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Cooking is Alchemy

21 September 2003

The art of cooking is looked upon by our culture as anything from mundane to high art, but what is most often overlooked is that the act of cooking is both chemical and alchemical in nature. Chemically, we are taking elements and molecules in particular states and configurations, applying heat and kinetic energy in particular amounts at particular timings, enacting chemical and biological workings on these materials, and thereby transforming the starting materials into a final altered state. Alchemically, we are transforming life, organized in multivarious facets, either while still living, or while no longer living, through the actions of force, will and nature, into an aesthetic experience as well as a sustenance that feeds life once again. In cooking, we transform base materials into something with meaning, significance. If food had only the meaning of sustaining our bodies, we would probably eat grain and raw vegetables and animal flesh, and be done with it. Instead, food travels with us through all of our signficant religious, personal and social events, our casual gatherings, and every day involves decisions we make that are a vital component to our family experience and self-expression.

Though, ironically, most of what we do to food is merely being custodians of forces that are created and maintained exterior to our own personal being and will. Force of atoms of a knife against flesh, heat generated from fire or electrical resistance, the chemical reactions between materials, and the biological reactions between cells. We are, at base, out of control of the process — we merely set the dominoes up and push the first over to work their gravitational inevitablility.
I think in more ancient times, we had a better understanding of what food meant to our families and tribes. The preparation of food was an expression of our freedom from the world of nature — we would change things by and for our wills, not just graze grass from the field as our lesser beings. We bake bread using biology and chemistry to change a base food material into something more nutritious and more available to our bodily absorptive processes. We break bread for social connection and personal identity. And with the cooking of the food, the presentation. and with the presentation, the accompaning rituals — lighting of candles, saying of blessings. The inviting of guests into our homes for a meal is a strongly meaningful gesture.
However, in our current days of fast food and convenience packaging, drive-through coffee shops and bulk packaging of processed meals, we seem to have lost not only our sense of meaning around preparing food, but also the signficance of the gathering, the time taken to eat and process. As we consome our food, we also are consuming experience, aesthetic and social. we share bread and we share our stories. Drive-thru meals don’t allow room for the process. Instead, we are refilling our bellies as we refill our tanks on our cars, with high-octane high-calorie easily packaged food pellets, quickly purchased, consumed and forgotten in our fast-paced travel to do what seems to really matter — work, business, activity while we spin our wheels through life, never stopping to take a look around, and at ourselves.
We need to return to a simpler time, when cooking was done at home, with the family, with love and care, for these are the ingredients we need most in our lives, in all their aspects. We are what we eat, after all.

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