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Tuesday, July 11, 2023

On Stirring Once and Letting Sit

The New Republic has been uncontroversially awful since 2014, at the very latest. But I found this article worth a look. It's a book review on a fairly standard topic: arguments over the nature of recipes and their interpretation.

Without judging the book that serves as the review's platform, I cannot say that the review itself says anything original. (I refer to the review below rather than the book for this reason, although some of the points noted come from the book. There are precedents.) Because it's in the contemporary TNR, one has to endure the usual ritual invocation of phrases that play no actual role in the discussion, ie. "the larger inequities that underpin the systems of production," a phrase whose ritual nature is revealed in the very fact that it is intoned in passing. (We are, at least, mercifully spared the "contradictions of late capitalism" portion of the liturgy.) But it nicely lays out some of the basics of this sort of debate: whether one should or even can strictly follow a recipe, how recipes themselves change, how following a recipe itself changes, and the now-familiar, if in this case poorly phrased, point that the recipe is "a text every bit as worthy of serious attention as other forms of academic study."

What I found useful about the piece is that it almost avoids taking sides in the debate, and at least acknowledges the value of the recipe and (relative) obedience to it, and of "the repetition of familiar tasks," as such, alongside the conventional arguments against recipes. It praises the book's author for her "clever critique of psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s dismissive treatment of those who follow recipes" in an essay that "derided the use of recipes as 'slavish,' the antithesis of living creatively." In doing so, it notes that the recipe that formed the basis of Winnicott's critical essay, "in its brevity[,] leaves much open to interpretation." But it doesn't, I think, see that as the core flaw of Winnicott's essay; instead, it focuses on the degree to which Winnicott's "theorizing about what it is to live 'creatively'" ignores the value of following a recipe as "part of a larger dialogue between past and present." Although the review, at least, doesn't fully develop the point, it hints at other lines of argument. Following a recipe, even "slavishly," can be preferable, for both cook and diner, to turning every act of cooking into a search for an allegedly "authentic" or "creative" act (as in the author's enjoyment of the "ethereal quality" of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, which is achieved through obedience, not deviation). Attempting to obey the recipe, and thus to live within constraint, can itself be a challenging, disciplining, and rewarding activity. More than that, the repeated effort to obey a recipe, the repeated performance of "familiar tasks," can itself be enriching, can itself be an ongoing form of "dialogue between past and present," including the past and present of the person engaged in the repeated activity of recipe-following. It can, in short, form and embody a tradition.

The review is also usefully revealing for what it does poorly and rather automatically. The headline is useful here. The oft-given advice to ignore headlines is not quite right. They can mislead as to the content of the actual writing atop which they sit. But they can reveal a lot about the thinking of the headline writer, which may indicate the views of that individual, but can also reveal what the headline writer, and the editor or publisher of that journal, thinks readers will or ought to find interesting about the piece. Even when they are wildly misleading, the ways in which they mislead can thus be worth examining. In this case, the headline is, "The Food Writer Who Wants to Free the Recipe"--a revealingly half-accurate thought, since the review and book are also about the ways in which the recipe can be freeing. In the review itself, there is a reference to cooking as an activity "through which pleasure, desire, and resistance can be expressed," and to the kitchen as "a space where freedom...and desire meet." There are standard words and phrases like "liberating," "subversive," and "blow up." That they appear alongside appreciations of the value of repetition and familiarity and criticisms of the reflexive praise of "creativity" is not a sign of intellectual richness. Rather, it's an indication of how powerful, and almost mandatory in our culture, the myths of "creativity" and "subversiveness" can be. The extent to which the review simply, unconsciously takes it for granted that things like "pleasure, desire, and resistance," freedom, subversion, and so on are positive goods, rather than qualities that can be good or bad, appropriate or inapt, is striking--not just because of what it suggests about the writer, but, again, because of what it suggests about the writer's assumptions about the audience's assumptions. It suggests, perhaps accurately as a view of the magazine's market but certainly revealingly, a level of anxiety about departing from a cultural script that praises creativity, freedom, and "resistance"--even in the context of an essay that argues that these are not the only values worth praising, that recipes are valuable, and that repeatedly following them can be an enriching activity.

It's a short review, and the topic is not new. But it's usefully thought-provoking, both in its acknowledgment of the value of both freedom and obedience, of "creativity" and tradition--and in the discomfort of both the writer and the magazine about the fact that both are valuable. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on July 11, 2023 at 11:01 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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