Julia’s Kitchen

Julia Childs

Until the last year or so, I was completely unfamiliar with Julia Child. My only real exposure to cooking shows was Martin Yan —”If Yan can cook, so can you!” I managed to make a fairly decent lo mein twenty or thirty years ago from that. Modern cooking programs do very little for me. The whole “cooking challenge” nonsense that seems to dominate these days really leaves me cold, and haven’t found much in the genre that really excited me.

I had thought, until I started watching (perhaps due to her screechy patrician voice), that Julia Child was too precious for me. Besides, I had never (as far as I knew) eaten French cooking, so my interest in the subject was low. But I couldn’t have been more wrong about Julia.

One of the best tangents that Witold Rybczynski triggered for me lately was the Walker Museums “design anatomy” issue on her kitchen from 1977. Julia’s kitchen was a habitation that just screams “I am alive!”

julia-jacques500I’ve been watching Julia Child videos for the last year or so, and Jacques Pepin too. What’s different about them from most of the cooking shows out there is that they present an environment that is not hostile or competitive, an environment where everything is simple and possible.

Cooking is about being alive, and celebrating life—not winning prizes or celebrating rare ingredients or techniques. It’s all very average and normal—the opposite of precious. Part of what makes this possible is the environment in which it is enacted, the kitchen.

Building on the essay by David Kirsh I linked previously, Matthew Crawford describes the kitchen as a jig deployed by an expert in an interesting way:

A physical jig reduces the degrees of physical freedom a person must contend with. By seeding the environment with attention-getting objects (such as a knife left in a certain spot) or arranging the environment to keep attention away from something (as, for example, when a dieter keeps certain foods out of easy view), a person can informationally jig it to constrain his mental degrees of freedom. The upshot is to keep action on track, according to some guiding purpose, one has to keep attention properly directed. To do this, it helps a great deal to arrange the environment accordingly, and in fact this is what is generally done by someone engaged in a skilled activity. Once we have achieved competence in the skill, we don’t routinely rely on our powers of concentration and self regulation—those higher level “executive” functions that are easily exhausted. Rather, we find ways to recruit our surroundings for the sake of achieving our purposes with a minimum expenditure of the scarce mental resources.

High level performance is then to some degree a matter of becoming well situated, let us say. When we watch a cook who is hitting his flow, we someone inhabiting the kitchen—a space for action that has in some sense become an extension of himself. (The World Outside Our Heads, 33)

This cuts to the heart of what I’m trying to figure out through my reading and research. My home, as Krista describes it, is a “co-habitat.” I would like it to be a place for skilled work in living. Wendy Hitchmough’s The Arts and Crafts Lifestyle and Design triggered a new round of research into specific rooms beyond the kitchen, but for starters, the kitchen works. In Julia’s case, it’s a workshop but it’s also a social and collaborative space.

On what would have been Julia Child’s 100th birthday, Jacques Pepin wrote a touching memoir about their relationship for the New York Times;

Julia and I started teaching together at the university. We argued on stage, stealing each other’s mise en place. We felt comfortable together, had a good rapport, a good time, and we respected each other. Our affectionate disagreements resulted in heated, opinionated discussions; we had conviction, enthusiasm and passion for our métier. This resulted in our doing a couple of three-hour PBS Specials called “Cooking in Concert,” both of which were filmed at B.U.

Eventually, these specials led to our doing a series together for PBS at Julia’s house in Cambridge. Both the series and companion cookbook were called “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home.”

I find it interesting that the sort of special spatial arrangement that Crawford was writing about, a cook’s “mise en place” is featured in Jacques memories. And in deep sympathy with the sort of situated and contingent world view that the articles about expert intelligence that the AI articles I recently mentioned, Julia and Jacques worked with no plan:

We did not follow recipes, creating them as the shows were filmed. We cooked like friends, spouses or couples do: cooking and drinking together, arguing, then sitting down and sharing the food.

