The Meaning of Cooking

September 9, 2010

Jean-Claude Kaufmann, a sociologist at the Sorbonne, is a prolific writer; he has published at least 10 books in French (it's hard to keep count) since 2001 alone. A few of them have recently appeared in English: The Single Woman and the Fairytale Prince (2008); Gripes: The Little Quarrels of Couples (2009); and Sex@mour (2010), all under the Polity imprint.

Kaufmann is a micro-sociologist and a student of the practice of everyday life. His work is rooted in that of Emile Durkheim, Norbert Elias, Pierre Bourdieu and Michel de Certeau, and is similar in spirit to that of Zygmunt Bauman. But Kaufmann goes about his work in his own way, doing sensitive micro-studies of small groups of individuals, and making very concrete what would otherwise be rather abstract points about the nature of social life today.

We live in "liquid modernity" now, Kaufmann agrees with Bauman. This means that everyday life has been individualised; life is in fragments, social groups have been atomised, traditions dissolved, and our cohesion with one another has become fluid rather than solid, transitory rather than permanent. But that also means that everyday life is reflexive. We all operate today as artists of our own lives, and we do so self-consciously, negotiating the gaps between ourselves and others, and between our hopes and expectations and our realities. When Kaufmann studies his sample subjects, he studies their artistry in this sense, and the creative strategies through which they attempt to defy the fragmentation all around them.

The Meaning of Cooking first appeared in French half a decade ago, with a different title: Casseroles, amour et crises or "Saucepans, Love and Crises". That title conveys much more of the flavour (as it were) of the book. It is a study of the family meal today, or what remains of it, and the role the family cook plays in making the meal serve its social functions.

There is love in the family meal, but always in the midst of crises. Individualised ready-meals and the cacophony of advertising about food products, including fast food and junk food; confusing and contradictory helpings of nutritional advice from the media and their experts; busy and competing schedules among family members, especially in homes where the mother works full time and the children are highly active; the atomising allure of television programmes, computer screens and gadgets; the collapse of consensus about what constitutes a good meal, or about what culinary traditions ought to be followed and what dishes ought to be served; the worship of individualism in taste as in everything else; the increasing popularity of eating away from the dinner table, with meals on trays - all these things and more have undermined the community of the family meal. And this, it should be noted, is in France.

Kaufmann has looked at sociological literature from the rest of the world, but the harried family cooks he has personally studied in a series of interviews, most of them women, are all people who still understand that food is, or is supposed to be, a passion that everyone in the society needs to cultivate and share.

Kaufmann performs his study with the care not of a social statistician but a literary critic, or even a psychotherapist. He is a stickler for nuance and ambiguity and even for a kind of hermeneutics of suspicion. He knows that his subjects frequently lie to him, just as they frequently lie to themselves. But he is almost excruciatingly sympathetic to their trials and tribulations. He asks, with deep and generous understanding, what is it that family cooks do when they plan a meal, and then cook, serve and join in consuming it? What are they looking for? What do they find?

Unfortunately, it seems that most of his subjects are not very happy, even if they cling to their passions, their memories of the tradition of the family meal, their love for family members, and their enthusiasm for cooking and fine food. Life is a struggle today, and that makes the effort of the cook and the ritual of the meal a struggle too. To cook for a family today is to attempt the impossible, and to defy social fragmentation through a passion for pleasure. And yet sometimes, even so, the cook succeeds, and all her family members along with her.

The Meaning of Cooking

By Jean-Claude Kaufmann. Translated by David Macey. Polity Press. 280pp, £55.00 and £17.99. ISBN 9780745646909 and 5646916. Published 4 June 2010

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