The Cooking Pendulum

Dear Reader,

As I have perhaps previously told you, as soon as I get home from work, I change and plunge into the inevitability of cooking.

As an illustrated supplement to this post, I intend to tell you of a three-course menu I managed to cook in about 1-1.5 hours on a workday evening last week. I was very happy with the result and thought you could be inspired by it too! ;)
As an illustrated supplement to this post, I intend to tell you of a three-course menu I cooked¬†in about 1-1.5 hours on a workday evening last week. I was very happy with the result and thought you could be inspired by it too! ūüėČ And this soup was delicious.

A couple of days ago, while I was enjoying a stolen moment of reading, I came across the following, which made me giggle out loud: 

“The pre-modern female cook [in inns and traditional eating houses before¬†the 1789 French Revolution in Europe]¬†is not at all proud of her food [unlike the post-French Revolution professional male cook], she rather offers it to the occasional guest as a critical necessity.”

I thought – wow, that’s exactly what I do, both at home and in the blog – I offer/post what I cook as necessity for the home residents and the¬†entertainment (I hope) of¬†the¬†occasional (blog) visitor. I am a pre-modern woman living in a post-modern world – what a revelation. ūüôā

To prepare, you basically need zucchini, as many as you’d like, but I put in three. Peel, dice and boil slowly in little water, covering about half of the zucchini. Add salt, ground black pepper and fenugreek if you have and like it. Stir in about 25 g of coconut oil, add dill and serve with walnuts. This is a vegan soup, also delicious cold and suitable for the office, accompanied by crudites, also known as simple raw vegetables. ūüôā

I read this most suggestive sentence¬†in book The Philosophy of Eating by Bulgarian philosopher and university professor Raycho Pozharliev. I pictured the book’s cover and table of contents in English here.

So have you ever thought how interesting the history of cooking and eating is? And how the cooking pendulum marking the march of time has been returning to stages already experienced?

I do not think my humble reflections, inspired by Pozharliev’s¬†book (and not only), hold any claim to comprehensiveness – this would be impossible to expect from a blog post. But still, I hope you will find them an entertaining journey through cooking and eating – a subject at once basic and quintessentially cultured.

I know the fish I cook look all the same, but I post this because it was the second course of my dinner menu. Any fish will do. These in particular are Aegean Sea fish called tsipuras in Bulgarian. I have no idea what they're called in English. :)
I know the fish I cook look all the same, but I post this because it was the second course of my dinner menu. Any fish will do. Just add salt, black pepper, possibly white wine and lemon. These beauties in¬†particular are Aegean Sea fish called tsipuras in Bulgarian. I have no idea what they’re called in English. ūüôā

So cooking started as an area of female specialisation as early as the time of the cavemen, while most philosophy schools of thought in ancient Greece defined it as a despised necessity, ranking at more or less the same level as the bowel movements it precedes.

Eating was¬†related to sustenance and, as an activity, was¬†common to both humans and¬†animals, therefore – not really part ¬†of the human’s – the male human’s – vocation or purpose in life (known as telos) to achieve freedeom through social interaction (the direct democracy of the agora, that is).

Social interaction and debates at the town square were considered freedom, while the daily activities in the home, regarded as a place for consumption, were non-freedom.

Complement to the fish was this – leafy greens, tomatoes and cucumbers, seasoned with olive oil and vinegar and served with peeled sunflower seeds and blue-veined cheese – Roquefort, Gorgonzola or other.

The [male] human is a social animal (zoon politikon) Рremember that famous quote by Aristotle? And women, alas, are soulless creatures inhabiting the non-freedom to cater to the needs of their superior counterparts. 

[Even today, many women stop being zoon politikons after their dayjob is over and enter the area of non-freedom to shop, cook, clean and generally tend to the¬†consumption¬†side of life addressed at the home. Many men of today do the same by the way, but that’s post-modernity for you.¬†:)]

Unlike telos, cooking was techne, meaning art or a means to an end, so something providing foundation for telos but definitely inferior to it.

On the other hand,¬†cooking was an exercise in culturing, i.e. applying skills and tools to tame nature. In line with this, it¬†being¬†women’s turf was rather distasteful to the lofty-minded Greek¬†philosophers.