Using Crawford’s framework, it seems safe to say that inhabiting a kitchen means being comfortable enough with the arrangement to admit contingency and disagreement, but also embracing the sort of synergy that comes from not being in total control of events as they unfold. It’s about having a loose sort of arrangement within a carefully specialized regimented environment that allows a maximum of creative potential. Knowing where things are enough to be comfortable, but not being so attached to a planned layout that you can’t release control and allow chance and character to enter the world.

In short, as Van Gogh would say, the kitchen and the people and tools in it should have character. The latest round of readings I’ve been doing have brought out a lot of interesting aspects to the character of various kitchens. Julia’s now resides in the Smithsonian, with good reason. Jacques is out there on Facebook, and the world will really be diminished when he’s no longer in it.

The Fall of Public Man

The Fall of Public ManRichard Sennett’s thesis in The Fall of Public Man revolves around a central presumption: a fundamental part of how humans express themselves is through play-acting. This rings so many bells with some of my prior research into visual rhetoric, especially with regard to how we interpret artifacts.

Watching a movie on PBS Independent Lens a few days ago, Chuck Norris vs. Communism, it was interesting how Romanians interpreted the western films smuggled behind the iron curtain in the 1980s as fuel for liberatory fantasies. Films that seemed downright silly to most westerners were taken up as evidence for the possibility of a better life. If Chuck Norris can do it, anyone can. Right?

It’s easy for a cultural critic to dissect every flaw and horrid notion of sexism and bourgeois suppression of the subaltern in trash media, but to see these mainstream films invoked as valuable “props” in a game of make believe made me remember John Willats.

In Art and Representation, Willats argues that pictures are most useful when they provoke those who view them to use them as “props” to trigger thought. This places them, not as symbols or “representations” that resemble their ostensible subjects, but rather more like toys that we arrange to convey our fantasies. He begins with children’s drawings, and the systems used to create them (which bear no resemblance to classical single point perspective, for example) are an integral part of the way that we interface with the world. Drawings (or photographs for that matter) do not  represent the world as much as they give us a chance to express thoughts about the world in a playful way.

Yesterday, I cited a bit of Sennett’s contention that self-absorption is a dangerous block to expression. That passage continues:

There is a relation between the question of method and the question of aborted expression. The artfulness which is squandered in self-absorption is that of playacting; playacting requires an audience of strangers to succeed, but is meaningless or even destructive among intimates. Playacting in the form of manners, conventions, and ritual gestures is the very stuff out of which public relations are formed, and from which public relations derive their emotional meaning. The more social conditions erode the public forum, the more people are routinely inhibited from exercising the ability to playact. The members of an intimate society become artists deprived of an art. These modes of playacting are “roles.” Thus, one method of making sense of the shift between public and private in modern culture would be to investigate the historical changes in these public “roles.” That is the method of this book. (28-29)

There are many potential blocks to expression. In Chuck Norris vs. Communism, the communist-controlled media feared that exposure to western films would corrupt the masses and erode the public forum, so they provided what they thought were better “role models” for the people. Government and police agencies allowed the films to circulate to a limited extent, bribed with western films for the use of themselves and their friends, because they thought the phenomenon was isolated and impacted only a few. They could still be good communists and watch the films; the films wouldn’t corrupt a “good” communist; only the masses needed to be protected. However, tens of thousands of people viewed the contraband films— everyone wants to play.

The popularity of entertainment media is one of the core points of departure in Sennett’s book. Theater in the 18th century was vastly different than today, or even from the 19th century. Chairs were placed on stage with the actors, for example, all the way up to 1762. Raucous crowds, massive in size, watched the same plays over and over (bit like people watching old VHS tapes) and interacted with the actors when they thought things weren’t quite right. Theater was a public space, not an intimate dark space filled with isolated strangers. Sennett adopts what he labels a “posthole” method, looking at narrow spans of time to be able to more easily isolate the changes across time. It isn’t comprehensive, and it doesn’t need to be.

