FX’s The Bear is, ostensibly, about a kitchen. A kitchen—The Original Beef of Chicagoland cum The Bear—inherited by the French-trained, highly-decorated Chef Carmy, who attempts to install order and structure to disruption and disarray. A kitchen that barely marshals a brigade system to deliver everything from greasy breakfast sandwiches to braised short-ribs and risotto (and desserts that I do not understand). Every day in this kitchen is chaos, caught somewhere between group therapy and a seven-alarm fire. Ultimately, The Bear’s kitchen is a space where professional identities succumb to financial maleficence, family legacies, and personal failings.
The Bear, of course, stands as a multifaceted metaphor for the uncontrolled chaos of kitchens that involves navigating the hierarchical labor of cooking, professional-family relationships, and the emo-sensational experiences of food. As Sydney, the overqualified sous-chef, surmises late in the first season, the professional kitchen is often a site of despair.
“It Would Be Weird To Work In A Restaurant And Not Completely Lose Your Mind.”–Sydney, Season 1, Episode 8
For those who have toiled in the food industry or those who have worked on the scholarship of food, these themes may appear timeless and a bit too real. At The Recipes Project, we’ve been publishing accounts on shifting understandings and approaches to food (and medicine…and magic) for more than a decade, so a great many of the themes related to kitchen struggles resonate in our archives.
Time management is no doubt critical to food production, but its historical development is relatively recent. Printed recipes of the nineteenth century paid particular attention to order and structure. Time became an important component to both meal preparation and social aspects in the kitchen. Rachel Rich’s 2013 post called “Keeping Time in the Victorian Kitchen” noted that English cookbooks prioritized timing. “The recipe contained in nineteenth-century cookbooks was more than the sum of its parts; this was not a simple collection of instructions for how to cook soups, sauces, roasts and game, it was the recipe for success.” Disrupt the timing of a recipe and a meal can be ruined. Disrupt the timing of a restaurant kitchen and, well, chaos…
Food elicits emotions, both in its production and consumption. From the joy of discovering a new dish to the rage of a poorly executed recipe, there are no shortage of emotions the culinary realm. The labors of kitchen activities have long been means to express personal conditions and reaffirm relationships. In a post from 2013 called “The ‘Emotional’ Nature of Recipes in Correspondence,” Katherine Allen highlighted familial letters focused on recipes and cooking, but also captured expressions of sympathy, hope, and desperation. Written remedies served to tie family members to their shared history and reaffirm their relationships. Emotions are critical to the process of cooking, as well. As a part of our “What is a Recipe?” series from 2017, we introduced a story-telling game focused on “Cooking with Anger.” Lisa Smith, long-time editor of the RP, posted a galvanizing original recipe called “The Terror of Chard.”
(Capriciousness, steak, and terror… Season Three of The Bear?)
But kitchens are not just spaces for production and individual experiences, they are spaces that reflect social systems and changes. Leah Astbury’s 2016 discussion “Recipes for Relationships’: Food, medicine, families and cultural engagement” stands to remind us that diets reflect communities. Through medical accounts of chocolate (a topic close to my heart, and stomach), the piece shows how food served personal, restorative roles for communities in seventeenth century England. Preparation of food as medicine, therefore, could be socially reinforcing acts that bridged households. More recently, Nikarika Tripathi reflected on how hierarchical, familial, and social systems could be manifest in food in a piece called “Unlearning Patriarchy: Flavors of Change in the Kitchen”. In the family kitchen, changing social relations can transform and enlighten and Tripathi noted a “subtle revolution” in which the “kitchen became a space where everyone’s voices were heard, preferences were respected, and contributions were celebrated.”
Ultimately, The Bear’s kitchen centers on dreams and aspirations to make brilliant food, often in spite of the cadre of conflicted chefs. And on The Recipes Project, we’ve had countless works that highlight the elevated food of the past. Here are but a few:
- Avery Blankenship, “‘A Recipe for Cooking Husbands,’ and Nineteenth-Century Joke Recipes”
- Frederick Fossey-Warren, “A ‘Recipe’ for Chocolate on a 19th Century Cup”
- Casey Mitchell, “To Make Muske Cakes”
- Marissa Nicosia, “British Beef, French Style”
- Ozoz Sohoh, “Memories of Akara and Acaraje”
While The Bear’s kitchen is a space of chaos and conflict, it is also a space where social and family bonds are negotiated amid both disgusting and sublime food. For those connected to the world of professional kitchens, the show appears to have conjured a trauma that is real to life, possibly too much so. For those of us at The Recipes Project, however, this aspect of pop culture reflects the multifaceted history of kitchens of the past.