The Meaning of Cooking, Jean-Claude Kaufmann (translated by David Macey), Polity Press, 280pp, £17.99 (paperback)

Cooking can be seen as a thankless part of the daily grind. We may complete it in haste and, plate in hand, flop into an armchair, flick on the TV, and masticate functionally. But beware this approach, as according to French sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann, the ‘magic of cookery’ and the social engagement it encourages are vital to the welfare of a family: ‘love sometimes grows as we peel onions or knead dough’.

In the West we enjoy an abundance of food unimaginable to previous generations. The Malthusian theory of supply not keeping pace with population growth has been disproved by giant strides in preservation, transportation, and agriculture itself. Reliance on finite energy sources required to keep the wheels in motion does cause concern, but for now humans produce more than enough for their needs. Where famine still occurs it is linked to inequalities built into the mechanisms for distributing food, as Amartya Sen persuasively argues [1981]. While the number of malnourished standing at over nine hundred million is unacceptable, a billion are overweight.

Kaufmann examines the impact of material progress on the routines and rituals attending food consumption and preparation in France. He reveals widespread confusion over what constitutes a ‘healthy’ diet, and an awkward adjustment to the changing role of women and the presence of new machines.

His findings are based on insights into the lives of twenty-two people subjected to his ‘comprehensive interview method’. The participants, with names like Babette and Paule-Dauphine, are obviously French, but their outlooks do not differ significantly from what one might expect in a British sample. Indeed, it may come as a surprise to learn that nowadays in France half of all once-sacred dinners are enjoyed devant la télé.

A Woman’s Place

Women have been assigned the role of domestic cooks in most societies since the advent of agriculture. But following the Industrial Revolution, as great numbers of them took up jobs outside the home, less time was available for household chores, among them the preparation of food. Further, the distracted urban meal became a more hurried, functional affair than the measured rural equivalent.

Research by R. H. Campbell [1966] into diets in Scotland at the beginning of the twentieth century reveals a shift from a healthy rural diet of oats mixed with milk to a nutritionally deficient urban one of bread and butter with tea. Contemporary investigators concerned by the health implications, with typical Victorian condescension toward the lower orders, attributed the transition to laziness on the part of housewives. Long hours of toil serve as a more reasonable explanation. Moreover, convenient industrial alternatives like store-bought bread were now affordable, while onceexotic sugar was fast becoming a staple, especially mixed with tea, or small quantities of fruit to form jam. Remarkably, by 1900 sugar, the quintessential fast food, formed nearly one fifth of an average British person’s calorific intake [Mintz, 1985]. Slow cooking did not appeal to the typical proletarian housewife exhausted by long working hours and so the ‘clanship of porridge’ gave way to the efficiency of sliced bread. British culinary skills have never quite recovered. France maintained a far stronger attachment to the gastronomic arts as a result of its high status among the wealthy and because most women in this largely rural society, where universal suffrage was not granted until after World War II, did not work outside the home.

Among the bourgeois, in Britain as elsewhere, women were usually not expected to work, and even if many domestic tasks were performed by hired help, the family was still expected to sit together and endure the occasionally tedious ritual of meals that fastened family ties. In the absence of machines like the microwave, freezer or fridge, separate meals could not easily be prepared for a fussy member. Dietary individuality was actively discouraged, and children were expected to eat what was put in front of them.

Culinary skills handed down from generation to generation remained intact, even if the cook was not always a family member. However, beginning in post-war America (per Kaufmann) ‘culinary arts and the pleasures of the table were discredited … in the name of an ethic of rapid simplicity based solely on food chemistry, [and] cookery became less diverse and more standardised.’ With women’s collective refusal ‘to obey their mother[s’] injunction to take on the sacrificial role’ the era of ready meals and fast food was upon us.

However, Kaufmann’s statistics show how, far from having succeeded in breaking the domestic chains, women still perform most of the household chores. Among inhabitants of the European Union ironing is performed by a miniscule one to three per cent of men living with female partners. Similarly in only one European Union relationship in ten does the male partner perform day-to-day cooking. Women are still, overwhelmingly, the home-makers. Kaufmann, referring to an idea of ‘infra conscious schemata’ – anathema to feminists – explains this as a selfless injunction ‘born of a deep and indefinable desire that encourages her to cook without pausing to ask why. She is cooking for love.’

Brave New World

Kaufmann observes: ‘Thanks to the fridge the eater-consumer becomes a law unto himself.’ In the vast majority of households refrigeration allows for a huge diversity of potential meals while a freezer extends the range further. With the addition of a microwave the vista is seemingly limitless, if, that is, one is content with a diet lacking in fresh ingredients.

Gone are the days of one pot to feed all. It is not only a matter of different tastes emerging between generations but a variety of diets too that have to be catered for in each household, starting with the vegetarian of various hues, but also including weight-loss diets such as the Cretan that Kaufmann encounters in an amusing episode. More worryingly, he contends that autonomy from domestic constraints facilitates the emergence of eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia.

A family meal in these circumstances is necessarily more fractured, with individual members going their own way and perhaps eating alone. Of course we should not rush to judgement: breaking free from a stultifying family environment may be liberating.

