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«TITLE PAGE WHAT’S COOKING? Roberta Ann Muir Dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the coursework requirements for the degree of Master of ...»

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Although most people readily accept the definition of ‘cooking’ as ‘the application of heat to food’, and would initially reach for this if asked to define ‘cooking’, we also understand it in the sense expressed

when someone says of a very simple preparation (such as foil-wrapped fish put on a barbecue plate):

“That’s not cooking. That’s throw-it-on-and-let-it-do-itself.” Food writer Eric Rolls accepts the general definition of ‘cooking’ as applying heat to food, and so concedes that microwaving is ‘cooking’, but complains that it is not ‘good cooking’, as the “Cooking is so quick that the food does not caramelise, there is none of the wondrous interaction of sugars and proteins that gives conventionally cooked food its Willi Bode, European Gastronomy: The Story of Man’s Food and Eating Customs (London: Grub Street, 2000), 47.

Bode, 10.

Bode, 47.

Barbara Santich, Looking for Flavour (Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 1996), 61.

flavours.” He concludes: “a chicken cooked in a microwave is an offence to food.” Writing in 1861, Isabella Beeton, in The Book of Household Management, suggested that cookery was about skill and the bringing of enjoyment. The following quote suggests that she would not have considered foil-wrapped fish thrown on a barbecue, or anaemic, microwaved chicken, to be cooking even though she would

almost certainly have accepted that cooking involved the application of heat:

The object, then, is not only to live, but to live economically, agreeably, tastefully, and well. Accordingly, the art of cookery commences; and although the fruits of the earth, the fowls of the air, the beasts of the field, and the fish of the sea, are still the only food of mankind, yet these are so prepared, improved and dressed by skill and ingenuity, that they are the means of immeasurably extending the boundaries of human enjoyments.

–  –  –

In discussing his young grandchild learning to cook at school, Rolls indicates yet another interpretation of ‘cooking’. He says that the children do not just watch the teacher, “they take an active part, measuring ingredients, working butter into flour with their hands, pulling stems off dried fruit, adding yeast to bread mixes and watching it work.” None of these processes involves the application of heat; yet, in performing them the children are learning to ‘cook’. There is clearly a broader definition of ‘cooking’ implied here, involving all the steps of food preparation, not just the heating process. John Thorne, the American food writer who became well known through his Simple Cooking newsletter, describes ‘cooking’ as “what happens from when the hand first closes on what we mean to eat to the moment it puts it in the mouth.” His book, Simple Cooking, includes chapters on ‘Carpaccio’, ‘Strawberries and Cream’, and ‘Bread and Olives’. Many of his recipes do not involve the application of heat, yet he considers them part of “simple cooking”. Our acceptance of the above situations as logical, suggests that we have a broader, perhaps subconscious, understanding of ‘cooking’ than the mere application of heat to food.

Eric Rolls, A Celebration of Food and Wine (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1998), 3.

Isabella Beeton, ed., The Book of Household Management (London: S. O. Beeton, 1861; facsimile reprint, Lewes, East Sussex:

Southover Press, 1998), 39.

Rolls, 23–24.

John Thorne, Simple Cooking (New York: Viking Penguin Inc, 1987; reprint, New York: Penguin Books, 1989), 221.

