Monday, August 20, 2007

How To Proceed?

We've carved out a fairly monumental task for ourselves, to analyze the whole of worldwide cuisine in an attempt to get at some common, underlying ideas. Of necessity we're going to need some sort of a framework, some way to extract order from the vast, glorious chaos that we call "cooking". A daunting task, to be sure, but not insurmountable.

Fortunately for us the art of cookery is a very physical discipline. It dwells not in a world of Platonic ideals but rather in the grubby reality of processes and foodstuffs. This intrinsic physicality is going to be of great help to us as we seek to impose a little bit of order on our glorious chaos.

Cooking, being a physical process, starts with what exists and, through the application of various techniques, produces a new product. This is the lowest common denominator, an immutable rule that all cultures must respect. It also serves as the basis of our organizational framework: if cooking is an art of transformation and composition then it can be best understood by looking at inputs and transformative processes. Or, in plain English, by looking at what ingredients are available and what you do with them once you have them.

To understand how this approach works let's return to the humble sandwich. A sandwich is a composite product, featuring a bread-ish product filled with something. Before one can make a sandwich one must have first made the bread and the filling. This deconstruction can be followed back to the fields and pastures: before one can make the bread one must first have flour, before there can be flour there must first be grain, etc.

So this journey is going to start with the fundaments of cooking, raw ingredients, and proceed from there. Raw ingredients are treated in various ways, combined (or not) with other ingredients and, through routes direct and circuitous, end up as a dish which is consumed. But just as interesting as the dishes themselves are the conditions under which they are consumed: which other dishes are present, who is eating them, and why. In the end we will have examined not only the foods which make up a meal, but the form of the meal itself, hopefully making us better cooks in the process.

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