Anita's been watching Master Chef. It's a captivating show. There are a couple other cooking shows out there right now, but there's something so much more gripping about this one. I think the difference is that it's all amateur cooks. The contestants are teachers and truck drivers and office workers. They come to cooking as children, through caring for a loved one, or as a lost art that is satisfying and centering, to fill a need in their life. They are seeking validation, or respite from routine, or they dream of making it big. They are nervous and unsure of themselves and so in awe of the food-celebrity judges that they can't keep from saying out loud, 'I can't believe Gordon Ramsey is eating my food'. Some plead with the judges to give them a chance, they make foolish promises like a man who's life is endangered, desperate in prayer. Some are so nervous they drop dishes and leave out ingredients. Some try to look cocky, as if they deserve to be here. Some cook down-home traditional dishes that you might find at the church picnic; others try to emulate what they've seen in magazines – the white rectangular tray, simple, upturned edges, the three carefully crafted morsels, sauce artfully drizzled across it all, something expensive ground over the top just to know it's there. These aren't professional chefs. They all dream of leaving their job and opening a small restaurant, and this show is going to be their soap box and their stage.
The show has all the great focus-group-tested reality TV show cinematics: The dramatic camera angles and ADHD cuts, a tension-heightening Friday the 13th synthesizer soundtrack, the unpredictable emotional swings from overt cruelty to effusive validation on behalf of the judges, the commercial breaks timed just so - cut away as an eyebrow is being raised and Gordon Ramsey's lips are parting to pronounce the final decision – causing you to yell out at the screen and declare your prediction.
The contestants are real people, and they lay their stories and their emotions on the line. You find yourself allying with those whose stories you identify with – the man who cooks for his bed-ridden wife, the gorilla-sized construction worker who has a heart of gold and a velvet palate, the soccer mom who sacrificed a career to have children and finds salvation in her cooking - and castigating the ones you think are too smug, or who've had it too easy, smirking as the judges cut them down. Forget, for a moment, the assumed role of the judges as abusive parent, giving or withholding love, as well as the pervasive suggestion that validation and self-worth must come through fame, experts, always from outside and always from above. Try to ignore the squirmy vulnerability the contestants offer to up to the judges like a sacrifice. This isn't what I want to write about. This is just to say that what the show does, it does well, and what that says about our culture, well...
What is interesting to me is that this show represents a radical return on our part to value, and even esteem, home work as a culture. This show, more so than the others because it features amateurs, is working to restore dignity to the idea of cooking for oneself and one's family. Home cooking has been in a kind of Limbo since the middle of last century, when the ready availability of chemical fertilizers, the enormous agricultural subsidies, the consolidation of small farms, and the advent of Food Science gave us an unprecedented new option for the dinner table: per-packaged, brand-name food. No longer did Mom have to slave all day in kitchen cooking with whole foods, canning and preserving for winter, baking and making everything from scratch. Now Mom was free to be a consumer like Dad, to join the work force, and, a decade or two later, to break from the tyranny of male-domination, and the drudgery and undesirable performance of uncompensated home work, like cooking and cleaning. Packaged food was quick, easy, cheap, and allowed women (and men) to spend less time preparing food and more time pursuing a fulfilling life of consumerism. Money and time that previously went toward food and cooking now shifted toward technology, gadgets. Fortunes were made, all in the name of choice and freedom. Where did this leave home work, specifically cooking, as a cultural institution? Somewhere between a chore and a waste of time.
In The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, Wendell Berry characterizes the pernicious change in American culture over the last century primarily as a change in our approach to agriculture. He laments the culture that has been lost with the small family farm. Berry sees food as a “cultural product” and the land as something that needs to be integrated into our everyday lives in order to be stewarded appropriately. Berry laments the loss of rural culture and the societal values that have disintegrated as farms have become fewer, larger, and more mechanized, and as more people live apart from the land, more isolated from the environment, their home and their work. The following is an extended quote discussing how this shift has affected the role of woman in our culture. I include it not so much to discuss gender roles as to emphasize the change in the nature of home work and cooking (although, of course, the two are historically indistinguishable).
But the assignment to women of a kind of work that was thought both onerous and trivial was only the beginning of their exploitation. As the persons exclusively in charge of the tasks of nurture, women often came into sole charge of the household budget; they became family purchasing agents. The time of the household barterer was past. Kitchens were now run on a cash economy. Women had become customers, a fact not long wasted on the salesmen, who saw that in these women they had customers of a new and most promising kind. The modern housewife was isolated from her husband, from her school-age children, and from other women. She was saddled with work from which much of the skill, hence much of the dignity, had been withdrawn, and which she herself was less and less able to consider important. She did not know what her husband did at work, or after work, and she knew that her life was passing in his regardlessness and in his absence. Such a woman was ripe for a sales talk: this was the great commercial insight of modern times. Such a woman must be told – or subtly made to understand – that she must not be a drudge, that she must not let her work affect her looks, that she must not become “unattractive,” that she must always be fresh, cheerful, young, shapely, and pretty. All her sexual and mortal fears would thus be given voice, and she would be made to reach for money. What was implied was always the question that a certain bank finally asked outright in a billboard advertisement: “Is your husband losing interest?”
