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.

Getting Jiggy with it

When I first read Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Tool Chest I really wanted to like it. Instead, I found myself arguing with it constantly, not because it is filled with bad advice (it’s tremendous advice, actually) but because of its libertarian posturing. Following most of his strictures closely, one would either have to become a collector of vintage tools or a boutique consumer of specialized products. It always struck me a bit like the big Mercedes SUV’s one sees all over Ithaca with “save the whales” or “go green” stickers on the back.

I suppose I wanted to either love or hate the book, and in the end I just couldn’t. I learned from it instead. I learned a lot, though I confess to using Shinwa sliding bevels over  Vesper tools.

I built the old-school joiner’s tool chest he describes. I originally thought that I’d use it to store kitchen supplies and tools in, believe it or not, because I already have several mechanic’s tool chests, including a full on rolling cabinet (not pictured here). What I found was that this tool changed the way I work, and changed the efficiency of my shop much as he described it would. I figured out that it was far too big to use in the kitchen, so I might as well use it somewhere, right? I still want to take a “workshop” approach to kitchen storage, but that’s a story for another day.

I loved using this box so much that I never bothered to take the time to paint it or finish it in any way. As you can see from the picture, the rolling tool cart and small chest next to it are a total mess. Nothing put away, crap just laid everywhere, etc. In contrast, using this chest I almost automatically put my tools away. No mean feat, when you’re as big of a slob as I am. In fact, I’ve become such a convert to traditional tool chests that my next project may be to build one of the Dutch small chests to go next to the big chest, to replace the mess here—so that I can move the mechanic’s chest and cart where it belongs, into the garage.

The trick is that the traditional chest isn’t just a box to put stuff in, it’s a jig that promotes efficient work habits. Schwarz knew that, and I suspect a lot of people who have built them have figured it out too.

Yesterday, I was remembering Matthew Crawford’s discussion of jigs and decided to revisit the book. I never took the time to do reading notes for it, and I keep wanting to do that since I read it in January. Today won’t be the day I start that; I’m still wrestling with a larger octopus. Funny how thinking and writing about kitchens and houses can send you straight back to the shop.

Crawford notes that his definition for “jig” is adapted from “The Intelligent Use of Space” by David Kirsh, and recommends it strongly. This paper, published in the journal Artificial Intelligence in 1995 makes distinct claims about the way that experts function in the world:

  1. The agents we observe are experts, or near experts, at their tasks, despite these tasks often being everyday tasks.
  2. Experts regularly find that enough information is available locally to make choices without having to plan on-line, using conscious analytical processes.
  3. Experts help to ensure that they have enough information locally by partially jigging or informationally structuring the environment as they go along.
  4. The human environments of action we shall be examining, the equipment and surfaces that comprise each workspace, are pre-structured in important ways to help compensate for limitations in processing power and memory.

Crawford doesn’t cite this directly, but using it allows him to argue that a cook in the kitchen structures his environment in such a way to facilitate the tasks he needs to perform. It’s a spatial usage of the term “jig” that is quite powerful when trying to explain how we negotiate the world as agents of change. Following Kirsh’s sources lead me to Philip Agre, who made even more explicit claims about the structure of the world implied by this mode of thought.

In his doctoral thesis from 1988, “The Dynamic Structure of Everyday Life,” Agre summarizes the historical thinking on negotiating everyday life, which he calls “the planning view,” in this way:

If an agent’s activity has a certain organization, that is solely because the agent constructs and deploys a symbolic representation of that activity, namely a plan.

Everyday activity is fundamentally planned; contingency is a marginal phenomenon.

An agent conducts its everyday activity entirely by constructing and deploying plans.

The world is fundamentally hostile. Life is a series of problems to be solved (11)

As an alternative (and a way of breaking through problems in the development in artificial intelligence) Agre proposes “the situated view” thusly:

Everyday life has an orderliness, coherence, and laws of change that are not the product of any representation of them.

Everyday activity is almost entirely routine, even when something novel is happening.

Everyday activity is fundamentally improvised; contingency is the central phenomenon.

An agent conducts its everyday activity by continually re-deciding what to do.

The world is fundamentally benign. Life is a fabric of familiar activities. (11)

In the universe Agre constructs, a plan is simply one possibility among many others in negotiating any activity. The world has an order and coherence independent, and unaffected by symbolic representations. We improvise our way through, depending on what happens. Thus, as Kirsh builds from this, jigging is introduced to control in a limited way the possibilities inherent in a given situation. Jigs either afford or constrain  outcomes in any given set of contingent circumstances.

In the case of my floor tool chest, I put things back most likely because it’s simply the most direct and logical thing to do. I can’t really balance them on the surface of the chest, as I tend to do with the mechanics chest. To put things back inside drawers as you go is counter-intuitive, because drawers do not afford easy access in the same way that trays do. What seems really attractive about my future dutch tool chest plans is the way it can constrain behavior as well;  one really can’t pile anything on top of the sloped lid, or its mating surfaces, the way you can in a mechanic’s chest.

Crawford uses and explains the technical terms affordance and constraint (taken from the visual theories of Jerome Gibson) admirably. From a practical standpoint, Chris Schwarz does a great job with toolboxes, workbenches, and tools in general; the only real complaint I have is the lack of a richer discussion of potential theories as to why they work the way that they do, e.g. what are the particular affordances and constraints of tools, jigs, and fixtures? To be fair, he does (like any good tool reviewer) discuss the good parts and bad parts of particular classes of tools, but he doesn’t do so in anything approaching a consistent fashion.

In the run-up to the release of The Anarchist’s Design Book, Schwarz claims to only have feelings about craft while standing at his bench, rather than when writing. I don’t see that working leads to any sort of feelings that might be symbolically represented, so I suppose he’s essentially justified in his evasion of discussing them.

I’m too busy dealing with contingencies in my shop to have anything remotely resembling feelings, theories, or plans. I do, however, develop theories regarding the best way to jig things to achieve some level of success, before I enter the workshop; I have a lot of feelings and theories in that aspect and I don’t understand why Schwarz insists on being anti-intellectual and evasive in that regard.

My favorite discovery through all this reading is the distinct possibility that “The world is fundamentally benign. Life is a fabric of familiar activities”—this sure beats the idea of a canned response to a hostile world.

Without theories of the everyday world, our understanding of intelligence (either human or machine) is impoverished, and sometimes the simplest theories are the most powerful.