«TITLE PAGE WHAT’S COOKING? Roberta Ann Muir Dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the coursework requirements for the degree of Master of ...»
Laurens van der Post, First Catch Your Eland: A Taste of Africa (London: Hogarth Press, 1977), 28–29.
culture – in other words, human intervention” that brings the egg yolk and oil together in mayonnaise and transforms them into “expressions of far greater complexity and eloquence.” The Ancient Romans had an interesting perspective on raw and cooked. All things were on a continuum from hard to soft, where hard was incorruptible (unlikely to decay or disintegrate) and soft was very likely to decay. Inanimate objects were hardest of all, and dead flesh was soft until it had been prepared in some way: “Culture hardened; savagery softened.” Fruit and vegetables, grown in civilized gardens and orchards, were “unlike meat, never in a raw state and subject to immediate spoilage.” The oyster (moist and cold) was softest of all, and unlikely to be eaten raw for fear of damaging the stomach and liver.
Bacon, at the other end of the continuum, had been salted, dried and smoked, and was the only dead flesh that could be stored for any period of time; according to Roman thinking, the drying out of the meat had ‘cooked’ it, halting the corruption process.
Florence Dupont “The Grammar of Roman Dining,” in Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, eds. Jean-Louis Flandrin, Massimo Montanari and Albert Sonnenfeld, trans. Clarissa Botsford et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999;
reprint, London: Penguin Books, 2000), 119–123.
In order to help gain an understanding of contemporary interpretations of ‘cooking’, a set of three questionnaires was sent, by email, to 120 people, asking them to indicate which of a list of processes they would consider to be ‘cooking’. The questionnaires were sent to chefs, food and wine writers, gastronomy students and amateur cooks who expressed an interest in being included. Thirty-four responses were received (though one respondent answered two only of the three questionnaires).
The first questionnaire was called “Cooking Processes” (Appendix 1). It sought to list as many as possible of the different techniques that can be applied to food, including those involving heat. Of the fifty-three processes listed, only baking, grilling, roasting, frying, boiling, braising, steaming and searing were regarded as ‘cooking’ by all thirty-three respondents (Table 1). With regard to the first seven of these techniques, this was probably to be expected, though it was perhaps a surprise to find searing, a deliberate form of ‘under-cooking’, unanimously accepted as ‘cooking’. Given the undisputed acceptance of baking, grilling, roasting, frying, boiling, steaming and braising as forms of cooking, these methods will not be discussed any further in this paper, though a discussion of searing will be necessary.
The second questionnaire was called “Continuum” (Appendix 2). It sought to identify at what point on a continuum of processes ‘cooking’ commences. Strawberries were used as an example, beginning with plucking them from the garden and adding increasingly more complex processing until they were baked in the oven with flavourings and served with ice cream. Plucking from the garden and eating straightaway was the only process not considered to be ‘cooking’ by any of the respondents (Table 2). Conversely, baking with butter, sugar and brandy and serving with ice cream was the only process unanimously accepted as ‘cooking’. Two results from this questionnaire are worth specific mention. Strawberries baked in the oven with butter, sugar and brandy was not accepted as ‘cooking’ by one respondent; while, despite the absence of heat, over 50% of respondents considered pureed strawberries folded into whipped cream and served as a dessert to be ‘cooking’. Perhaps the actual ‘serving’ of the dish was a decisive element here in determining whether or not cooking had occurred, some people believing that cooking has taken place only when a dish is prepared to the stage where it is ready to be served.
The third questionnaire was called “Pairs” (Appendix 3). It contrasted two (or three) processes resulting in a similar finished dish, the difference being that one process involved heat and the other(s) did not.
Not surprisingly, the results of this questionnaire confirmed that the application of heat is considered by many as a defining element in ‘cooking’, with the heated dishes being called ‘cooking’ more frequently than the non-heated dishes (Table 3). Only three of the twenty-eight dishes listed were accepted as ‘cooking’ by less than 40% of the respondents however; they were sashimi (38%), insalata caprese (38%) and a sandwich (29%).