What seems apparent, and easily verified, is that between the 18th century and now the focus has shifted between spectacle-prone performances by an emergent class of actors with varying ideas about how to communicate with the masses, and what we now look at as “texts” (Shakespeare’s plays for example), which are interpreted within circumscribed boundaries. The 18th century audience was not the passive recipient of the packaged emotions of the performer (on screen in the dark, mostly, these days) but rather participants in a public game of sorts. When the chairs came off the stage, a lot changed. The actor became the center of attention.

The social importance of the theater, particularly in the latter half of the 18th century, comes at the expense of its literary propriety though. I found this lovely snippet in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature from the early 20th century:

Though the last forty years of the eighteenth century produced few English plays of primary importance, the period is among the most interesting in the history of the national theatre. Its study shows how complex and perishable are the conditions of dramatic excellence, and explains why one of the chief glories of the English muse sank, for at least a century, beneath the level of literature.

Paradoxical as it may sound, the decay of the drama was partly due to the advance of the actor. In the days of Betterton and Barton Booth, the best player was, in a sense, an intermediary, and the attention of spectators could be held only if characters and situations appealed directly to their understanding. With the coming of Havard, Macklin, Garrick, Mrs. Clive, Spranger Barry, Foote, Yates, Mrs. Abington and King, success no longer depended on the excellence of a play. The stage began to offer a new and non-literary attraction. It was enough for the dramatist to give a “cue for passion”; he need only serve as a collaborator, as one whose work was half finished till presented by a trained performer.

The sinking of the literary muse is tied to the ascent of the sort of celebrity culture that we now find ourselves held hostage by. Looking back to the 1980s, I don’t think I’d care to celebrate Chuck Norris either. Note that in this critique 18th century plays are simply “cues for passion.” This sounds eerily like Willat’s “props for games of make believe.”

The really intriguing thing about Sennett’s thesis (thus far) for me, is that expression is the presentation of emotion. This dovetails in one particular discussion of craft from Jogge Sundqvist I transcribed a while back, which includes this bit: “the fourth wall in the creative room is about communication between people, and  art and design in traditional crafts is talking directly to the users: Use me, love me, take care of me. Because when I made it, I took care.” The objects we make, just as much as the face we present to the public, carries with it a particular presentation of emotion. Not as sentiment, per se, but in our attention to a shared sort of decorum. Sennett frames it thusly:

Suppose one person tells another about his father’s dying days in the hospital. Today the sheer recounting of the details would be enough to arouse the other person’s pity. Strong impressions minutely described are for us identical with expression. But imagine a situation or society in which the sheer reporting of the details of suffering would not signify to another person. The man recounting these moments could not merely relive them, but had to mold them, selecting some details to emphasize, suppressing others, even falsifying his report in order to fit a form or pattern which his listener understood to be what dying was all about. Under these conditions, the speaker wants to present to his hearer the death so organized in its details that it fits the picture of an event which arouses pity.  Similarly, pity is not different depending on what death we hear about; pity exists and an independent emotion, rather than varying with and, therefore, depending on each experience of it. (107-108)

The 18th century approach to sentiment, to the emotions, is profoundly different from the way that we express them now. This is evident in the elocutionary movement in rhetoric. I was shocked, as I researched it a bit, just how little rhetoricians have dealt with this intriguing cultural moment. Sennett’s book is driving me to remember a lot of things that I studied long ago, to make better sense of how emotional expression might be found both in appearances and objects. Taking care, or more precisely, communicating care, is of paramount importance in negotiating the world.

Play-acting, then, becomes a central rather than peripheral issue. Not just in the 18th century, but now.

In an interview I watched recently, Laurie Anderson described the telling of stories as our public face. They become embellished and altered, modified and simplified, until they have little resemblance to the events that invoked them. Stories, which are in a sense short “plays,” become our way of expressing ourselves through play. And we are still guilty of distorting them to conform to cultural standards.


