Vittles 6.14 - The Labour of Cooking

Cooking for Labour, Cooking for Love, by Lindsey Danis

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The first line of Richard Olney’s ‘Ten Vineyard Lunches’ starts “Every meal is a celebration”. I dug out a dog-eared copy to read last night and was struck by how idyllic this world that Olney lived in was, how he might have been one of the few person on earth who had found a food system that worked for them. He spends the first paragraph dismantling the need for the book — he’s writing about ten meals that could conceivably take place in ten vineyards across France, but he admits that actually the most important parts of the meal are the quality of the light, the air, having the same elements tending the vegetables and the fruits and scenting the vinegar. As Marge Simpson would say “it’s true, but he shouldn’t say it”. How many of us can replicate this at home? How many of us get to live a life where “every meal is a celebration”?

In one of my favourite essays by Mayukh Sen, Survival Food, Sen redefines the food film — traditionally a genre that has used vernacular of lurid food shots, of excess, of trying to induce a taste or sensation of hunger through sumptuous visuals. But in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Sen says “food is not a vehicle for pleasure. Food is a means for survival, a daily task carrying her over from one day to the next. It’s not a hobby.” What defines the old guard of food films is not the idea that people eat for pleasure, but they cook for it: Babette in Babette’s Feast (a servant whose only wish is to cook one great meal), Primo in Big Night, the father in Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. One director who understood this distinction was Luis Buñuel — in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a group of friends repeatedly get interrupted while trying to enjoy a fine dinner, to increasingly comic effect, but no one is ever seen cooking. In each case, the meal has cooked as labour, prepared by house servants or restaurants, unseen and invisible, while the friends attempt to satiate their gluttony. Like in an older Buñuel film, The Exterminating Angel (which starts with a group eating a grand meal and ends in them debasing themselves to survive) gourmandism and the desire for good food is turned into something repulsive, something that delineates the boundary between the obscenely rich and powerful and those who serve them.

I think you can loosely describe the two pandemic experiences as ‘cooking for love’ and ‘cooking for labour’, which is the theme of today’s newsletter by American writer Lindsey Danis. Some of us, especially those of us in the food world furloughed from our jobs, have had the chance to cook for love. Maybe for the first time. Meanwhile many people have simply cooked as a means for survival. What would it take to move the latter category to the former? “A lot”, is the answer, but there are always small salves. I’m heartened by the news of Ruby Tandoh’s new cookbook ‘Cook As You Are’, which seems like the complete opposite of Olney’s ‘Ten Vineyard Lunches’. Whereas Olney starts at the idea that you have the wine, the butcher, the garden, maybe even a vineyard of your own, Tandoh will start at the idea that you don’t, and aims to make the pleasure of cooking accessible to those who have previously only cooked to survive.

We need more cookbooks like this — like with food films we have long privileged one category at the expense of the other. “Our most perceptive food films remind us that those appetites have boundaries.” Sen argues. When he says this he is making the same point about our most perceptive food writing too.

Cooking for Labour, Cooking for Love, by Lindsey Danis

People who love cooking are sometimes warned not to pursue it as a career. Cooking professionally – dunking the eleventh batch of fries in a fryer, or creaming butter for the special house cookie that’s made fresh every day – takes the joy out of it, they say. The opposite happened to me: I fell in love with cooking after I started working in kitchens. It was only once I’d left the industry that cooking became a chore.  

Halfway through my MFA in fiction, I came to the realisation that I would graduate with no set career options. Cooking was my backup plan – an enjoyable way to make a living that would leave me time to write. It was also hard. Riding my bicycle five miles to work at 5 a.m., before the Sunday buses started; up to my elbows mixing two hotel pans’ worth of chocolate bread pudding, the signature dessert at the bougie café where I worked; balancing graduate school and a full-time job with catering work on weekends for extra cash. 

