Cooking History

As we move into the second phase of our project, which will involve more creative engagements with our historical texts through practices like drawing and cooking, I’ve been thinking: what is it that we learn from cooking historical recipes?

I’ve always felt that cooking recipes from a historical cookbook is the best way to read it: it forces you to reckon with what the author assumed of her readers, the difference between your kitchen and hers, and question your own culinary instincts about measuring ingredients or seasonings. But why is this, and what are the broader implications of this kind of “learning by making”? How does it apply to other practices like drawing scenes from a book, rather than writing analyses of them, or attempting to recreate a meal that is described in passing?

Ingold Making

Anthropologist Tim Ingold offers us many answers to these questions in his book Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. The book is based on a seminar he developed that, in his words, aims to “train students in the art of inquiry, to sharpen their powers of observation, and to encourage them to think through observation rather than after it.” (11) This encapsulates the difference between reading about a dish or reading a recipe in a text and attempting to recreate it at one’s own stove: it transforms the relationship between the no-longer objective, outside observer-reader and the material she is studying.

Ingold calls for a move away from the practice of “ethnography,” which he understands to be most concerned with collecting data about a certain society or situation, and towards “anthropology,” which he believes can be a practice in and of itself, an “art of inquiry,”––a way of engaging with the world that he refers to as “correspondence.” (7) The aim is “not to accumulate more and more information about the world, but to better correspond with it.” (7)

To do this he suggests a focus not on objects, but on the processes of making them. One example he uses concerns the study of art: “while we might learn much about art from the analysis of its objects, we learn nothing from it. My aim, to the contrary, is to replace the anthropology of art with an anthropology with. To carry out anthropology with art is to correspond with it in its own movement of growth or becoming, in a reading that goes forwards rather than in reverse, and to follow the paths along which it leads.” (8)

Above: photographs from my own fieldwork, learning to make mahalabiyya with a group of women in Tangier, Morocco

Ingold goes on to write: “We are accustomed to think of making as a project. This is to start with an idea in mind, of what we want to achieve, and with a supply of the raw material needed to achieve it. And it is to finish at the moment when the material has taken on the intended form…I want to think of making, instead, as a process of growth. This is to place the maker from the outset as a participant amongst a world of active materials. These materials are what he has to work with, and in the process of making he ‘joins forces’ with them, bringing them together or splitting them apart, synthesizing and distilling, in anticipation of what might emerge…” (21-22)

This is a reassuring reminder that if a recipe we try doesn’t turn out very well, there is still something to be learned from the attempt. But it’s also a reminder that the kitchen, the garden, or the art studio can be classrooms, too.


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