What happened when I started to treat cooking like thinking

Our actions can alter the world around us. The way I treat a clove of garlic does not just change its size but its chemistry: cutting it breaks down cell walls, triggering enzyme reactions. The decision to dice or slice or crush it will shape the entire flavor of the meal I am cooking. And we have not even begun to discuss how the garlic is applied in the pan: is it added to cold oil? Is it added to a hot pan? Is it a late addition to a sauce? Each of these methods has a profound impact on the outcome. Cooking can show us this: that our actions matter. Even a simple recipe can reveal the way our interactions with the world can change it, and through this we are changed too.

The lessons of the kitchen are the same lessons we pursue in literature, philosophy, politics and science, yet the way that cooking is treated in our culture is so different from the way these apparently serious subjects are treated. I spent over a decade at university, and in all that time I never encountered a recipe on the syllabus.

It wasn’t until I was in the middle of a PhD, studying The Odyssey, that I began to ask why I had not thought more deeply about cooking. I was researching a rewriting of Homer’s epic that placed Penelope (Odysseus’s wife) and her work as a weaver at its center. I learned how, through this work, Penelope was able to invent a form of time that challenged the norms of the world around her. She said she would choose a new husband as soon as she finished weaving a piece of cloth. But she secretly unwove at night what she had woven in the day, stretching the task to last years. She changed the course of events through her weaving, fooling those who did not know how to weave, and preventing a new king from seizing power.

While reflecting on this, I began to think about why I had not paid closer attention to cooking. So often, it is the domestic work typically performed by women that is overlooked in culture at large. Perhaps by turning away from the kitchen, I was missing out on a way to answer the questions that occupied my mind.

By this point, cooking had been the center of my social life for years; it was how I got to know people as I moved from house to house on the London rental market. I thought about what I had learned about time, about people and the world beyond me through my work in the kitchen. Prior to this moment of revelation, I thought the answers would be found in the library, in literary and philosophical texts. Then I asked myself: what if I allowed philosophy into the kitchen? What would I discover if I treated cooking as thinking?

There was one recipe that felt like the beginning of my knowledge in the kitchen, that changed everything for me. When I cooked for myself as an 18-year-old, I attempted to enhance the flavor of a dish by adding more things to the pot. But frustratingly, I found that doubling the quantity of a spice or adding ever more vegetables to a sauce produced something indistinct and confused. When I added more, these dishes tasted of less. A crude logic of scale failed when it came to flavor; the sea was not more. At that time, I was unable to communicate in the kitchen. When I cooked, it was as if I were trying to speak with no sense of how grammar brings words into relation with each other.

Then I came across a recipe that I would go on to cook a thousand times. It was through following this simplest of recipes — for tomato sauce — that I learned the poetry of cooking, how small variations and attentiveness to the ingredients would allow a clarity of expression that had previously eluded me. The power my hands might have if I paid attention to how I was using them.

Through making tomato sauce, I realized that if I am really present with the thing I am cooking, it will reveal itself to me. The recipe is by the late American-Italian food writer Marcella Hazan. It is deceptive: two cloves of garlic, six tablespoons of olive oil, a tin of tomatoes and a packet of spaghetti. The first few times I made it, I was reverent towards the miraculous transformation in which I was an awed participant. But a recipe invites repetition and then, as life continues, variation.

There was the time I made it when I fancied someone who liked to crush garlic, so I crushed the garlic instead of carefully slicing it. Changing the preparation meant I could not observe the gradual shift of the garlic from white to pale gold in the oil, and the sauce tasted different. There was the time I made it while foolishly hosting the birthday party of a girl I had met once while living in Berlin. I made a fatal substitution of tinned for fresh tomatoes, trying to show off, which resulted in a watery concoction adding to the chaos of realizing I didn’t actually like her. There was a new friend who had food allergies but who could eat everything in the recipe, and so cooking it for her became a way to make her feel relaxed at mealtimes. It became the basis of many more dishes: eggs baked in tomato sauce a dozen different ways, meatballs, chicken in honey and ginger tomato sauce, eggplant Parmigiana, to name a few.

Now, think of all of the other people who have cooked it, and how many times each of them has cooked it in their lives, stretching back centuries. Hazan published at least five versions of the recipe, and there will be countless more that have not been written down. In her account of it in several of her books, she wrote that it dates back to a time when workers pulling handcarts into Rome made a sauce with what was readily available.

And this is only one recipe! Now, multiply this for every recipe, for every dish. Each one collects into it the lives of those who cook it. The thoughts and knowledge in a recipe can be scooped up with a spoon and tasted on the tongue. And yet, the history gathered into one recipe alone could fill a library.

The Odyssey is considered a foundation of western literature and thought. It is a text with great authority, to which thousands of scholars and translators have devoted their lives and which is referenced in films, music and parliament. In the story, Odysseus goes out into the world and encounters all kinds of people, and his journey is seen as the triumph of the intellect over the natural world. Sometimes I was guilty of thinking about the world in the same way as Odysseus, believing I could master it through studying it from a distance. But during these years of study, I later realized, I was doing just as much learning about people and the world in the kitchen.

What is lost when we put a barrier between the kitchen and the library? Cooking is a practice that deserves our attention. The recipe is just as epic as the text The Odyssey, if not more so. The recipe gives many hands the power to understand and transform the materials with which they work, to sustain their own lives and the lives of the people they encounter. Cooking a recipe gives words life, a thousand times and more.

My encounter with Hazan’s recipe for tomato sauce has formed the basis of an epic. When I sat down and documented all the times I had cooked it over a decade, I was suddenly able to answer questions that had eluded me in the library during my studies. I had been thinking about the fractured relationship between language and the lived, embodied world for years. Through cooking, I saw how each time a recipe was translated anew in the kitchen, life could be returned to language, reinvigorating it.

When I cook, I am using the knowledge produced through the work of generations of cooks in kitchens all over the world. It is only because of this thinking that it is possible for me to understand what will happen when I add salt, or cover the pan, or leave a sauce to rest. Unlike the knowledge stored in libraries, this is information that each person who uses it can rewrite in their own image, and in the image of those they cook for. People who cook become part of a chorus. When I started to pay attention, I could hear their voices in a bubbling pan. Cooking is thinking, and there is knowledge on an epic scale in a pan of hot red sauce.

Rebecca May Johnson is the author of “Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen” (ONE/Pushkin Press)

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