So Plato and the Stoics went as far as recommending a warrior’s diet¬†consisting of roasted meat and herbs, fruit and vegetables gathered in the wild, as a soul-disciplining tool designed to mitigate the¬†feminising effects of home cooking.

The dessert – as I sometimes do offer desserts to those not on a warrior diet ūüôā – was a typical Bulgarian villagers’ cake – vegan, economical and very quick to prepare. Also, as is typical of the unrefined home cooking – dense, not porous, and moist. ūüôā I think it was suitable as the third course of this menu in particular, because all preceding courses were light and delicate, so the cake didn’t come heavy as an end. In addition, I made it barely sweet. One little piece like those pictured with a large spoonful of buffalo yogurt, as¬†thick as ice cream, should be enough. The remainder was served as breakfast on the following day, with a choice of ayran or a herbal tisane.

Sound familiar? I bet all of you interested in healthy eating and “modern” eating trends/patterns have not failed to draw parallels to¬†today’s Paleo and Warrior diets – which latter, apart from sharing a name, consists of exactly the same foods¬†that Plato has recommended and involves periods of controlled fasting and feasting,¬†which really¬†renders it an intermittent fasting pattern. Talk about everything new being¬†some long-forgotten old truth…:)¬†

The good things about the Bulgarian villagers’ vegan cakes is that don’t use sugar but jam. I don’t mean they don’t contain sugar, but rather that you can use up stale jam, which appeals to the Uncle Scrooge part of me. ūüôā This orange-and-whatnot jam did not appeal to my family. I personally liked it but not enough to eat it with a spoon in lieu of my favourite candied rose petals. ūüôā So you need about 125 g of jam or more if you would like your cake sweeter.

Anyway, the ancient Greeks and Romans in particular, are also responsible for the emergence of the male cook, as the rich people then used to have slaves from other countries (or regions of the empire) and had some of them cook the dishes of their far-away lands.

Sourcing expensive non-local products and owning slaves was indicative of high social status, so male cooks became status symbols too. Despite their cooking bestowing prestige and peer recognition on their masters, male cooks in the Antiquity were similar to female cooks in that they possessed no rights and their labour went anonymous and  uncompensated.

In a bowl, mix the following – 125 g jam, 1/2 cup of oil, 1/2 cup coarsely ground walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts, 1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda, vanilla and cinnamon to taste, 1 cup lukewarm water and flour to obtain a thick batter, like the one you do for cupcakes. Mix with a wooden spoon. Needless to say – use the same one cup for all your measures so that they are proportionate. ūüôā

The emergence of the male cook brought about a new differentiation in cooking Рendogenous (internal, with local products, performed mostly by women) and exogenous (external, with foreign products, more refined, performed mostly by men).

The endogenous cook, whose output is mostly in the realm of traditional home cooking Рabundant, economical and unrefined in ingredients, textures and presentation alike Рhas to feed a family and cater to the more basic human needs; while the exogenous cook has to create luxurious and refined works of art intended not only to satiate but also to increase the social prestige of the master, while providing grounds for the sophisticated entertainment of his guests. 

Just look at the gorgeous bowl I used for mixing the batter! ūüôā It has a very old-fashioned look and I like it very much. This kind of bowl, large or small, is called a “kastron” – probably a French, but here a very north-western Bulgarian word. ūüôā As you can see, this cake contains neither milk nor eggs. It is a “without cake,” :). The name, which I thought of, stems¬†from the way such recipes are¬†called in¬†cookbooks and notebooks – A Cake without Eggs for example.¬†Historically,¬†vegan cakes in Bulgaria appeared in answer to the long Lents, which together cover nearly half of the calendar year. Also, there were times when sugar was expensive and eggs came only from the hens in your pen, so you tended yo use them sparingly. During Communism, this type of a “without cake” gained further popularity because of the constant food product shortages. I distinctly remember times of my childhood in which cooking oil and sugar were very scarce and were rationed. While I understood the concern over the unavailability of oil, I was at a loss about¬†the outcry over sugar. It is NOT a staple food after all, one could go perfectly well without. It seems the Spartan in me dates back to those times. ūüôā

The 1789 French Revolution failed¬†to “liberate” the female cook but was¬†successful in liberating her male counterpart, who started¬†getting paid for his art in the newly-established democratic (i.e. open to all) public places such as restaurants and cafes.

