Scratching for an argument

I recently hit up the Clouston & Hall store in Canberra. They’re an academic remainders store and they often have excellent cookery books hugely reduced. The book I was really excited about in the latest catalogue was independent UK researcher Dr Frances Short’s Kitchen Secrets: The Meaning of Cooking in everyday life. It promised that it would explore

the thoughts, values and opinions of home cooks, their practices and experiences, and the skills and knowledge they use to prepare and provide food. It provides new and challenging ways of thinking about cooking, examining and often contesting commonly-held beliefs and theories about the role of practical cookery lessons, dinner parties as showcases for culinary flair and the negative effect of convenience foods on home cooking and kitchen skills.

It was a very unsatisfying book, but as we all know that’s the next best thing to a really good one, right? For an overview of Short’s arguments, check out this journal article from 2003 (pdf), and you can also read extracts on Google Book. Her writing is clear and unfussy and there were some parts I found very interesting, such as her careful dissection of the “family meal” as an unquestioned and unassailable good and her findings about which types of home cooking parents were more likely to involve their children in.

Kitchen Secrets was developed from Short’s PhD thesis in sociology and her exploration of claims that domestic cookery is becoming deskilled has been significantly influenced by food historian Rachel Laudan’s 2001 polemic A plea for culinary modernism.

It will help to briefly look at Laudan first. The full text is here (pdf), but to give a potted version of her argument, “culinary luddites” have conflated the terms “natural” and “unprocessed” with “good food” and in doing so they display ignorance of the history of food. In the past survival has demanded that all but the richest perform endless backbreaking work to make highly monotonous diets safe let alone palatable. Laudan says that historically wherever people have an opportunity to eat more processed food that requires less work to prepare, they have taken it.

My problem with Laudan’s argument is that I don’t accept that the leap from wheat kernel to bread is the same as the leap from bread to McDonalds. In saying so, I don’t underestimate the hours and expertise that making raw agricultural ingredients into food takes (for a very entertaining example in relation to the journey from corn to tortilla, read Dave Arnold at Cooking Issues).

It frustrates me that Laudan builds an air of legitimacy by footnoting research arguing that European peasants were stupefied by adulterated food for 500 years or essentially hibernated through a bad winter, but she doesn’t name and shame any “culinary luddites”. She does give the them credit for foregrounding that we “need to know how to prepare good food, and we need a culinary ethos”, but she’s very upset with the ethos of nostalgic agrarian utopianism she insists they are demanding we adopt. I could find you a back-to-the-land hippie who believed the crap that Laudan is arguing against but what persuasive or political power do they have anyway? The exercise would be a pointless waste of everyone’s time – at it’s heart Laudan’s argument is posturing against a strawfoodie.

Her provocative stance certainly has managed to generate attention for her ideas a long time; when a snippet of Laudan’s piece was published in the New York Times last year, she blogged that she was “just relishing the thought of responding to the flood of hostile comments. I love controversy.” More recently in Australia, her spittle-flecked food-politics troll mantle has been adopted by the Institute of Public Affairs’ Chris Berg, in this recent piece for Fairfax “Dig in, don’t wait. Our slow food nostalgia is misplaced.”

Right, so that was a little less brief than I intended, but I jeez I feel better. As I was saying, Short has applied Laudan’s scepticism to claims that none of us can cook anymore. It certainly not an argument that I’ve ever supported, and it something I’m active about both personally and professionally.

Short points out that many terms in this discussion have remained undefined, terms such as “pre-prepared”, “convenience”, “raw” and “natural” and she agrees with Laudan’s view questioning whether food really can be divided into “two nice, neat groups”. (link) It’s disappointing that the only response to rejecting “two nice, neat groups” is to throw your hands up in the air and stick to one meaningless group.

None of her interview subjects express a view that prepared foods are unacceptable, although for different types of meals they might rely more or less on processed or packaged ingredients. Short asserts that “Kitchen technologies and their offspring, the trimmed, par-boiled, floreted, deboned and ready-to-steam, are regularly proclaimed as the scourge of home cooking” (link) or, even more alarmingly, “the scourge of good diet and family health and unity”. (link) Her subjects’ universal lack of anxiety about using processed ingredients makes me think that the prevalence and vehemence of these “proclamations” is being overstated.

I’d rather buy bottled passata with an ingredients list that said “tomatoes, tomato juice” and avoid the BPA lining in canned tomatoes, but I certainly don’t think anyone credible is pointing at canned tomatoes as a scourge of home cookery. What’s the point of clinging to the inclusion of items such as canned tomatoes and rice in the “processed” category if it’s only you and Rachel Laudan putting them there?

