you are in a better position to pursue the kinds of work that enable you to freely exercise your own reason in the service of concrete reality, regardless of whether you are an employee or an owner-operator.

A lot of the foodies I follow have responded enthusiastically to this article, as have many artists. This is not surprising, since a significant aspect of the current food movement is about learning to cook for yourself and getting good at the manual labor of chopping, sauteeing, butchering, brewing or fermenting. When you learn to trust the ingredients and your skill with them, you become a far better cook than if you just blindly follow the steps of a recipe without daring to understand the alchemy of the cooking process or the nature of the foods involved. And you have a lot more fun at it as well.

The other article appears in today’s Week in Review section. In “The Commander in Chef,” Amanda Hesser notes with some disappointment that Michelle Obama’s commitment to healthy and natural food stops short of an actual commitment to cook. “I don’t miss cooking; I’m just fine with other people cooking,” she quotes the first lady, but as Hesser notes, this casts cooking as a chore, and this is a problem. “For most of the last century, Americans have been told repeatedly that cooking is a time-consuming drag,” Hesser says, and the processed food manufacturers have profited by selling us mixes, powders, packets and tins. And Americans have suffered in terms of food quality, nutrition, money, and the opportunity to build family togetherness through the sharing of kitchen skills from generation to generation.

I came of age at a point when young women were beginning to feel a real sense of entitlement to freedom from the domestic roles to which they had been confined for generations. The world, we thought, offered us unlimited possibilities, and those of us who were even a little bit feminist felt that we had to rise to the challenge by choosing careers in business, academe or politics over any of the pursuits that fell under the umbrella of home economics. I had learned to cook, but many of my peers had not — had rejected it as vigorously as women of a pre-computer age had rejected learning how to type, reasoning that if you didn’t have the traditionally feminine skill you couldn’t be relegated to secretarial work or family cookery. What those women didn’t realize was that by turning their backs on the kitchen they were unwittingly buying into the sexist denigration of cooking, and the classist denigration of working with one’s hands.

It’s long past time for us to realize that manual and menial are not synonyms, and that honest work that leaves your hands covered with motor oil or chicken fat is better for the soul than the pursuit of Ponzi schemes and hostile takeovers.

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