We have seen that there are many food preparation techniques that achieve the desired outcomes of cooking without the application of heat, or involving heat at a negligible level. Such techniques can be
used in one of four ways:
Many techniques can be used in more than one of the above ways. Let us look first at those techniques that accompany the application of heat, either in preparing food for the pan, tending it while it is in the pan, or dealing with it after it is removed from the pan. Bode makes a similar three-way distinction, claiming that in his (and other professionals’) opinions, cookery is divided into three aspects: preparation;
application of heat (which he calls ‘cooking’ as opposed to ‘cookery’); and presentation.
Bode divides preparation into two categories, the preparation of foods such as savoury butter, salad, or a cold dessert, which do not require the subsequent application of heat (and which we will deal with later), and ‘mise en place’, the French term meaning “set in place” or preparation of all the raw ingredients before cooking. For him preparation includes selection of the correct meat, fish or fowl, and the correct cut or joint of that meat, selection of the correct cooking vessel and selection of the correct coating for a given method of preparation. This emphasis on ingredients suggests that acquisition or selection is the first stage in cooking. In The Essence of Cookery, Rumohr complains: “their advancing state of refinement is also daily rendering German women less capable of attending to the ordinary necessities of life, to the longterm provision, maintenance and distribution of stores.” This suggests that Rumohr considered provisioning (or acquisition), in all its forms, part of ‘the essence of cookery’. Symons would
agree, arguing that many old recipes began with an imperative to “take” ingredients, quoting a manuscript from the fourteenth century that begins “Tak wyte wyn (Take white wine)”. This imperative to take has given us the word ‘recipe’, which is the imperative form of the Latin ‘recipere’ meaning ‘to take or receive’.
Even modern recipes, beginning with a list of ingredients as they typically do, suggest that the first task of cooking is acquisition.
Once ingredients have been assembled, recipes, both modern and ancient, require the cook to perform many tasks: slicing, whisking, chopping, grinding, blending, mixing, shaping, which do not involve the application of heat. Is it fair to say that we go into the kitchen, assemble our ingredients, begin to prepare and combine them, but do not actually start to cook until we turn on the stove? If we are baking something, have we done any cooking at all or are we merely assembling ingredients and placing them in the oven for it to ‘cook’ them? In describing ‘what cooks do’, Symons says: “Most items must be cleaned, stripped of feathers, scraped of scales, dislodged from pods, pulverised.” These are actions that cooks have routinely performed in almost all cultures throughout the ages, are they not, therefore, part of ‘cooking’? The first skill stressed in training food professionals is knife skills. Before apprentice chefs are even let near a stove, they are trained in using (and caring for) their knives. In Kitchen Confidential the infamous chef, Anthony Bourdain, has a chapter entitled ‘How to Cook like a Pro’. His first piece of advice is: “You need, for God’s sake, a decent chef’s knife” [Bourdain’s emphasis].
Visser discusses the wok-cooking methods of the Chinese, developed as a quick cooking method to overcome their lack of fuel. She points out that “Chopping things small helped the Chinese to use as little fuel as possible”. The chopping small is as integral to the food preparation as the heating, for were the food not cut into small pieces it would not heat through before the fuel ran out. Is the chopping not, therefore, part of the cooking process? In Spices, Elizabeth David gives a recipe for cured mutton ham which involves the cook cutting, pounding, rubbing, stuffing, resting, rubbing, pressing, and drying (or cold smoking) over a period of a month. The ham is then ready to be boiled for two hours. Surely the tasks performed by the cook over the initial month are just as much a part of the cooking process as the final two hours boiling. David also refers to the preparation of bouquet garni as “one of the minor pleasures Symons, A History of Cooks and Cooking, 135–136.
Symons, A History of Cooks and Cooking, 16.
Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (N.p.: Bloomsbury USA, 2000; reprint, New York:
HarperCollins, Ecco Press, n.d.), 76.
Visser, Much Depends on Dinner, 163.
Elizabeth David, Spices Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (London: Penguin Books, 1970; reprint, London: Grub Street, 2000), 187.
of cooking”, even though this is an action performed before heat is ever applied. In his analysis of the Encyclopédie, Jean-Claude Bonnet refers to “the aspect of cooking that involves seasoning and preparation, that is, the cultural treatment of a raw foodstuff”. Obviously, he considers seasoning and preparing the ‘raw’ food, before applying heat, an aspect of cooking.
Starch, in the form of grains or tubers, forms the basis of most diets throughout the world. Most of these foods require reasonably lengthy preparation from their raw state before they are ready for consumption.
Visser talks about the Yoruba people of Nigeria who make a corn mush called ogi “which requires painstaking soaking, grinding, and washing for several days before it is boiled.” This work is ‘painstaking’, lengthy, and essential to the corn being rendered edible, yet is it only the final boiling which is considered cooking, and not the initial soaking, grinding and washing? Bode suggests that the Neolithic housewife discovered that wetting grain, allowing it to sprout, then drying it and pounding it resulted in a better bread than that made from non-sprouted grain. Despite the conscious decision to follow these procedures and the time taken in completing them, do we only consider that she was cooking when she put the mush made from the ground grain and water onto hot stones? Was none of her food preparation actions before the application of heat, ‘cooking’?
Regarding the actual ‘application of heat’ stage of cookery, Bode says:
While heat is being applied other and often more important parts of cooking and cookery have to be
Even when cooking does involve the application of heat, it is clear that there are many other concurrent tasks, not directly involving heat, which form part of the cooking process. Despite an earlier attempt to distinguish ‘cooking’ from ‘cookery’, Bode brings them back together in the above sentence. Interestingly, he also says that these other parts of cookery are “often more important” than the actual application of heat. Some of the definitions of ‘cooking’ discussed previously (pp. 10–14) show that many people believe that cooking has to involve a degree of knowledge and skill. Perhaps there is greater skill involved in knowing when to turn or baste, how to test for ‘doneness’, when dough is sufficiently proven, or at what stage to add an ingredient, than there is in actually applying the heat. The application of heat, after all, comes down to only three factors: which heat source to use, at what temperature to apply it, and for how long. Certainly all of these decisions require knowledge and skill, but not more so than some of the other decisions which must be made while preparing food. Most good recipes give an accurate guide as to method of heating, temperature and time. Often however, the subtleties of how to test for doneness, when to turn, and when to add the next ingredient, can not be as definitively spelt out in a
recipe, and rely on the knowledge and skill of the cook. In describing what cooks do, Symons says they:
… attend the flames, and do much else. They tug, tear and crack. They wash, squash and trim. They roll, shave and pinch. They fold, crease and interleave. Eventually, they make neat, tamed parcels, strips, clumps and pools … They wipe drips clean.
All this while they are also frying, steaming, sautéing and roasting; surely it is all part of the cooking process.
Bode refers to presentation as “the last, but not the least, of the three distinct stages of modern cookery.” Given that we earlier acknowledged aesthetic considerations as one of the key reasons for
cooking, the attractive appearance of the food on the plate is a significant incitement to eat. Bode says:
“The most nutritious and tasty of foods will not be acceptable nor fully appreciated when brought to the table heaped willy nilly on to the plate or platter.” Symons, with his focus on cooks as distributors, points out that “Especially in the slicing, chopping, carving and arranging, it is possible to see that, essentially, cooks allocate food among diners.” Bourdain (in his chapter ‘How to Cook Like a Pro’) similarly emphasises the importance of presentation, recommending (as kitchen essentials) a plastic sauce bottle to drizzle sauces onto a plate; a toothpick for dragging through the sauces to create patterns;