Short’s argument is much stronger when she points out that there is no consensus in ordinary life or academic practice of what is meant by “cooking” and “cooking skills”. In addition to concrete skills such as “baking” or “chopping”, she describes a range of tacit skills that are built from experience and learned knowledge, extending from the ability to open the oven and inspect a dish and know at what stage of cooking it’s at all the way to the organisation, planning and emotional work it can take to cook every day for fussy children.

To me the ability to look in the fridge, garden and pantry and whip up something delicious is the mark of a good domestic cook. My definition also includes an element of domestic economy, which would amuse my friend Chris who was astonished that I don’t have a budget for food shopping. What I mean is that there is no food waste in this house. Every usable morsel is eaten by us, the chickens or the worms. There’s a hint of class-based distaste for that kind of frugality in some of Short’s subjects, who don’t want meals to appear as if you’d “bunged your leftovers in” (link)

My parents both worked and eventually my mother got sick of cooking as well as doing all the rest. I was brought up with Deb instant mashed potato and frozen vegetables that were favoured because they didn’t go off in the crisper. I don’t know why I struck out against that way of eating so vehemently. I still try and do all the cooking at my parents’ house rather than eat that way.

My list of “acceptable” processed food will differ from yours (unless you’re Tammi 🙂 I do make some things “from scratch” that are almost exclusively used in bought versions. By Short’s and Laudan’s arguments, is the hoi sin sauce I make using miso and malted barley from the Co-op and Megachef oyster sauce just another assembly of processed foods?

My list of “unacceptable” processed foods will differ from yours too – I find chilled packaged “fresh” pasta a ridiculous invention and will either make fresh pasta or, more commonly, used dried pasta. I’m under no delusions – I am what’s described in the book as a “food hobbyist” and I’m clearly more than a couple of standard deviations past the bell curve of processed food eating – to the extent that my use and consumption of processed food surprises people sometimes. For instance the lovely @charlotteshucks responded when I tweeted that I was making the kids chicken drumsticks with lemongrass and Maggi seasoning sauce for dinner recently “wow, never thought I’d hear you singing the praises of Packet Food … #worldupsidedown”. Fortunately she wasn’t on twitter when I posted a couple of days later “I think y’all will realise how crook I’m feeling if I tell you we’re having Crust pizza for dinner”.

I think what I ultimately found most disappointing about the book was that although Short was a chef for 15 years before becoming a scholar there is nowhere detectable in the book a passion for food beyond that academic fascination. Particularly where a book has begun as a formal qualification-directed research project we can’t judge it for what it’s not about. But how can you talk about cookery skills and how people cook without talking about how it tastes?


19 thoughts on “Scratching for an argument

  1. Absolutely agree – pointless dichotomies are pointless. I similarly use some processed things like tomato paste and tinned tomatoes, but when fresh is straightforward, would rather do that. Being time poor doesn’t mean one can’t use fresh ingredients, but it does mean some corners get cut. But, as you point out, without definitions and without broader discussions, what is the point in making these distinctions – or classing things one thing or another?

  2. I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the fashionable “quick & easy meals” type recipes around the place. The ones that are invariably spruiked as “quicker than dialling a pizza!” or similar.

    It’s quite removed from the way I cook, not because I reject quick or easy, but largely because it’s expensive. To have a quick meal, apparently, you grill a slab of meat, and have it with salad and bread. There are ethnic variations, you stirfry a slab of meat and have it with salad and rice etc. It is quick, and it is easy, but it’s not particularly healthy to do it every day (the biggest component of the meal is meat, not veg) and it’s not terribly sustainable either (only a few grillable cuts of food are recommended).

    It strikes me that it’s the sort of convenience you buy if you’re on a good income and you want to feel like you’ve cooked (which you have) but you don’t want to actually combine flavours or have more than one thing cooking at a time. It’s the sort of convenience you buy if frozen veg & deb, or frozen pizzas or takeaways are something you think you should avoid (because you want nice middle class food, and if you cook it’s healthy right?). It works for people who don’t want to be that family who have takeaway every night, but don’t particularly enjoy cooking or eating. The promotion of the recipes seems very class based to me, all about acceptable convenience, being a good mother (or good dieter/good single person householder) rather than succumbing to the cheap(er) conveniences poor people might buy.

  3. Well Melissa, it might get you a PhD 🙂

    Really interesting observation, Kate. That kind of cooking also has you shopping for each individual meal rather than for what’s seasonal and therefore – usually – cheap.

