Esquire’s “Eat Like a Man” blog features John Mariani confidently contending that cooking is a craft, never an art.
Thus, imagination and creativity go into cooking, often at a very high level, at which point it is called haute cuisine. But there is nothing that rises to the level of true art in a craft whose very existence depends on the constant replication of a dish, night after night, week after week.
The occasion for Mariani’s diatribe against culinary art is a new book which consists mainly of pictures of:
…cooks’ hands putting the final touches on dishes — a periwinkle on tapioca, a dot of sauce on octopus, a blow torch used on cactus pads.
Given the venue, I suppose the subtext here is that real men don’t eat fiddly foods topped with periwinkles, when the carcasses of large-boned animals can be slathered with Q-sauce and washed down with a pitcher of Bud Light for a fraction of the price.
Subtext aside, Mariani’s arguments are interesting in much the same way a speech by Newt Gingrich is interesting—one shivers in anticipation of impending collapse when bluster is so perilously perched on non-sequitur. So it is worth unpacking the arguments if only for the spectacle.
With a healthy dose of charity, I can discern 5 arguments in Mariani’s piece:
(1) Cooking requires the constant replication of a dish and is thus inherently a reproduction; works of art are unique.
(2) Cooking is science-based and thus cannot be an art
(3) Art can be ugly, troubling, or repulsive; food by contrast cannot be deliberately distasteful.
(4) In cooking, form must follow function. Thus, cooks must make guests happy and this often requires simplicity and making things “taste like what they are”. In art, (by implication) form is not bound to function, simplicity is not a virtue, and art is essentially about creatively modifying the object being represented, not showing it as it is.
(5) What is typically called culinary art involves extravagant display or adding decorative flourishes to traditional ingredients. This is not art because (by implication) art is not about decoration or extravagance.
There is too much misunderstanding of both cooking and the arts to reply in one blog post. So I will take up these arguments in separate posts over the next week or so.
But his first argument that individual dishes are reproductions and thus cannot be original works is simple nonsense. Copies of paintings are indeed mere reproductions, not original works. A print of the Mona Lisa is not a work of art because painting is an autographic art—only the painter can directly cause the work to exist, and there can be only one legitimate instance of it. But many arts are allographic—copies of an original are genuine instances of the original. My copy of Hamlet is a work of art even though it is a duplication of the original. CD’s by Springsteen or performances of Beethoven are instances of works of art despite the fact they are reproductions.
Cooking is similarly allographic. Individual dishes are instances of a recipe just as a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is an instance of its score. So the fact that line cooks churn out 25 copies of a dish in no way shows that cooking is not an art–unless Mariani is prepared to claim Beethoven and Shakespeare are mere craftsmen.