Kamikaze Girls
I had meant to only stop for a moment on the Lévi-Strauss, but there is a part that I just can’t seem to let go of. It popped out at me again after watching a cute movie from 2006 named Kamikaze Girls. Momoko, a “Rococo Loli,” (I had no idea this was a thing) is antisocial, shunning conventional friendships, preferring to dream of a life of frills and decadence. It’s not that she’s obsessed with French culture of the Rococo period as much as she’s obsessed with the style. It occurs to me that this style, across the ages, is transmitting a message which resonates with Momoko. That’s where the Lévi-Strauss comes in.

706160 In a somewhat tortuous bit of prose in The Savage Mind, Lévi-Strauss outlines a semiotic take on the craft of the bricoleur, suggesting that the craftsman works with signs rather than concepts. In a leap along the linguistic analogy, he proposes that scientists and bricoleurs are constantly on the look out for messages. The messages collected by the craftsman/bricoleur are already transmitted in advance by “the commercial codes which are summaries of the past experience of trade and so allow any new situation to be met economically provided they are of the same class as some earlier one” (20).

So, the message received by Momoko from the French Rococo period was of use to her in meeting her present situation in some way. Given the narrative arc of the film, it makes a certain amount of sense; it seems to me that she’s looking for something genuine to latch onto while being raised by a father who made his fortune selling knock-off Versace. The decadence of two eras, mashed together in a truly bizarre fashion. Against a backdrop of cabbages and scooters, no less. No wonder the netflix robot picked it out for me.

The engineer/scientist looks for messages in a different fashion from the craftsman, “always on the look out for that other message which might be wrested from an interlocutor in spite of his reticence in pronouncing on questions whose answers have not been rehearsed” (20). Concepts are used to “open up” a contingency. The bricoleur “builds up structures by fitting together events, or rather the remains of events,” as these Japanese girls have; a human message, albeit a purely aesthetic one, feeds a culture centuries after its extinction in a diachronic chain of use and reuse. On the other axis, the engineer/scientist instead seeks to derive a synchronic structure from events. Lévi-Strauss turns to an earlier period in France to discuss the sort of messages one might get from a painting by Clouet.

Elisabeth of Austria

The painting is chosen to discuss “the very profound aesthetic emotion which is, inexplicably, aroused by the highly realistic, thread by thread reproduction of a lace collar” (22). The painting is a miniature, which  provokes Lévi-Strauss to observe that it is a case of knowledge of the whole preceding knowledge of the parts, an illusion “which gives rise to a sense of pleasure which can be aesthetic on these grounds alone” (24).  Science would have worked on a real scale, inventing a loom to reproduce the collar while art produces “an image homologous with the object,” a metaphor rather than a scientific metonym.

Lévi-Strauss makes an interesting move to break the binary opposition of science and craft while discussing this painting. He places art in the place of mediating science and craft:

For if it is true that the relation of priority between structure and event is exactly the opposite in science and ‘bricolage,’ then it is clear that art has an intermediate position from this point of view as well. Even if, as we have shown, the depiction of a lace collar in miniature demands an intimate knowledge of its morphology and technique of manufacture (and had it been a question of representation of people of animals we should have said: of anatomy and physical attitudes), but it is not just a diagram or blueprint. It manages to synthesize these intrinsic properties with properties which depend on a spatial and temporal context. (25)

This passage reminds me of a conversation about poetry I had with a professor years ago: it was his contention that poetry required a level of expertise and knowledge about everything. While it seems unlikely that a painter of figures would be as aware as a doctor when it comes to anatomy, there is a grain of truth in the idea that they may actually better observers of anatomy than doctors when it comes to the minute particulars of an individual. It’s a grasp of something more than a diagram or a blueprint, but not perhaps as fine-grained a knowledge of say, vascular anatomy. But we are speaking here of a craft product:

