Cooking with Others, Learning with our Bodies

by 

Courtesy of https://fabioparasecoli.com/blog/.
Courtesy of https://fabioparasecoli.com/blog/.

I am not a chef. I am just a moderately proficient homecook (you can check what I cook on my Instagram account @fparasecoli) I have not been to culinary school (although maybe… at some point…). I have never gone through any kind of formal process to learn about techniques, ingredients, or whole dishes. I have never been that good at following written recipes either: I scan them quickly, and then I do what seems right to me, based on my experience, my preferences, and my skills.

Nevertheless, I like cooking (and eating). At the end of a long day, if I have time I make one simple dish, just one, but enough to relax and focus my mind and body away from work and towards feeding myself and others. I fully realize I am very lucky to enjoy the luxury of cooking. I have time (I only work one job, and not a physically demanding one), resources (I can afford buying good quality, fresh food), and an overall positive relationship to food. I do not have a large family to cook for, and if I do not feel like making anything I can go out or order in. Care-giving is not an obligation. Spending time in the kitchen is a choice, and a pleasurable one. I am fully aware that’s privilege. Not everybody is in the same position, and it would be unfair to consider meal preparation – day in, day out – as morally or culturally superior. Or necessary to be a loving family member, or a good citizen.

My personal history explains a lot. My mother would often have people over for Sunday meals. And I don’t mean two or three. My sisters and I were asked to do small kitchen chores as children: beating the egg whites to a foam, peeling almonds, and such. I remember I felt very proud the first time I was asked to make the battuto for the Sunday tomato sauce. Using a sharp knife, I would turn a piece of cured pork fat, rosemary, garlic, and pepper, into a soft paste. As we became more independent, my sisters and I learned how to cook more and more, often under the remote guidance of my mother. When I was a teenager and stayed in Rome by myself while my parents were away on vacation. I would invite friends over and feed them dishes that I had seen my mother cook but I had never tried myself until then. At times i would read of exotic recipes, and try them out, figuring out ingredients and preparations. Once I made a meat stew with bananas and peanuts that I had read somewhere was typical in South America (where is South America was beyond my interest, at that time). When I was in London to improve my English, my landlady would make rice with coconut and shrimp, which she had learned from a Sri Lankan friend of hers. It seemed the epitome of adventurousness, at the time.

Whatever I made, however, was based on the movements, the smells, the flavors I had grown up with, mostly standing at my mother’s stove. It was not just about verbal guidance. It was rather the an immersion in the sensory environment of the kitchen, with its material objects and tools, the way they felt in my hand and needed to be used; the scents and sounds; the visual cues; the affective involvement in making sure that I was doing a good job. What is the right consistency of cookie dough? What does it have to feel like to the fingers so that it can bake properly? What is the smell that signals that the cookie is just right, not undercooked or slightly charred? What are the sounds that a tomato sauce makes, allowing us to know when it has reached the desired texture? Can we hear when the sauce has simmered too long, without waiting for the smell of burned food? As much as we can learn from recipes in the media (videos, podcasts, written texts) and as much as visual support may be useful in achieving a good result, the physical experience that it necessary to fully master a dish cannot be replaced.

In my experience, culinary memories and skills are profoundly embodied, as they relate to the sensory environment in which food preparation and consumption take place. They are also shared experiences, as the way we filter and understand what we cook depends on cultural and social frameworks, on relationships and personal connections (these are not always positives ones, of course, when learning how to cook is an imposition or a taxing duty for which one gets no recognition). Every time I am in my mother’s kitchen, even when I am not cooking myself but just chatting while she or others cook, I can’t help observing what’s in the pots and whether the dishes smell right. I am always happy to volunteer myself to taste anything. Over time, I have become able to embrace the same open attitude and to absorb embodied knowledge regardless who I cook with – friends, professional chefs, or just people in whose kitchen I happen to be. And I keep on learning, especially when I travel. I doubt I will ever stop.

For more on Fabio’s work, see: https://fabioparasecoli.com/blog/