Thus, the economic strengthening of the bourgeoisie extended the public sphere to cooking as well, transforming the “kitchen” from a cooking-an-feeding location, into a “cuisine” – ¬†a space of high culture which distinguishes and identifies¬†its subjects.¬†Parallel to the professional chef emerged¬†the expert consumer, or the connoisseur.

Pick a small baking dish with a detachable rim. A non-detachable rim is quite all right too, but this releases the baked cake more easily. Diametre Рsmall, no more than 20 cm.

This was also the time of the first cookbooks and the first public debates on cooking and nutrition. The idea was that food has to overcome its domestic heartiness and become delicate, porous and detailed. Hence all the jellies, aspics, mashing and forming of foods, the souffles and the attention to decoration. 

The rise of democratic eating places also brought about another change Рthe serving of the food in portions, instead of the entire pot or everything available hitting the table at the same time as was the case during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Line dish with baking paper.
Line dish with baking paper.

In an amusing twist compared to its humble beginnings, 19th century philosophers like¬†Ludwig Feuerbach and Friedrich Nietzsche glorified¬†eating as an expression of the eater’s individuality. Thus, from a basic survival need¬†of the lower order,¬†eating became a statement,¬† a choice and an attitude. The host of options available today, defying both historical time and geographic space, make this relatively recent trait of eating even¬†more pronounced¬†today.¬†

Pour batter in baking dish. Pop into a preheated oven, 150-60 degrees C, lower rack.

In Bulgaria, the¬†process of food democratisation started after the liberation from Ottoman rule, but was reserved to the few larger cities only, because of the country’s predominantly peasant population. The real democratisation of food and the advent of public eating places came with communism, which, as I have on several occasions¬†mentioned, published a lot of cookbooks with detailed instructions on nutrition, pre-cooking preparation of foodstuffs, table laying and portion sizing¬†and decoration. Similarly to its intent in other areas of human activity, it wanted to achieve speedy progress though a mass campaign rather than evolution.¬†

Baking time is approximately 30-35 minutes. Remove after it starts smelling like ready and after you’ve performed the skewer test – insert a wooden skewer into the cake, right to the bottom of the dish, remove and if it is clean, with no batter or crumbs on it, the cake’s ready.

So, two realities had by then been formed Рfemale cooking as heavy and unrefined, intended to feed the family; and male cooking as expert, delicate and sophisticated, intended to be enjoyed as a paid commodity by discerning customers. Hence, different prestige was (and still is) attached to male and female cooks and the results of their culinary efforts.

Remove baking dish rim or otherwise remove from dish once it's cooled down a bit. Transfer to a fancier plate.
Remove baking dish rim or otherwise remove cake¬†from dish once it’s cooled down a bit. Transfer to a fancier plate.

Since around the mid-20th century – so in the late modernity and the post-modern era –¬†cooking and eating have been challenged¬†by the¬†new phenomena of industrially-prepared foods and the fast-food culture.

The destitute life of industrial workers in the 19th century, the war privations of the 20th century and the wider and cheaper availability of sugar and animal fats due to the scientific improvements in agriculture after WWII in particular, have resulted in the late modern and post-modern food being richer than in the past, highly refined and very easily accessible.

The traditional Bulgarian way of serving these types of heavy and moist cakes is in small rhombuses as shown. Otherwise cut a triangular piece as if you’re cutting a normal cake. Very lightly sprinkle with powdered sugar and cinnamon right before serving. As I have previously said, you can add a scoop of thick yogurt or creme fraiche or why not even ice-cream! ūüôā I hope you’ll like it.

There has also been a noticeable drive for industrially prepared foods to obviate the necessity of home cooking. While the fast-paced modern life has failed to accomplish that, it has succeeded in making cooking an unisex activity, returning it to its Antiquity and Medieval state of critical necessity, whose need to be brought to the table a very short time after getting home from work almost precludes the possibility of its preparation from scratch.

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I have a hunch this might be¬†the same cake, baked a long time ago. But given that it is way darker, it might also be a simple chocolate cake of the Julia Child cookbook. Judging from how the cut piece looks, I think I might have mixed the batter with a mixer. If you would like your village vegan cake to look fluffier and less village-y, you can use a¬†mixer too. ūüôā

The obvious toll that industrial foods have been taking on human health, as well as the expanded knowledge and availability of foodstuffs unheard of since about a decade or two ago (have you had any coconut oil, chia seeds or spirulina as a child? :)), have made many people experiment and return to barebones cooking and the simplicity of the Spartan diet upheld by Plato.