Alan Saunders, food writer and broadcaster, says: “Cooks are people who take what is edible from their environment and make it palatable. They may do this by arranging it or cutting it up or heating it, or any two of these things or all three of them.” He stops short of defining which of these steps is actually cooking, although it might seem reasonable to suggest that what cooks do is called ‘cooking’; part of the dictionary definition of ‘cooking’ given above was “to act as cook”. Therefore, if the cook makes the edible palatable by using his knife and serving platter, rather than his frypan, surely he has still fulfilled his role as a cook and therefore has ‘cooked’. Felipe Fernández-Armesto opens his book, Food: a History, with a chapter entitled ‘The Invention of Cooking’, and addresses the issue of definition early, saying: “it all depends on what one means by cooking. Cultivation, in some eyes, is a form of cookery … exposing clods to the baking sun, turning the earth into an oven for seeds.” He goes on to list a number of nonheat processes, applied to foods to transform them, which may be called ‘cooking’: “As soon as you squirt lemon juice at your oyster you are beginning to alter it, to apply changes which affect texture and taste: a generous definition might call this cooking.” Fernández-Armesto refers to the cooking revolution as “the first scientific revolution: the discovery, by experiment and observations, of the biochemical changes which transmute flavour and aid digestion.” Could a more complete definition of ‘cooking’ be: ‘that which brings about biochemical changes which transmute flavour and aid digestion’?

Beeton said: “Everything that is edible, and passes under the hands of the cook, is more or less changed, and assumes new forms.” For her, cooking was clearly a transformative process. Canadian food writer Anita Stewart thinks along similar lines, saying that ‘cooking’ is “everything one does with food to transform it.” Elizabeth Rozin, cookbook author and food historian, divides cooking methods into three broad categories: changing the food’s physical shape or mass, including cutting, grinding, grating, juicing, and whipping; altering the water content of food, including soaking, marinating, salting, drying, smoking and freezing; and chemically changing food, including heating, and fermenting. Apart from acknowledging heat as: “the most pervasive of all cooking techniques”, she does not accredit it any special status among the other techniques she lists.





Alan Saunders, A is for Apple (Port Melbourne: Reed Books, William Heinemann Australia, 1995), 94.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Food: A History (N.p.: Macmillan, 2001; reprint, London: Pan Macmillan, Pan Books, 2002), 4.

Fernández-Armesto, 4.

Fernández-Armesto, 11.

Beeton, 39.

Anita Stewart, E-mail to author, 10 June 2003.

Elisabeth Rozin, Ethnic Cuisine: How to Create the Authentic Flavors of 30 International Cuisines (N.p.: The Stephen Green Press, 1983; reprint, New York: Penguin Books, Viking Penguin, 1992), xii – xiii.

–  –  –

Symons, who adopts perhaps the broadest definition of any food writer, argues: “the dictionary definition is merely descriptive. It looks narrowly at the immediate operations and consequences, and not at functions and meanings.” He says: “a book about cooks is also about cooking”, suggesting ‘cooking’ is ‘that which cooks do’. He lists three elements to what cooks do: “acquire, distribute and organise human sustenance.” He argues that “More fundamentally than the application of heat … cooking is dividing up”, and that although “applying heat is close to the core of cooking … More often to ‘cook’ denotes food preparation generally”.

Chefs, professional cooks, seem to have a relatively broad view of cooking. Thomas Keller, of the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, California, says: “Every step of cooking is manipulation”. Like Rolls with his microwaved chicken, he seems to have two definitions of ‘cooking’, distinguishing ‘cooking’ from ‘good, or skilful, cooking’. He says that “A filet mignon is a filet mignon, which is raw and then becomes grilled or sautéed. It is no more now than when it began; it’s just cooked.” Cooking short ribs however, is a

different sort of cooking. Keller says:

It’s not just cut, sauté and serve … It requires a cook to cook in many different ways. Those are things I like to do, cooking that has some process behind it, some thought, some technique that results in deep flavors and a lot of character, something that’s more than what you started with.

For Janni Kyritsis (whose career has spanned the kitchens of Stephanie’s in Melbourne, Berowra Waters Inn and MG Garage in Sydney), extracting flavour is essential to cooking. He defines ‘cooking’ as any process that brings the most flavour out of the food. He considers preparing steak tartare, for instance, to be cooking, because the combining of the different flavouring agents in appropriately small quantities takes skill and is what defines the flavour of the finished dish. Christine Manfield, chef and cookbook Michael Symons, “Did Jesus Cook,” in Food, Power and Community: Essays in the History of Food and Drink, ed. Robert Dare (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 1999), 18.

