As I have perhaps previously told you, as soon as I get home from work, I change and plunge into the inevitability of cooking.
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. 🙂
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.
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.
The [male] human is a social animal (zoon politikon) – remember 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.
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…:)
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.
The emergence of the male cook brought about a new differentiation in cooking – endogenous (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 – abundant, economical and unrefined in ingredients, textures and presentation alike – has 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.
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.
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 – the 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.
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.
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.
So, two realities had by then been formed – female 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂
PS. On a totally unrelated topic, on Wednesday and Thursday I successfully managed 15 proper push-ups from plank! 🙂 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. 🙂 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? 🙂