Debates on nutrition have re-kindled, driven by more recent knowledge on the biochemistry of human metabolism. An haute cuisine and professional cooks boasting special knowledge of all the new foodstuffs have also emerged, alongside discerning customers and ethical cuisine labels such as vegan, slow-food and gluten-free, among others.

In the same time, the different food situations in the globalised world of today have jointly resulted in an intriguing mixture of Antiquity, the Middle Ages and Modernity happening all at the same time and often within the same regions. Food scarcity and malnutrition at the one end of the pendulum, death by overeating at the other.

Of course, you could cover the top of the cake with a thin layer of the same jam you used for the batter and sprinkle with cocoa or coconut for a richer version. But doing this, we would be definitively leaving the village and Spartan realms. :)
Of course, you could cover the top of the cake with a thin layer of the same jam you used for the batter and sprinkle with cocoa or coconut for a richer version. But by doing this, you¬†would be leaving the village and Spartan realms for good. ūüôā

Now if you have sufficient endurance to return with me to my starting claim that I was a pre-modern woman living in a post-modern world, you will recognise it as a playful quip but otherwise an untruth.

The reality that I can choose whether I cook from scratch, order a takeout of any global foods of my choice, have a daily delivery of organic and carefully-portioned menus to my office and so on is essentially a post-modern one, where the boundaries of time and space have been shrunk to a customisable menu.

Now this was something considerably more porous - as light as air actually. This was done with considerably more egg whites than egg yolks
Now this was something considerably more porous and refined – as light as air actually. This cake was done with considerably more egg whites than egg yolks, with freshly squeezed orange juice and grated orange zest, if I remember correctly. Now that I think of it, it was awesome, although, as you see, I had failed to take it out of the baking dish unscathed. ūüôā

In addition, come to think of it, all the options listed above boil down to business and have created in us needs and desires we didn’t dream we had. Returning to simplicity¬†in this overcrowded, cluttered and noisy world¬†by all means does not include dependence on ready-to-eat food business companies, but rather – on your own two hands, your cooking knowledge and your sagacity in finding¬†fun and meaning in what you’re doing.

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Another thing that has come to us from France to become a cuisine staple at canteens and restaurants – the custard pie ūüôā Although fancier restaurants today feature a creme brulee instead of this. Baked at below 100 degrees C, through the entire night, it gets this gorgeous-looking crust and a very smooth and elastic texture on the inside. Mmm! ūüôā

From ancient Greece to the post-modern times, there is no getting around cooking, in spite of the many efforts made to achieve the opposite.

The fate of women seems kind of sealed too – techne¬†claims a large portion of their telos – no getting around that one as well. ¬†ūüôā

This American staple - the fruit pie, has failed to make inroads into the Bulgarian cuisine
This American staple – the fruit pie, has failed to make inroads into the Bulgarian cuisine but is delicious nevertheless. If you have noticed the dates on all the old pictures,¬†– it seems that I had really gone crazy cake-baking in 2009, doesn’t it? I enjoyed baking very much but was apprehensive of eating.¬†So¬†I invited friends and relatives on the pretext to see the baby, and force-fed them! ūüôā

PS. On a totally unrelated topic, on Wednesday and Thursday I successfully¬†managed 15 proper push-ups from plank! ūüôā I did them with rests in between each one in the first set¬†and then¬†I did five¬†at the beginning of the next set, followed by sets of two at a time until 15. ūüôā I patted myself on the back over this milestone achievement.¬†I found out that if you really tighten your abs and engage your back muscles, it helps a lot in¬†the pushing-up process. How very simple, but took me weeks to realise it.

This has sent me back to the ancient Greeks too, with their focus on knowing how to move (sports) and knowing how to think (philosophy). I may be just a bad example, but it does seem that mankind has not made much progress along these lines in all the centuries that have passed, doesn’t it? ūüôā¬†

As discussed above, the 1789 French Revolution failed to achieve a professional social standing for the female cook in Europe. Instead, according to some experts, the liberation of women started with their being able to openly frequent public drinking places and pay for their drinks themselves. ūüôā Picture is L’Absinthe (1875-76), oil on canvas, Edgar Degas, Musee D’Orsay, Paris.