Motivated no longer by practical needs, but by loneliness and fear, women began to identify themselves by what they bought rather than by what they did. They bought labor-saving devices which worked, as most modern machines have tended to work, to devalue or replace the skills of those who used them. They bought manufactured foods, which did likewise. They bought any product that offered to lighten the burdens of housework, to be “kind to the hands,” or to endear one to one's husband. And they furnished their houses, as they made up their faces and selected clothes, neither by custom nor invention, but by the suggestion of articles and advertisements in “women's magazines.” Thus housewifery, once a complex discipline acknowledged to be one of the bases of culture and economy, was reduced to the exercise of purchasing power.... As housekeeping became simpler,and easier, it also became more boring. A woman's work became less accomplished and less satisfying. It became easier for her to believe that what she did was not important. And this heightened her anxiety and made her even more avid and even less discriminating as a consumer. The cure not only preserved the disease, it compounded it.
And, in case you're wondering what happened to the men:
There was, of course, a complementary development in the minds of men, but there is less to say about it. The man's mind was not simplified by a degenerative process, but by a kind of coup: as soon as he separated working and living and began to work away from home, the practical considerations of the household were excerpted from his mind all at once.
In modern marriage, then, what was once a difference of work became a division of work. And in this division the household was destroyed as a practical bond between husband and wife. It was no longer a condition, but only a place. It was no longer a circumstance that required, dignified, and rewarded the enactment of mutual dependence, but the site of mutual estrangement. Home became a place for the husband to go when he was not working or amusing himself. It was the place where the wife was held in servitude. (pg. 114-115)
From there, Berry goes on to discuss how this division of work has served to break the bonds of the marriage relationship by removing practical reasons to be together, leaving only sex and the glossy love of fairy tales, which both become idealizations that no one can ever live up to. For him, the separation from the land - from the growing and processing of food – has led to the destruction of the everyday, practical tasks that bond a couple together, and rippled out into the larger culture from there, affecting everything from how we work to how we live to how we spend our money and how we see our selves. If one accepts the premise that something important has been lost that progress has not adequately replaced, this comes to seem like a serious, damning, and congenital flaw in how we live.
As Berry points out, “But then it must be asked if we can remove cultural value from one part of our lives without destroying it also in the other parts.”
This is a question of quality to me. It requires a conscious choice today to do that which will enrich our lives and not to take the default option. Perhaps it has always seemed like this to conscientious people throughout history, but I would imagine the difficulty inherent in making this choice can only be compounded by the absolute omnipresence and finely-honed genius of our marketing and advertising culture. At no time in history have we had a more nuanced knowledge of what is effective in influencing our decisions, nor more labor and resources directed toward affecting how we make those decisions. No wonder it's become commonplace in our culture to downplay the importance of the home and home work. We are drawn out seeking a cartoon version of the good life for every conceivable need that can be packaged, sold, consumed and yet unsated. It takes a feat of great individuality and a strong stroke to swim against this current.
Or at least that's how I've always thought of it, thought of myself - as striking out, making decisions based on my own reasoning, staying true to my principles. Now I wonder if culture does the same, in a way that's just as subtle and nuanced as the economic forces that have led to its disintegration. Economics (and capitalism) are soulless, after all. They are merely rules and forces that control play. At the bottom of it all, there has to be genuine human emotion and desire driving the action. Maybe enough people have gotten sick of bad food and alienation, maybe we're starting to realize that we do value using our hands, having a multifaceted sensory experience of world and personal agency beyond the convenience of purchasing something ready-made. And, hey, isn't there a market in there somewhere? Well, I guess that brings us back to Master Chef.
I try to be positive about the world, because I think you create your reality. The decisions we make literally compose and influence what happens in the world. How could they not? In terms of being positive, this means we choose how we see the world, and in what light we interpret it, but the idea can be applied in so many other ways. Financially, for instance. The most exciting thing for me about shows like Master Chef is that they actively promote the idea of quality in life. They suggest that there is a clear difference in levels of quality, that it's desirable to seek quality things, and that this is a worthwhile way to live. I'm excited to envision a whole generation of people pulling out the old Joy of Cooking, blowing off the dust and dead flies, and trying to reconstruct grandma's casserole recipe. I think it's important to cook for ourselves and to cook with whole foods. More so than in any other facet of life, I think it's especially important to purchase good food and support the economies that produce it. To me, this means sustainable, organic food cultivated in a way that treats the land, the animals, and the workers well. This is one of the small things that we need. I think its effect will be slow and subtle, its roots feeling down into the cracks in the foundation of our culture. I can think of no better place to start the work of reshaping society than in the kitchen.