Friday, November 25, 2005

The Transcendental Qualities of Cooking

Yesterday morning, I read this post by Richard Lawrence Cohen. It's very moving, an honest essay about the nature of his family, and his resulting feelings about success and failure in work (among other things). It's the kind of post some readers will immediately identify with, having blinding insights about their own families.

I am not one of those readers. My family is not anything like RLC's - thank God. But I had a blinding flash nonetheless.

RLC introduces a concept he gleaned from a book of folklore, that of instrumental life vs. transcendent life. The author of the book states that most people (RLC's family being the exception) live most of their lives instrumentally - doing what they do to live - but reserve a part of their lives for transcendent activity. This could be anything that makes your life a little bit better - anything inherently aspirational. For some, it's reading and bettering their minds. For some, it's perfecting their bodies. For some, it's decorating their homes.

For me, it's cooking.

The other day, I wrote about the role cooking plays in my life, and in the lives of other people who love to cook. It's an interesting topic to think about, and one that I happen to know firsthand many companies research extensively. There's tension around cooking, in part because it's something that everybody does, but not everybody does it the same way.

For many people, cooking is a chore - a burden. For some, it's a labor of love. And for some, it's much more personal, almost selfish. I am in the last group. Cooking is inherently a part of the instrumental life - it is literally something humans must do to survive. But for me, it's so, so much more than that. It's aspirational, even when I'm screwing it up. As I put together a beautiful, hopefully delicious meal, I subconsciously (or maybe consciously, since I'm writing about it) raise expectations for myself, and for those I'm cooking for. I strive to become worthy of the meal I create.

People like me are in the minority - we're a smallish segment of the entire population (this I know based on my aforementioned firsthand experience with the research.) Often, I think, we're misunderstood. People who don't feel this way about cooking just can't imagine why we'd rather cook all the food for a party of 100, when we could just have it catered.

But I also think that our kind might be growing. The culture of celebrity chef these days suggests that there's at least a sizable group of people who'd like to be foodies, even if they're not quite there yet. I know I'm not the only one out there who hopes to morph into Barefoot.

Mmmm...a little philosophy does help post-Thanksgiving turkey-and-oyster withdrawal, huh?

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