  4. Interesting how enthusiastic people get about judging one another over food, isn’t it? I agree class is a major (and usually unspoken) factor in the way we think about food – am as guilty as the next person on that front, I’m sure. It’s also interesting how one person’s acceptable processed food is anathema to another. A good cook I know looked down his nose at me recently for sometimes using packaged liquid stock, when I know his kids eat all kinds of frozen ‘yoghurt’ style drinks and what I’d consider other processed garbage.

    I have realised only recently that one of my instincts guiding my use of processed foods is how much or how little packaging is involved – I gravitate towards ingredients with as little packaging as possible, or that with most potential for recycling/reuse. And often that might mean the whole food value comes second.

    I also agree, Zoe, about the drear factor of discussing food without including *pleasure* as a part of that discussion. Life’s too short, no?

  5. I was thinking about this last night while in the grip of my late-pregnancy insomnia and it seems there’s also confusion about different sorts of processing in the critiques you um, critiqued. Which I haven’t read, so I’m basing this only on your comments.

    I think most people would recognise there’s a difference between the processing required to turn milk into yoghurt, say, than the processing required to turn a wheat kernel into a gluten-additive that goes into a pre-packaged fast food meal. Other forms of processing of course render inedible foods into wholesome delicious things – olives, anyone?

    And of course I’m as guilty as anyone as jumping on the non-processed foods bandwagon, perhaps even more so given that Mr Kate and I dabbled in the “paleo” diet last year before I decided it was just another fad. And got pregnant and became obsessed with bread.

    Anyway, under that philosophy even acceptable processed foods such as pasta are too processed. A hardcore paleo eater will not eat rice or wheat products or dairy or legumes or even soy bloody sauce, which is what did my head in.

    The grain thing is less about processing and more about proteins in grains which can inflame certain people’s GI tract, though why everyone should be forced to live as they have celiac disease is beyond me, but that’s an aside.

    And even though I generally do enjoy eating unprocessed foods and feel healthier when I base my diet around fresh veggies, fruit and other such “natural” ingredients, watching my brother’s painful descent into anorexia has made me very conscious of my own ideas about purity, nutrition, cooking and the idea of processing.

    I haven’t really drawn any conclusions from this only to start monitoring my own thinking about “good” and “bad” foods and trying to fall less into that dichotomy.

    I enjoy cooking and I still believe that for most meals, cooking your own food from scratch as much as possible is preferable to buying things or eating take-away but this does tend to break down if you think about too much.

    I also wonder about all this from a feminist angle in that there’s a lot of panic about working mothers feeding their families “convenience foods” and how this plays into the obesity panic. I don’t have any conclusions to draw, again, but there seems to be a constant refrain lamenting the loss of domestic skills, meaning lamenting the loss of women who are prepared to cook every night for husband and kids.

    This view strikes me as rather odd given that my mother was not someone who imbued her home cooking with much love – she saw getting us fed as part of her job, but it wasn’t something she took much pleasure in. My father never helped and we relied a lot on things like Dolmio spaghetti sauce and canned veggies. There was very little sense that my mother was passing down to me the traditional arts of cooking, and now I’m a much better cook than she ever was.

  6. I think there’s the difference between the every day and the not often (once a month at most) when it comes to food. What you make when you’re sick Zoe, differs hugely from your regular fare. It’s just when the situation is reversed that its a problem.

    My mum cooked almost all our meals from scratch, with a decent serve of veg from the garden or bought that day from the greengrocer (I fear there is a generation that has no idea what a greengrocer or fish monger is) but every now and then it’d be maggi chicken noodle soup and white toast or this weird, frozen, boil in the bag (eek) smoked fish in white sauce. The strange processed food became a treat but it didn’t stop us from loving her labour intensive meals.

  7. “I similarly use some processed things like tomato paste and tinned tomatoes, but when fresh is straightforward, would rather do that.”

    WRT tinned tomatoes, fine. But…

    It’s incredibly time-consuming and labour-intensive to make tomato paste from fresh tomatoes. The dishes that call for tomato paste usually can’t easily be rejigged to include fresh tomatoes without a few days’ extra prep time. They’ve been invented since the invention of mass-produced tomato paste.

    So it’s not like you’re saying “I’ll use fresh tomatoes instead of paste for this recipe”. What you’re saying is “I’ll make something else because I have fresh tomatoes”.

    Which is great, but misses the point. Or at least, what I thought the point was.

  8. Which is to say, I suppose, that I totally love processed foods when they add to the existing awesomeness of fresh foods.

    Which is very very very often.

    Drying, smoking, grinding, pickling, blending, cooking, etc etc – these are processes. In most cases, they’re not much different to their upscaled industrial counterparts.

    I’m quite sure that there was resistance to the findings of Korg3000BC when he suggested that meat hung over the campfire would remain edible for longer. That resistance was overcome when it became obvious that Korg3000BC was not only correct, but also had some pretty delicious meat.