After I caught the cooking bug, around six months into my new career, it stopped feeling like work. Soon I was staging (essentially, working for free) at the best place in town on my day off. Pouring through cookbooks. Starting a food blog. Scarfing down Kitchen Confidential, Ruth Reichl’s memoirs, Claudia Fleming’s cult cookbook The Last Course

Unlike writing, this job could get me somewhere. A career path was clear: you cooked until you’d amassed enough knowledge to be a chef; you cheffed for others until you had the capital or fame to open your own place.

I moved to the Bay Area and got a part-time job at a bakery that let me bake whatever I wanted out of the freshest, organic stone fruit. I got full-time restaurant jobs at places that would eventually go out of business and at others that would go on to win Michelin stars. I worked six days a week, fourteen hours a day, subsisting on coffee, cake scraps and one proper meal. I was so wrapped up in the joy of learning, growing and feeling connected that it didn’t feel like a hardship. It was love.

Now I feel dizzy horror mixed with respect for the person I was, capable of working so hard on so little sleep for under $15 an hour. How did I do it? Why did I do it? Why did I keep at it for so long, and give up on what I’d supposedly wanted in the process? 

Like many young cooks, I did it because I thought I had to. There was no shortcut to being a good cook. Mastery of techniques came from repetition and ‘paying our dues’ by accepting the atrocious hours or the bad behaviour rampant in the industry. And the lack of benefits, breaks or living wages. Kitchen culture was, and still is, predominantly masculine. Complaints would have fallen on deaf ears at best, or marked you as weak at worst.

In the 2008 recession I lost all my cooking jobs, as dining out became a luxury. I clung to the love of cooking for some time after that, but eventually I had to put it down. It hurt too much. Since then, I’ve been overworked and time-pressed outside of the kitchen, working and writing from home. Cooking has turned into one more daily duty performed at the margins of a stretched-thin life. Like many people, I had to cook but I also didn’t want to cook. I kept digging for a way to make peace with my dilemma. I tried calling friends or listening to podcasts or watching webinars while I cooked. I hoped that if I gave myself an external focus, it wouldn’t feel like a chore. It still felt like work, whether I distracted myself or cooked my own sheet pan supper. While I cook, I tongue the question of who gets to cook as a luxury hobby and who cooks out of necessity, where pleasure is incidental. Is cooking luxury or labour, or a bit of both worlds? And for whom? 

Americans spent 0.59 hours per day on food prep and cleanup in 2018, according to the American Time Use Survey. Accounting for those who have the luxury to eat out once or twice a day, what can you prepare and clean up in half an hour across breakfast, lunch and dinner? Boxed mac and cheese. Bagged salads. Convenience stuff, where the work’s already done for you. It’s easy to blame a fast food culture but perhaps the people who are cooking and cleaning in half an hour may not know how to actually cook a meal from scratch – from raw ingredients, that is. Others may have the skills and inclination for something more complex only to lack the time to prepare it. When I worked those long days in the kitchen, I survived on pasta and cheese quesadillas. Filling, cheap, easy to prepare – this is how most Americans live, unless we outsource our cooking.

Convenience devices, like the Instant Pot, stand in opposition to the hobby cook, for whom cooking is part of their identity. The more complex and fussy the food project, the better. Hobby cooks are rich in time or money or both. They can buy the latest gadget or master a technique. They can spend all day brewing a batch of beer or tending to meat on the smoker. The cost in time and money is irrelevant. You don’t have to be a hobby enthusiast to love cooking, but no one who’s ever pondered how to stretch meals using a bag of dried beans cooks exclusively for love. Those with time freedom tend to control the food narrative – the romanticised, bloated and stale narrative about single-ingredient perfection. Those who cook for labour tend to be too busy to create their own stories.

When coronavirus hit, the majority of my freelance work dried up. I had no idea when work would pick up or whether I’d qualify for any financial relief. Economic necessity simplified my mental load: I had to cook, every day. It was the safest, cheapest option. How I felt about it was beside the point. I cooked the same foods during the pandemic as I had done before. With more time on my hands, I added in projects I’d have left for a weekend, like making ricotta for stuffed shells or homemade steamed buns. In this way, cooking became an event at a time when so much else was off-limits. Making dinner gave me a mental break from the stress of the news. As cooking got me out of my brain and back in tune with my body, I remembered what I loved about it in the first place. 

