Cooking: the last household art?


I like to cook. I also like learning the science and history of cooking. If you’re like me, you enjoy reading sections of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking when you have questions like, “What’s the deal with cauliflower?”, and you get excited when archaeologists recently learned that bread baking vastly predates agriculture.

One of the appealing things about cooking is that you’re doing chemistry right at home. You experiment, you craft. And you’re doing something that other people do better —there’s certainly a better chef out there somewhere— but that’s somehow OK, because eating what a chef makes is probably not really that healthy or affordable.

This has made me think of other household arts that have been outsourced. I say “arts” because many types of household labor has been outsourced in the process of job specialization and the movement away from agrarianism. I am impressed by the stories from my fiancee’s family about how the farmers in the family grew everything they ate, with the exceptions of speciality products like olive oil and cheese. There was a time in human history when every human alive only used things that they had made themselves, but we’ve been trading speciality products over long distances for a surprisingly long time.

I’m thinking about “arts” as separate from those things we buy and grow. Entertainment is the obvious example. Before there were record players, if you wanted to hear music at home, you had to make music yourself. It’s still the case that people like to play music, but most of us accept listening to recorded music as a substitute. Before there were sizes in mass-produced clothes, someone in the house needed to modify clothes to fit, and they would need to be decorated by hand as well.

I think it’s interesting that cooking has not yet become like music. If you want to eat well, you have to prepare your own food.

Let me now go on without recognizing the role of the patriarchy in all this: when I say “yourself” or “someone in the home”, this is talking a lot about women’s work, and all the uncompensated work done by women, a trend that persists to this day. Child-bearing and -rearing is the best example of this: reproduction is the most fundamental requirement of our society and it is assigned a monetary value very close to zero.

But back to food. Isn’t it a little crazy that most of us have a source of heat, electric or honest-to-god fire, in our homes? Most studio apartments don’t have a built-in music-maker or a workshop. Being able to cook for yourself, to pursue this household art, is nearly as essential as a toilet and a bed.

When will this art be made obsolete, so that cooking is a talent in the same way that playing a musical instrument is? It’s also fun to think backward: what was college like before record players? To dance, you had to go to the music hall. If you wanted music and you couldn’t go out, you had better hope you had a friend who could play music, or you would just have to sing. Gaudeamus igitur, a 700-year-old Latin university drinking song, is now used as a formal graduation hymn. At what time in the future will a university president have to solemnly cook an egg to celebrate an occasion?