  9. So much brilliance here – Zoe, no pressure, but I’m with Lucy on this one – please post moar! Your & others’ points about the clear need to nuance discussions of ‘industrial v slow’ foods (because most of them, like the Berg piece you cited, are dumb) are not getting any MSM space (and I would argue, not even enough progressive/leftist space?).

    And then this:

    In the past survival has demanded that all but the richest perform endless backbreaking work to make highly monotonous diets safe let alone palatable.

    What really gets me about this position supposedly apposite to our ‘strawfoodies’ (another wicked Zoelogism) is how it completely elides the conditions of contemporary industrial agricultural workers. I not only disagree with Laudan’s dystopic historical view (while acknowledging some of it re ‘drudgery’ and safety, and some of the flavour/texture arguments), I think her position implies that the cheap tomatoes available today have made all classes’ lives so much easier, when clearly, that’s not the case.

    On our current trip across the States, I have been confronted repeatedly by the stark reality facing the majority of those working America’s fields for agro-industry. Between the poverty, the liberal application of herbicides and pesticides to broad-acre cropping, and the woeful state of education in this country, I think if I lived here I would probably end up an evangelical homesteader, such as many of those involved in the Greenhorns movement.

    I’m planning to write some more on this (plans, best-laid, stuck in Texas… coming soon to a blog near you), but I think this post, Zoe, is a fantastic contribution to contemporary food politics discussions. I’d love to see you with a regular column somewhere so a broader audience could be reading you. We’ll keep riffing, eh? xo

  10. We’ve been trying to follow the Weston A. Price kind of cooking (not entirely successfully) and while it initially seems like it would take much longer. the reality is that the time spent is about the same. However, you definitely do need to be more organised.

    I guess we incorrectly take things like tomato paste, and even tinned tomatoes, to be unprocessed food.

  11. You know Tammi, I was thinking “Greenhorn Ranch” would be a great name for your farm 🙂

    Dylstra and FDB – I have made tomato paste from homegrown tomatoes, and I agree, it’s not really their best use. The roasted tomato sauce with butter and red wine in the Kitchen Garden Companion made me MUCH happier.

  12. so i never thought about the lining of tins before. I try to avoid PBA in so many ways. I’m going to have to investigate.

    Great thought provoking piece Zoe.

  13. You write so beautifully, Zoe. I do hope someone gives you a book deal in the not too distant future.

    “I think y’all will realise how crook I’m feeling if I tell you we’re having Crust pizza for dinner”

    As that grate food writer Peg Bracken wrote, your kids need to have a Hardship which they can boast to *their* kids about.

    (I must go on Booko and get copies of I Hate to Cook and I Hate to Housekeep – I can still quote reams from them from loving them as a (slightly weird, OK) child. OMG, how Laudan must disapprove of her!)

  14. Pingback: From field to supermarket, things are amiss » Tammi Tasting Terroir

  15. Zoe, that’s an excellent piece though I confess I am commenting only from reading your post and the comments, not the original sources. I like anti-kate’s comment on the undertones of judgement on our roles as women in losing traditional skills. I don’t tend to buy much pre-packaged food because it never tastes as it promises, but then again the chilled cabinet of Coles doesn’t measure up to Marks and Spencers and I might rethink that if I lived in another country. Similarly, though I make my own bread and don’t fear making pastry, I have no problem buying a loaf or a tart from a good baker.

    When I think about what I learned from my mother about cooking it was to make pastry and to time everything so it got to the table at the same time. The latter is not an easy skill hence my teenage daughters are quite taken with Jamie Oliver’s 30 minute meals as a lesson in juggling recipes in parallel rather than the sequential method much cookery writing outlines.

    I am also interested in the GM debate – I confess I am not across all the research but would like to see some reasoned discussion as to why generations of selective plant breeding for certain characteristics is ok but GM research is not. I have to say Neil Perry’s article in today’s SMH did nothing to convince of me anything other than his privileged position to get an airing in a national newspaper. I don’t “like” the idea of GM but I need to understand more about its pros and cons than to simply dismiss it as agribusiness wielding its weight.

  16. Nancy, by some coincidence a letter writer in the AGE, Esther Ginsberg, explains it clearly and concisely today:
    “Traditional selective breeding involved the mating of individuals of the same (or related) species. Genetic engineering, however, tampers with DNA itself by inserting into an organism genes of any species along with some extra alien material that boosts the expression of the inserted gene. GM crops, therefore, may be loaded with proteins that have never formed part of a standard human diet. Consequently, every GM crop should be extensively (and independently) tested to ensure it does not pose any danger to human health.”

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