The final product is the lace collar exactly as it is but so that at the same time its appearance is affected by the particular perspective. This accentuates some parts and conceals others, whose existence however still influences the rest through contrast between its whiteness and the colour of the other clothes, the reflection of the pearly neck that it encircles and that of the sky on a particular day and at a particular time of day. The appearance of the lace collar is also affected by whether it indicates casual or formal dress, is worn, either new or previously used, either freshly ironed or creased by an ordinary woman or a queen, whose physiognomy confirms, contradicts or qualifies her status in a particular social class, society, part of the world and period of history . . .The painter is always mid-way between design and anecdote, and his genius consists in uniting internal and external knowledge, a ‘being’ and a ‘becoming’, in producing with his brush an object which does not exist as such and which he is nevertheless able to create on his canvas. (25)

The crux of this mediation is summed up as a balance between natural and artificial structures and natural and social events. The emotion, according to Lévi-Strauss, comes from a union between “structural order” and the order of events; in the case of the artist, it’s a contrived circumstance that makes us aware of possibilities.

What does the lace mean? Obviously, in its actuality and not just in its artistic representation, it’s a matter of its ability to sustain echoes of culture, of feelings transmitted through structures. This, I think, makes tradition not something that we should be slaves to, but something we should be attentive to in order to maximize our possibilities. Far from constraining us, tradition  affords us new universes that are not just echoes of dying cultures, but moments of feeling that keep us connected. It’s not simply the painter who is mid-way between design and anecdote; we all are.


Aerial, the ace photography pigeon

Hey gang. I’m Aerial, the ace photography pigeon. Did you know pigeons were once used to take secret pictures? They took pictures to help gather intelligence.

My family started taking secret pictures in 1903. They worked in the Bavarian Pigeon Corps. Some of my relatives worked really hard and took a lot of risks to help their country.

Me? I’m all-American, just like an eagle. And I still get up and take a few pictures with my trusty camera.

A Bird’s Eye View of CIA History — Central Intelligence Agency

Hard Times

The troubled Village Voice laid off three employees Tuesday, including Nat Hentoff, the prominent columnist who has worked for the paper since 1958, contributing opinionated columns about jazz, civil liberties and politics.

. . .“Nat Hentoff wrote liner notes for every great musician that I’ve ever loved, from Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin, and that’s not even what he’s been writing about for the last 30 years,” said Tom Robbins, a Voice staff writer.

. . . “I’m 83 and a half. You’d think they’d have let me go silently,” he said. “Fortunately, I’ve never been more productive.”

Village Voice Lays Off Nat Hentoff and 2 Others

Green is officially over

Two years ago, spurred on by a groundswell of interest in all things eco-friendly, green-related content was sprouting everywhere. For magazines, that meant a flurry of green-themed issues. But the economic downturn, coupled with cooling consumer interest, have some publishers pulling the plug on those products.

Among titles holding off on green issues in ’09 are Condé Nast’s Domino, Time Inc.’s Sunset, Mariah Media’s Outside and indy Discover. Active Interest Media’s Backpacker, already seeing the concept as tired, did not produce a second global-warming issue this year. “My sense is the idea of doing a green issue has been done so much it feels anachronistic,” said Backpacker editor Jonathan Dorn.

Green Fades to Black

I really wonder what the next trend will be? Hopefully something more stimulating than middle-class self congratulatory eco-nazism. But I suppose that there isn’t any alternative to “alternative” posturing:

“Undecided individuals are biased toward also taking the option that is more popular, and this choice becomes amplified.”

The unfortunate side effect of implementing consensus is that in a few of the trials, the fish tended the follow the less attractive model. The authors attribute “…submission to peers and occasional cascades of incorrect decisions…[to] a by-product of what is usually accurate consensus decision-making.”

Fish select leaders by consensus

“I go to meetings and all I hear is, ‘Oh my God, they just keep coming and coming,’ ” Judy VanSlyke Turk, president of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, said of the students. She added, “I’m really not sure they understand how competitive the job market is.”

Who, what, when, where and why is J-school so big?