The Pathos of Cooking

by Ann Summers | September 1, 2010 4:13 pm

Romance, comfort, grief — food triggers emotions in all of us

If we agree that cooking is a method of persuasion, of dialogue, then we can explore the formal Aristotelian components of persuasion — ethos, logos and pathos — to reveal how cooking forms and informs our relationships. In cooking, ethos means translating character through food, and speaks to history and tradition, and the relationship of food to us, us to food. The logos of cooking is the exactitude and knowledge of what we are doing with or to the ingredients. For the third part of my series, let us now delve into the pathos of cooking, or the emotional upwelling associated with food — something most cooks and diners know all too well.

All of us, no matter how poor the food or fabulous the chef, have been subjected to at least one meal where drama, emotion and pent-up aggression came pouring out like cheap beer at a fraternity kegger. Surely one of the very first hominids, some five or so millions years ago, weathered a matriarchal fit in the family cave when someone paid more attention to his buddies than to his loving mate’s spit-roasted wombat. Someone’s drunken relative has, no doubt, made something slimy out of grease and raw dough, and with little care for taste-buds made sure everyone ate the abomination. Some of us might never be able to stomach Yorkshire pudding again.

Still others have fallen short of enjoying a relatively pleasant meal because of the endless and anxious interruptions of the cook waiting to second-guess and question every morsel of food on the table. “I put in too much salt. Not enough sugar. It’s a little soggy. Is it too spicy? Not spicy enough? I overcooked it, didn’t I?” The suffering diner becomes more willing to chuck the full plate at the cook than eat it.

There are arguments and the earth-shattering announcements saved for the dinner table, too, where acting out is more fun with a captive audience. Starting a fight at the onset of the evening meal gets everyone’s attention. But it all comes back to the old Feng Shui principle that says bad energy is transferred to the food. Put more simply: angry cooks and strung-out diners make for bad eating.

These emotional insults to food discourage people from eating together, and perhaps even prevent them from eating altogether. Maybe the folks who still eat together, and are supposedly closer as families, do so as a cause and not a result. In other words, they mediate their disputes elsewhere, and let everyone eat in peace. Is it true? Lots of talking, laughing and a little eating — plus a few compliments to the chef — and we get happy, healthy diners? Well, why not? If we prepare food with love and come to the table with joy, we nurture in a much deeper fashion. Doing otherwise is like bringing smart phones and excessive gas into a yoga session.


Comfort Food

Good food made with love is the ultimate gift. That’s love, not hovering co-dependency. Think of biscuits and scones, chocolate covered chocolate biscotti, fried chicken, duck and cornbread sage-dressing, chicken almond curries, bison burgers, braised lamb shanks, pork with rosemary and apples. Think of gravy, or pancakes, or rice in clear chicken broth. Made with love and served with grace and generosity, these are the soul healers, cures for the blues, staunches for remorse, and remedies for broken hearts. Given freely and greeted with respect, these foods can revive us like a glass of water after a day of Ramadan fasting.

Romantic Food

No one wants to eat fried chicken and then reach past a distended stomach for one’s amour, smearing them with salty grease. Well, except for in a bad 80’s movie. Romantic cooking is about lightness and playfulness. Cupid demands flavor but not much substance. Imagine steamed mussels, garlic grilled shrimp, oysters (always de rigueur), seared scallops, poached trout and salmon, grass-fed beef tartare, sweet and sour soup with Thai spring rolls, or if you know your Hamachi, sushi. But not too much. If on the town, exorbitantly priced date food is a pitiful display of over-compensation, but a nice quiet place with tasty food is an easy recipe for continued passions.

Sociable Food

Someone once said: “The only thing worse than not eating good food is eating it by yourself.” And what brings us together more than a picnic? Or a potluck? Or a ball-game barbecue? A party? Or a holiday feast? Pile on the homemade goodies, but hold the incessant fussing, the treasured family recipes that no one eats, and the number of things that must be done just so because they have always been done that way and no one even knows why anymore. If you think on it, no one really cares about Great Aunt Filbert’s sacred pumpkin roll recipe, or your triumph over the Ancient East-Anglian Four-Day Turkey Ordeal.

They just want to get together, tell bad jokes and eat. Offering to open a vein and sacrifice yourself on the altar of barbecue perfection never impresses or pleases anyone, and they would much rather have you present and laughing over a glass of wine than covered in ash and meat drippings, cussing your uncooperative grill. But don’t be thinking you’ll just nip out to the wholesale club and get a bucket of gluey pre-fried wings to drown in sauce. Your diners deserve some part of you, just not the whole corpse. Choose something simple and make it ahead. If your meal plan balloons, be creative, call in reinforcements or buy something from someone who knows how to cook. At the very least, change your menu and place your own joy and that of your guests ahead of your ego.

Solitary Food

There have been gourmets, the great Elizabeth David among them, who prefer to keep some foods to themselves — and there are certainly times when salivating over a perfect Macintosh apple or the ultimate crispy fried okra is something we’d rather not be seen doing. As long as it doesn’t translate into auto-erotic bingeing and lead to health problems, there is nothing amiss with opening a can of smoked kippers, levering them onto a crunchy baguette, dressing them with too much Dijon mustard, and polishing off the entire thing with black tea so strong it makes your eyes water. I’ve never known anyone to do this, mind you, I’m just saying it’s OK. Some foods call for socially boisterous consumption, while others beg for contemplative reverence. Allow yourself both.

Grief Food

Whether from loss of love or loss of a loved one, grief has never been nor ever will be fixed with food. There are opposing attitudes to loss, ranging from W.H. Auden’s stopping of all the clocks self-immolation to the reeling potato-and-single-malt-stained hiccup of an Irish wake. Whether the bereaved feel like eating now or not, they will eventually be hungry, and food must appear in front of them even though they may cry into it. To provide food for the grieving is a civil and moral duty, in the form of casseroles or soups and fresh bread or fruit pies. Pray we all have someone willing to return the favor when we grieve.

Everyday Food

Not to be underestimated are the regular old, day-to-day, pyramidal nutrition or five-food-group meals that sustain us for another school or work day, football game or swim-meet. From the bottom of our empty, rumbling stomachs, we must bless the tireless and bighearted souls who feed us. Hats off to before- and-after-school openers of juice boxes and cheese sticks for little people whose hands are too clumsy to manage them. Kudos to moms, dads and grandfolks who plough through cookbooks and grocery aisles each week simply to complete the often unrewarding task of providing calories and (hopefully) nutrition to those that depend on them. Hurrah for chefs, line cooks and dishwashers who help make food when we just can’t face it. My grandmother cooked for a huge gaggle of children in south Arkansas, and fed the tenant and paid farm hands as well — even though she was just as poor as they were. She made biscuits, dumplings and greens every day out of practically nothing, and no one knew what it cost her. So, three cheers for everyone who opens a package, peels a carrot, boils water and turns on a stove when they’d really rather just sit down.

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