Thursday, April 05, 2007

Reading, cooking, thinking, cooking

What remains, for a couple of days, the current New Yorker contains a characteristically elegant thing by Adam Gopnik on recipes in novels. It has some lovely solipsistic digressions:

A devotion to shell beans, I have noticed, divides even amateur cooks from non-cooks more absolutely than any other food, and they are, into the bargain, a perfect model of writing. Like sentences, shell beans are a great deal more trouble to produce than anyone who isn’t producing them knows.

But its central argument seems to me flawed. Gopnik's case is that many modern novels have their characters cook at length "to represent the background of thought", in the way that (his examples) walking is used in many Victorian novels, or driving in John Updike. He thinks this is a swizz, because...

...the act of cooking is an escape from consciousness - the nearest thing that the non-spiritual modern man and woman have to Zen meditation; its effect is to reduce us to a state of absolute awareness, where we are here now of necessity. You can’t cook with the news on and still listen to it, any more than you can write with the news on and still listen to it. You can cook with music, or talk radio, on, and drift in and out. What you can’t do is think and cook, because cooking takes the place of thought.

He demonstrates by cooking recipes from several contemporary novels, reserving his politest and deadliest scorn for Henry Perowne "idly" cooking a fish stew in Ian McEwan's Saturday: "You can’t idly make a bouillabaisse while you brood on modern life any more than you can idly make a cassoulet; these are nerve-wracking concoctions."

Probably true. But it's not true, in this bad cook's view, that all cookery demands a disengagement from thought; and even if it was, cooking from fictional recipes would be a particularly faulty way to show it. Ruminating characters tend to be making something they cook routinely, for themselves or a forgiving family audience; Adam Gopnik is trying out new recipes for the benefit, going by one aside, of a "gang".

I can't cook something that I have to think about and think about something else - an audience and a recipe are the two things most likely to push a dish into this category - but if I'm cooking one of the half-dozen things I can do by heart, for myself or for friends with time on their hands, and I'm not at one of a few critical moments, then the process can open up some marvellous space for thought. The best description of the condition is by Primo Levi, in The Periodic Table, when he explains why he finds the process of distillation beautiful:

First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike.

He is engaged, you'll notice, in what amounts to a particularly precise and formalised version of cooking. And he's right about cycling, too.

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