What follows is Part 1 of 3 in a series on the aesthetics of food.
Read enough cookbook reviews, and you’ll start to notice a curious gap. Cookbook reviews mostly focus on how the recipes turn out — how tasty the dishes are, or how authentic they are. Sometimes they’ll also talk about the quality of writing, or how much you learn about some region’s culinary history or food science or the author’s childhood or whatever. But usually they leave out what it feels like to actually cook the goddamn things.
Like a lot of people who never learned to cook in their youth, I started by buying fancy cookbooks written by fancy restaurant chefs. They were supposedly adapted for the home cook, but the dishes I made usually felt like a trial. First make two kinds of stock. Then reduce them into four different sauces, and then rapidly chill one while whipping another one with butter, and on and on until I was an exhausted wreck. These cookbooks were, it became clear to me, hastily adapted from a professional kitchen, with their line chefs and their prep schedule. When one person tried to cook them at home, the parts didn’t fit right together; you could feel the gears grinding.
How wonderful it was, then, to stumble onto the spiritual opposite: cookbooks from attentive home chefs, written by people who loved the rhythms and patterns of private cooking. Here, I learned that a recipe could have an elegance and an economy of planning and motion. Consider a recipe that I learned from a kitchen-loving friend for pasta with green beans, potato, and pesto. First you add the chopped potatoes to the boiling water and wait ten minutes. Then you add the pasta, and five minutes before the pasta’s ready, then you add the green beans, and it’s all done at the same moment and you drain it all together. And you save a tablespoon of that extra starchy water to mix with the pesto, and, bonus points, the green beans have flavored everything else a little bit too. The process is elegant and harmonious; the timing of the parts fit each other just right. The time from the moment the potatoes go into the water is just the amount of time you need to make a pesto.
Michael Ruhlman, in his wonderful How to Braise, wonders why we are supposed to always start by flouring the meat before searing. He gives a number of culinary reasons. Then this:
There is a fourth reason to flour meat before searing, though it has nothing to do with how your braise will taste. I don’t know that I’d ever have recognized it had I not been working with Thomas Keller on The French Laundry Cookbook. “That smell,” he said, “that smell when floured meat hits the hot fat, I just love that.” I know just what he was talking about — I’d grown up smelling it through many a long Cleveland winter. My parents both worked, so they employed a woman named Ida Hughes to do the housework, occasionally asking her to begin dinner. I especially remember her Friday-night beef stew; it required a minimum of two hours, so she would begin it in the afternoon while my parents were still at work. At home, after school I’d inhale that lovely aroma of floured meat hitting the cooking fat. I had no idea why Ida was cooking the big cubes of beef in a pan before cooking them again in a casserole dish in the oven, but it sure did smell good. Later we would eat it out of earthenware bowls while watching Sanford and Sons in the den.
After my conversation with Keller, I became conscious of this purely aesthetic, personal experience. Now, part of the reason I flour meat is so I can appreciate this distinctive and appealing aroma. I’ve learned to think of flouring meat before searing it not as an extra chore but rather an opportunity to take more pleasure in the cooking. (5)
And I realized that, for so many of the recipes I’d come to love and make part of my life, my affection wasn’t only based on how the dish turned out in the end. It also came from what the cooking process felt like: how it felt to cut that kind of vegetable, the pleasures of the smells and sounds of garlic and green beans browning together. It’s about how my favorite pork and butternut squash stew makes the entire house drip with the most beautiful humid savory sweetness. It’s about, for my favorite Chinese steamed dish, how fun it is to layer the taro slices and the pork slices and the Chinese sausage bits, and the joys of peeking in under the steamer lid and watching that beautiful clear dipping liquid form around the edges. It’s about the joys of mixing and inspecting and poking and prodding.
In some ways, the aesthetic pleasures of cooking should be foremost in our minds. Because for a lot of serious cooks, you spend so much more time involved in the cooking process than you or your guests do eating it. And the cooking process is something that’s actually contained in the cookbook itself — it’s surely part of what you’re buying and getting out of the book. So why do we leave out the aesthetics of the cooking process when we review cookbooks?
I suspect the answer is somewhere in our assumed model of what can be the proper object of our aesthetic attention. In her discussion of the philosophy of gustatory taste, Carolyn Korsmeyer charts the reasons why food has been excluded from the realm of the fine arts. In her accounting, it’s because Western European aesthetics has traditionally privileged the cognitive and those senses which are closest to it — sight, hearing — and turned its nose up at the more bodily senses — taste, smell, and touch. And that’s surely right. But there’s another bias at work here, even within many of those who would accord an important place in the aesthetic world. It’s a bias which prefers the aesthetics of objects over the aesthetics of processes, which translates, in the world of food, to a bias towards the aesthetics of finished dishes over the aesthetics of the activity of cooking.