Cooking, for me, has never been about fancy chefs or fine dining restaurants. It was never even about feeding people. Working back of the house, I never watched people eat the food I made. For me, cooking has always been about paying attention, over time, to the little things that go unnoticed. The quality of heavy cream in winter, gone yellow from the hay. The faintly floral, grassy smell of summer milk. The sound of dairy just before a boil. The slow thickening of custard, stirred continuously until it clings to a wooden spoon. The transformation of ingredients, through time and technique, into food. How that food made me feel nourished, soothed, warmed from within. 

When the pandemic hit the US, not only did the cheaper staples vanish from store shelves, but flour and yeast became impossible to find. Suddenly everyone was baking bread and starting a sourdough culture. Left with the luxury of time and few ways to fill it, more of my fellow Americans than I’d imagined became curious about cooking. As such, 2020 will most likely be the year we all baked a few loaves of bread, then retired our domestic mantles post-pandemic. But I hope we realise and carry forward the self-sufficiency (and sometimes joy) in knowing how to feed ourselves.

In a time of food scarcity, home cooking is finding new appreciation. It might not seem like much, but a shift in perception catalysed by the pandemic is perhaps the necessary groundwork for more individuals to connect with the joy of cooking – not just now but more permanently. If we don’t want to cook for ourselves, we expect a cornucopia of food options to satisfy our every craving. Restaurateurs have been subsidising their costs in a few ways – keeping wages low; passing labour costs off to diners by relying on predatory tipped wages for front-of-house workers; marking up drinks or desserts, where profit margins lie. Yet the costs of labour, food and rent keep rising. As Gabrielle Hamilton wrote, the pressures restaurateurs face in trying to eke out a profit amid rising costs and services that cut into profit margins, like third-party delivery, leave many pessimistic about the industry’s future. It’s not unreasonable to question what responsibility we consumers should shoulder to make the industries that feed us function sustainably and for mutual gain. Cheap food has been subsidised for too long. If we want our cornucopia of food options, we need to stomach our share of the price hikes for living wages and benefits for hospitality workers. We need to acknowledge that a potential consequence of ordering delivery through an app that takes 20-35 percent of the restaurant’s profits, rather than phoning in an order or visiting in person, is that our favourite burger place won’t be there next time we get a craving. 

Work is central to the ‘American Dream’ and individual identity, but wages have been stagnant for my entire lifetime. We feel as though if we just worked harder, or put aside more money, we’d be fine. The reality is that essential work is undervalued and underpaid, forcing workers to juggle multiple jobs, gigs and side hustles while pretending as if it’s all fine. Raising the minimum wage is helpful but not enough if we want to address the shortcomings of late-stage capitalism, racial bias, predatory student lending, healthcare for profit or a public education system in crisis. These are a few of the factors that contribute to the income disparities that keep many Americans labouring for long hours, with little time for leisure activities or discretionary income for meals out, which often makes the necessity of daily cooking feel like a chore.

Amid the pandemic, policies like universal basic income have found new appreciation. Collective care, as seen in the rise of mutual aid circles, gets groceries and hot meals into the homes of those who need it. Taking pride in the small things we can do well to care for ourselves and our families reduces the bitterness of coping with a system stacked against our success. However, it is only when meaningful policy shift seems possible that the equation of who cooks for labour versus who cooks for love may change for good. 

Lindsey Danis is a writer living in the Hudson Valley, whose writing has appeared in Brain Mill Press Voices, ROVA, Taproot, and Food+City, among other places. You can find her past work on her website. She is currently working on a novel.

The illustrations were done by Natasha Phang-Lee. You can find more of her work over at Lindsey and Natasha were both paid for their contributions to this newsletter.