Kaufmann displays ambivalence towards the presence of the television at meal time: ‘Being caught up in whatever is on television does not necessarily mean that meals are no longer an important family occasion’, adding that ‘the awkward silences of the past have been replaced by the sound of the television.’ His apparent tolerance for a medium that exercises a gravitational pull on the attention of those around it is surprising. With the television flicked into action, conversation – the life-blood of any memorable meal – is beholden to the generally banal progress of external events and storylines. Moreover, with the increasing presence of laptops and hand-held devices there is a danger of technological saturation: if parents watch television as they eat, then their kids might argue, reasonably, that they should be allowed to play video games.

Another development to which Kaufmann pays attention is the fluctuating fortune of the dining table which he contends is ‘descended from the sacrificial altars that were used to make offerings to the gods’. He argues that its presence in the family home, dating back roughly to the eighteenth century, helped to produce the modern family, and certainly the arrangement, often hierarchically and in designated positions, of family members around a single table achieves a sense of togetherness that haphazard seating around a room will never achieve. He also interestingly observes that almost all single people dislike having a dining table in the middle of a room ‘because it is the most potent symbol of the close link between families and meals’.

The implication for the family meal of another technological advance, that of widespread motor car ownership, is, however, surprisingly ignored by Kaufmann. Quite apart from the fact that it is now increasingly the location of meals (nineteen percent in the case of the United States), it makes possible the undertaking of the weekly ‘big shop’ allowing the fridge and freezer to be crammed with comestibles for all tastes. We can also ‘pop out’ for something, perhaps fast food, at short notice.

Nutritional Mantras

The ‘cacophony’ of the present ‘ambient dietary discourse’ observed by Kaufmann will be recognisable to British readers. Since BSE the bowels of tabloid newsrooms have rumbled in giddy anticipation of the next food scare, while the broadsheets cater to a seemingly insatiable appetite for health and nutritional studies generally unmediated by informed criticism. Kaufmann observes that much seemingly objective scientific advice has already been filtered by institutions such as the state’s health service, the consumer movement and industry, ‘all of which have their own interests and their own points of view’. With mixed messages so prevalent he observes that nutritionists ‘are regularly surprised to find that there is a discrepancy between the opinions of consumers who claim to be well informed and their actual practices, which take little notice of the advice they have been given’.

Nutrition is also confused with other corporeal aspirations. For example, prevailing notions on how to lose weight, even those unconnected to eating disorders, can collide with the balanced diet conventionally advocated. Since the popularity of the ‘Atkins Diet’ it has become axiomatic to link a ‘low-carb’ diet with weight loss, but this contradicts the long-established food pyramid which situates carbohydrate-rich grains, vegetables and fruit at its base and most high fat, protein-rich foods towards the narrower peak.

Following World Health Organisation recommendations in 1990 the NHS attempted to simplify its nutritional guidelines in 2003 with a campaign advocating the consumption of five pieces of fruit and vegetables per day – a marketing campaign that sees food in purely nutritional terms. So, the claim on a can of Heinz Spaghetti Hoops or Ravioli Beef that it constitutes one of ‘Your Five a Day’ advantages a processed and environmentallyunfriendly product over a plain, unpackaged carrot that observes a dignified silence. Michael Pollan’s advice largely to avoid products that make health claims and to ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants’ [2007] seems a more sensible approach than the nebulous and limited notion of ‘five a day’.

A more profound engagement with food is called for which emphasises cookery skills, provenance, environmental impact and the importance of communal sharing. Indeed the latter social engagement could even have health implications. Pollan suggests that the French Paradox – a low incidence of coronary disease in spite of a diet high in saturated fats – is connected to the pleasure drawn from dining among family and friends. Moreover, a focus on mealtime discourages the snacking that bedevils many a Western diet. However, as Kaufmann shows, the French have cause for concern too as perfidious Anglo-Saxon norms encroach.

Come Together

Kaufmann observes that ‘the data from the survey allowed me to confirm that there is a very close relationship between families and meals’; and just ‘as meals helped to make the family when it was effervescent, they loosen the bond once they degenerate into something that is just routine’. Moreover, his prognosis for the cohesion of the communal meal, and thus the family, is bleak: ‘the trend towards greater personal autonomy is turning all our societies upside-down, and there is no way of reversing [it]’. Overall, his argument is persuasive and made credible by reference to anecdotes from the survey.

However, he perhaps attaches too much importance to the often patriarchal family arrangement in which men were excused from most domestic chores, and where a rigid conformity held sway. Women should not be made to feel guilty for failing to do their ‘duty’ as Kaufmann’s analysis might appear to suggest. If many ladies are seeking fulfilment elsewhere men should take up the slack, and not simply use cookery as an occasion for dazzling diners with their creativity, a masculine tendency observed by Kaufmann.

Further, routine cookery for a communal group need not be performed exclusively in that domain. After all, according to Kaufmann, the present notion of the family is relatively recent in its conception and we should be optimistic that new social structures will emerge to take its place in the event of a decline.

In dealing with the present nutritional cacophony it is important for national health authorities to refrain from over-simplification. If we are just taking on board our ‘five a day’ it makes no difference whether this occurs alone in front of a television or among family or friends. By reducing eating to the mere satisfaction of physiological requirements the communal meal assumes less significance and the convenience of the fridge comes into its own. Communal dining provides a social gathering where the distractions of the world are set aside, and an intense engagement occurs that could even have health benefits. If we facilitate this interaction, according to Kaufmann, not only are we cooking, we are also making love.

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