I own a lot of cooking utensils. Not cooking gadgets like blenders, mixers, egg poachers, and stuff like that, but basic kitchen implements. I have three ladles, a few tongs, a number of slotted and solid serving spoons, spatulas, scrapers, and scoops. Like many people who use their kitchens—or who want guests to think we use our kitchens—I keep my preferred utensils on display. Mine are stashed in a round metal bin between the coffee maker and the paper towels, all their poly-lineate heads erect and agog. In no small sense, I take pride and comfort in my kitchen utensils.
I have a large wooden spoon, so flat it can’t actually spoon anything, for sautéing. I have a trowel-nosed serving scoop with a voluptuous bowl I use for pasta sauces. I even have a pasta-thingy—a slotted spoon with gentle dentition along the edge—specifically for serving noodles. My utensils represent who I am as a cook and as an eater. These long-handled doodads reflect my most common methods of preparation and offer a window in the foods I most frequently consume. I know, somewhere to my left, as I work over the range, I can grab the tool I’ve chosen for the job I’m doing. My rapport with my whatnots goes beyond mise en place. Though there is some of that at work for sure: when I can’t find the right scraper for my cornbread batter I feel my whole process arrested. My utensils and I have a highly human relationship—one based on utilitarian goals, symbiotic methods, and both a rational and emotional connection. As control of fire and methods of cooking separate humans from beasts, so does an exquisite array of kitchen paraphernalia separate savage, primitive, and soulless eaters from suave and sage sous chefs. I offer the low-brow spork and the array of utensils at a sophisticated table as evidence of this slob versus sophisticate dynamic.
Though I’ve never attended a Pampered Chef party (and likely never will) when I find an order form lying on the break table at work, I flip through the catalogue with the same eager fancy I once reserved for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The connection between scantily clad models and kitchen utensils isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. Something about kitchen gadgetry appeals to my man-brain. Through tools I can consort with, coerce, even conquer my food. And if I have the right tool, I can do it better than the next guy.
So, imagine my surprise when, last week, I eschewed my spoons, scoops, scrapers, spatulas, stirrers, and just went for it with my bare hands. I was trying out a new recipe—lamb-stuffed eggplant—and somehow needed to get about a pound of ground lamb, browned with sautéed onions, spices, and nuts; onto baked eggplant halves. The procedure seemed straight-forward enough. I reached for a spoon, dug into the lamb and attempted to top the aubergines. I failed. The fattiness of the lamb, the instability of the eggplant, and the weight of the spoon, all conspired against me. I ended up with lamb in the baking dish, on the countertop, on the floor, everywhere but nestled where it should be: on the eggplant. A second, more cautious attempt yielded no better results. The photos in the cookbook showed beautiful and savory mounds of lamb well within the margins of purple skin, a beautiful off white flesh border accenting the darker colors of the dish. My casserole dish looked like the bottom of lemur cage. My stovetop and kitchen linoleum not much better. Frustrated with the inefficacy of my trusted spoon, I remembered my Anthony Bourdain and just grabbed a wad of meat with my bare hand and piled it on the Solanaceae. Well, okay. It wasn’t that easy. Before I stuck my mitt into that pan of cooked meat I had a brief but paradigm-quaking identity crisis.
We don’t touch food with our hands. I’m not sure where picked up this prohibition. It makes no logical sense. I eat most of my food by hand—sandwiches, burgers, pizza, burritos, fruit, scones; on any given day I’m sure I pack more food into may face by hand than via all other utensils combined. I also have no trouble handling raw food. I worked as a meat cutter and fish gutter, after all. I don’t get squicked out by blood or viscera. I’m not one of those people who cringes at the insides of a pumpkin when making a jack o’lantern. But for some reason some part of my moral and ethical self balked at reaching a bare hand into a pan of sautéed meat and veg. This “self” had not communed with my rational and logical self, who just fifteen minutes ago had its bare hands all over the ground lamb and onions in their raw—and arguably more dangerous—states.
There was something about putting my hands “in” the food, prepared food, that felt vulgar, lewd, dishonest, almost like sneaking a peak down the just-a-bit-too-open collar of a female co-worker or lingering too long over the Cosmo cover at the grocery store checkout. Touching that lamb was something I learned I should be ashamed of. Deciding to handle it required me to confront the arbitrary Puritanism of my upbringing. Fortunately, my rational brain won out over my religious indoctrination.
The decision was the right one, not just on a utilitarian level: it was much easier to get the meat into place with my hands than with a spoon and I didn’t spill a bit, but on a moral and ethical level as well. Cooking is a sensual experience and getting over the ickiness I felt at touching the food I was preparing to put in my body, in others’ bodies, helped me appreciate, Romanticize, and even engage with my food on an intimate level. In both a figurative and literal way, touching food with my hands was a carnal experience.
Last weekend, foodie godfather Michael Pollan sat down with Lynne Rossetto Kasper on The Splendid Table to promote his new book, Cooked. He argued “Western culture…devalue[s] the physical senses and elevate[s] the eye and the…. But the senses of taste, smell and touch have been considered in the whole tradition of Western philosophy and literature to be lower…. Cooking traffick[s] in those lower senses. It [is] stuff you [can] taste and smell…. We look down on those activities that both animals and we like to do; eating is one and sex is another. So puritanism ha[s] trouble with both those things because they [are] base and physical.” Both Kasper and Pollan agree these base and physical things: sex and eating, are fun. They’re right.
Food is not only sexy, it’s sex. In order to be a good lover, you can’t let yourself be put off by intimacy; you have to be willing to hands dirty. The same is true for cooks. If you can’t touch it, you shouldn’t try it. If you’re not willing to stick your fingers in the food, why expect people to be willing to stick your food in their faces?
Topping those eggplants with warm lamb and onions is an emotional first time for me—a big deal. I’m not willing to toss out all those nifty gadgets and tools, not yet anyway, but I look forward to my next chance to get my hands dirty.