Symons, A History of Cooks and Cooking, 23.

Symons, A History of Cooks and Cooking, 16.

Symons, A History of Cooks and Cooking, 18 and 100.

Michael Ruhlman, The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection (New York: Penguin Group, Viking, 2000), 329.

Ruhlman, 330.

Janni Kyritsis, conversation with author, 20 May 2003.

author, says that we are cooking if we “change the natural texture of a product” and includes pickling and acidifying as processes that are ‘cooking’. Matthew Evans, a food writer and former chef, also thinks a change in texture is the key element in cooking, defining it as anything that brings about “a substantial change in texture and character through heat/cold/chemical change.” He considers curing, putrefaction, fermenting, pickling, acidifying, and even the churning of ice cream, all to be ‘cooking’. Anders Ousback (who has been involved with many Sydney restaurants) defines the verb ‘to cook’ as “the process by which a chemical change (ie non-reversible) is effected”, adding that the application of heat is just one example of this ‘chemical change’ process. Phillip Searle (of Vulcans at Blackheath) says: “My role is like that of an alchemist – transubstantiation, that’s basically what cooking is”. Tim Pak Poy (of Claude’s) takes the broadest view, defining ‘cooking’ as “any aspect of food preparation”, saying that “Once process (simply washing & plating) is applied” even to simple berries picked fresh from the garden “it becomes cookery.” Therefore, while most people readily accept the dictionary definition of ‘cooking’ as ‘applying heat to food’, it seems that many, especially those who do it professionally, also recognise that there is more to cooking than heat. This is seen in the observation ‘that’s not cooking’ of an operation requiring no skill, and in teaching children to cook by giving them culinary tasks that do not involve heat. Most broadly, while ‘cooking’ can be defined as ‘what cooks do’, it is clear that it can also be defined in terms of transformation. Clearly cooking often encompasses many activities other than the application of heat.

Christine Manfield, conversation with author, 10 May 2003.

Matthew Evans, E-mail to author, 5 May 2003.

Anders Ousback, E-mail to author, 5 May 2003.

Symons, A History of Cooks and Cooking, 21.

Tim Pak Poy, E-mail to author, 5 May 2003.

–  –  –

It has been established that cooking is a transformative process. Another approach in defining ‘cooking’ might then be to look at what this transformation is intended to achieve, what the desired outcome of

cooking is. We cook for a number of reasons:

to make the inedible edible by rendering mastication easier and eliminating toxins;

• to increase nutritional value through increased digestibility and bioavailability of nutrients;

–  –  –

One explanation for man’s desire to cook his food is that our teeth are not as strong as those of other animals, which are able to tear apart raw flesh. The texture of heated food is such that it can easily be chewed, or broken apart by hand. Larousse offers a list of four changes brought about by cooking, the first of which is: “Chemical changes: through softening, coagulation, swelling, or dissolving, foods become either edible … or easier to digest”.

Cooking can render otherwise harmful substances harmless. Obvious examples are the trichinosis worm found in pork, salmonella bacteria common in poultry and listeria bacteria, fear of which prevents Australians from producing raw-milk cheeses. Larousse lists “elimination of the harmful elements which are destroyed by heat, particularly through boiling” as one of the changes brought about by cooking.

More complex are vegetable foods, which may contain harmful naturally occurring elements; for example, bitter manioc, in its raw state, “contains enough prussic acid to kill anyone who eats a meal-sized quantity.” Once processed by various combinations of pounding, grating, soaking, heating and Bode, 19.

Fernández-Armesto, 12.

Larousse Gastronomique, 1988 ed., s.v. “cooking.” Fernández-Armesto, 12.

Larousse Gastronomique, 1988 ed., s.v. “cooking.” Fernández-Armesto, 12.

fermenting, this once toxic vegetable becomes tapioca, which is “the fourth most important source of calories in the human diet in tropical regions.”

–  –  –



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