You can see this at work in the experience of so many modern scientific cookbooks, which promise perfect results as the outcome of following some carefully tested technique precisely. My experience with such cookbooks often involves being sternly ordered to do various things at very exact times, and very exact temperatures. Certainly, the resulting food can be absolutely wonderful. But I find so often that what’s sacrificed is my aesthetic involvement in the process of cooking. Before the scientific cookbook, I might have gone by smell or by the sound of the sizzle, or poked at the thing to feel how firm it is. The kind of sensory attentions that involves, and the way they connect to intuitive decisions about what to do with the food, is another kind of aesthetic involvement. And that involvement is often cut away by the modern scientific cookbook – replaced, instead, with strict adherence to a set of external directives.
Interestingly, I came into this from thinking about the philosophy and aesthetics of games. So many people doing the aesthetics of games, it seems to me, are trying to push games into a theoretical framework built for other things. They’re looking for ways to attribute aesthetic properties to the game itself — the software, the rules, the board. But in many places in the actual practice of game designing and game playing, the actual focus of attention, for the player, is on the aesthetic experience of their own action — the elegant solutions they come up with, the feel of their body in graceful motion. What aesthetics is missing is a good description of the aesthetics of activity, of paying aesthetic attention to your own action and how it feels in the inside to decide and do. What we need is to move beyond an object-oriented aesthetics and start thinking about the aesthetics of processes.
Once you pay attention to this gap, you can see it all over the aesthetics of food, too, especially when it self-consciously tries to transform itself into something like fine art. In a former life, I used to be a food reviewer. I started to notice, in my life of bouncing between low-end joints and high-end fine dining, that many (though not all) of the high-end places were achieving greater and greater heights of visually artful plating, but that the visual artistry came at a significant cost. In many of those cases, the dishes were incredibly annoying to consume. I mean this in straightforward physical terms. There would be pretty fancy towers of food that would collapse awkwardly when one tried to cut into them. There would be gorgeously thick, beautifully sauced noodles that would slip away every time you tried to fork them, dodging around the plate until they finally slopped onto the table. Dramatically arranged sculptures of food would arrive on tiny plates, but when you actually tried to cut into them, there wouldn’t actually be enough room on the plate to maneuver, and you had to painstakingly angle your fork and knife to hack off some bits.
What’s going on here, I suspect, is the subsumption of food to a visual arts paradigm. High-end, self-consciously arty food may add a sense of flavor and smell to the traditional aesthetic centers of focus. But sometimes they seem to have forgetten about the movement of the eater, about how plating food conditions the basic physical interaction we need to have in order to get it into our mouths. Interestingly, when I started to notice this, I also started to notice how many casual, low-end, traditional restaurants were incredibly good at arranging things for pleasurable physical interaction. The plates were the right size. Noodles slipped right onto your fork. Sauces didn’t get everywhere.
Some high-end places seemed to come to realize this over the last decade or so. Their solution was sometimes towards artfully plated single bites — little bits of soup already in a spoon or one-bite stacks. But though this solves some of the awkwardness problem, it does it by cutting out a significant degree of the diner’s capacity to physically participate in the meal.
I think sometimes about the physical, interactive joys Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. They’d give you one whole plate of fried chicken covered in gravy and another separate plate full of thin, soft, huge waffles. You got to slice off a piece of chicken, roll it in exactly the amount of gravy you wanted, and then drop it on some waffle and roll the whole thing up and pop it in your mouth. Every step of that process — the slicing, the dipping, the rolling — had its own particular and sensuous joys.
Compare this to a fine-dining establishment I ate at recently, that did a version of same dish but presented the chicken and gravy on top of an ultra-thin crepe. It looked fabulous. But because the chicken was on top of the crepe, gravy quickly dribbled off the chicken and sogged up the crepe. And when you sliced up chicken, you invariably chopped up the crepe underneath into all kinds of weird too-small shapes and which were bad for wrapping up the chicken. Everybody who ordered it just looked faintly stressed out the entire time, as they fought to get the crap on their plate into their mouths.
Look, I know: I might sound like the world’s pettiest and most spoiled person, complaining about some minor part of their dinner. But the point is: why is this a minor part? Why do we legitimize aesthetic commentary, in conversation and reviews, on the taste, smell, and look of food, but refuse to legitimatize aesthetic commentary on the quality of the physical movements that food urges on us? The movements you make on the plate with your fork and knife are a tiny little dance, and dances can be graceful and awkward, and choices that a chef makes about how to plate will push on you more awkward or more graceful forms of dance.
I think what’s happened with cookbook reviews is that we’re imposing on the home cook an odd sort of division in their self. We’re telling them to be artist and audience at different stages. When they’re cooking, they are the artist. When they’re eating, they’re the audience. And, in traditional models of aesthetics, the artist’s experience isn’t part of what we judge. We confine the aesthetic judgment to the audience’s experience. But when we are reviewing a cookbook, it’s unclear why we should cut up the experience like that. After all, a cookbook isn’t just giving us dishes. It’s giving us directions for how to cook to get to dishes. That’s part of the experience that the cookbook is sculpting for is. The process of cooking is just as much a content of the book as the finished product, and it’s a process shaped by the cookbook author. When we exclude that process from our critical consideration, we are ignoring what is, in some ways, the terrain that is most special to cookbooks.