The Philosophy Of Cooking

Jonah Lehrer posts an article of his that was slated for the pages of the January Gourmet:

Most things in life become more automatic with time. This, after all, is the gift of experience - it allows us to pay less attention, so that we don't have to think about maintaining our balance on a bicycle, or shifting gears in a car. But with cooking the opposite happens - the more time we spend in the kitchen the more we notice. The act is intensified, layered with new subtleties. The first time I cooked beef stew, I was merely obeying a recipe, counting off the minutes until the mirepoix was sweated and the meat was seared. But now I don't need the clock - I've learned how to smell the dark sugar of cooked onions, how to see when the stew is viscous with the richness of bones. The dish is the same - beef bourguignon is too perfect to ever change - but my sense of it has become much richer.

This is the moral of the kitchen: even the most mundane rituals deserve our attention. And maybe they deserve it most of all. To cook is to insist that every hunger is a potential occasion, not just for something delicious (because deliciousness can be easily bought), but for that quality of experience that comes when the flame is on high and the last knob of butter is being whisked into the sauce. The tough meat is finally tender and there's the pile of parsley, waiting to be sprinkled over the stew. It's all so fleeting - the food will soon be eaten, the mess will be cleaned up tomorrow - but Virginia Woolf was right: "Of such moments the thing is made that endures." We have taken a need and made a meal.

Oakeshott said some of this famously before:

Oakeshott contends that the essence of an accomplished practitioner’s skill cannot be conveyed to a neophyte through explicit technical instructions, but instead must be learned tacitly, during a period of intimate apprenticeship...

To offer a concrete example, the rationalist cook is oblivious to the years that the skilled chef has spent establishing intimate relationships with his ingredients and tools, and tries to get by in the kitchen solely with what he can glean from a cookbook. As a result, he botches most of the dishes he attempts. However, his repeated failures typically do not lead him to suspect that his fundamental method of proceeding might be faulty. Instead, each disappointment only spurs the rationalist to search for a new, improved, and even more “rational” book of recipes.

Despite that modus operandi being no more workable in political activity than it is in cooking, Oakeshott points out that rationalism has had its greatest influence in the arena of politics: “But what, at first sight, is remarkable, is that politics should have been earlier and more fully engulfed by the tidal wave [of rationalism] than any other human activity. The hold of Rationalism upon most departments of life has varied in its firmness during the last four centuries but in politics it has steadily increased and is stronger now than at any earlier time.”