In recent years it’s become increasingly common for authors to pepper their works of fiction with recipes, and historically many novelists have used elaborate dining scenes to convey their characters’ status, politics, and social mores. But as Adam Gopnik argues in this week’s New Yorker, authors who use food preparation as a “background action”—say, having a character “idly make a bouillabaisse while [he broods] on modern life”—fail to really understand the process of cooking:
[H]ere, I suspect, lies the difficulty with using cooking as the stock for the stream-of-consciousness stew: It is that the act of cooking is an escape from consciousness—the nearest thing that the non-spiritual modern man and woman have to Zen meditation; its effect is to reduce us to a state of absolute awareness, where we are here now of necessity. You can’t cook with the news on and still listen to it, any more than you can write with the news on and still listen to it. You can cook with music, or talk radio, on, and drift in and out. What you can’t do is think and cook, because cooking takes the place of thought. (You can daydream and cook, but you can’t advance a chain of sustained reflections.)
Gopnik makes many other seemingly unrelated, haphazard points in the piece, and like Ed Levine I’m not entirely sure what Gopnik is ultimately trying to say. But the idea of cooking as an escape from consciousness is worth thinking about. It’s true that it’s difficult to come up with any coherent theories about the world while kneading bread or keeping your eye on two pots and a sauté pan—at least it’s hard for me. I find my thoughts descending into a rhythmic, childlike patter (beat the eggs, melt the butter, whisk the batter). Still, I’d never say they weren’t thoughts—but perhaps I’m not enough of a Zen master chef for the process to be completely beyond my conscious mind.