Cooking By the Book: 1. Craft

Pierre Bonnard. Young Woman Writing (Jeune femme écrivant), 1908. Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, BF346. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

1.

At some point in college, I became obsessed with cookbooks. This obsession with cookbooks coincided with two things—first, I finally admitted to myself that I wanted to ‘become a writer,’ whatever that meant (in practice, it meant that I began taking writing workshops at Berkeley), and second, I met a man who also loved food. 

Looking back, I see that those long stretches of immersion in cookbooks, and the hours spent in markets and kitchens, represented a pressure valve, a way to relieve the anxiety generated by the admission, “I would like to become a writer.”

In those early years, when I was struggling to form an image of myself as a writer, and of writing as a craft, I fled into the kitchen because cooking brought me into the material world. It was physical, concrete. And cookbooks, even cookbooks with literary dimensions, must hew to a series of rigorous formal demands, or they will not work. While a callow and uncertain version of myself sat through all those writing workshops, presenting my work for critique with a mixture of terror and bravado, a calmer, more confident self worked through recipes in our rundown Berkeley kitchen. In the same years, I learned to write sestinas and sequence chapbooks, but I also learned to cook a Dungeness crab souffle (p. 26 of Chez Panisse Cooking) and to make my own curry pastes from scratch. I wrote in my kitchen, and cooked while I wrote. 

2.

I felt a flash of recognition when I came across these sentences in Joan Didion’s essay, “Telling Stories.” In this piece, Didion described how copywriting taught her “a kind of ease with words, a way of regarding words not as mirrors of my own inadequacy but as tools.” I had a similar revelation when I began to work as a copywriter in my twenties. Copywriting required a workman-like approach to writing. The revelation that words could be tools, and that writing could stand apart from the self, opened up, for me, a new understanding of writing as craft. Of this understanding, Didion wrote, “All of this was tonic, particularly to someone who had labored for some years under the delusion that to set two sentences side by side was to risk having the result compared widely and unfavorably to The Golden Bowl.” 

Cooking came with an added attraction: failure was obvious. I could taste it. The stakes for writing seemed higher, the criteria for judgment unclear. I had no idea how to begin answering the question, “Am I good enough?” I only knew that, in those years, should the answer have proven to be no, the devastation would have shattered the very foundations of my selfhood. That need–to be a writer–was so strong and so powerful that I also spent the better part of my twenties hiding it from the world, terrified that it would all fade if exposed to light. I crabwalked, aslant, trying on all kinds of vocations in an effort to bury–or shelter–the one that called me most strongly.

3.

Some dreams feel so deeply personal that we only become aware of their status as collective dreams long after the fact. In those years, I was only dimly aware that my personal inclinations connected, in any meaningful way, to cultural or socioeconomic trends. This struggle, to integrate the various parts of my life–the self that went about in public, visible and engaged, and the shadow self that followed, at once sheltered and protected, and hidden and obscure–this struggle felt to me stupid and singular–singular in the sense that I never spoke of it with anyone else, and no one shared kindred struggles with me–and deeply, unpleasantly solitary. It would take a decade or more for me to understand that the world had shifted beneath my feet. My failure to integrate my various selves and find footing for all of them in the world was not a personal one. All around me, immense cultural and economic shifts were taking place, many of the shifts were already underway when the Great Recession of 2008/2009 hit, and they accelerated after 2009. In 1999, it might have been farfetched to think of making a stable life in the arts, but not quite impossible. In 2019, even as art prices reached ever more hysterical heights, the idea of making a stable life in the arts seemed plausible only as the punchline to some cruel and awful joke. 

At the same time, food culture was ascendant. Early 2000s cultural commentary explored every possible aspect of food with breathless enthusiasm. Laid side by side, the nouns of the period–star chefs, chefs’ tables, foodie culture, farm-to-table dining, small-batch and artisanal food production, craft beer, heritage meat, heritage grains, tasting menus, cocktails with infusions and tinctures–betray a restless desire to make value legible, render it material and concrete. In retrospect, it became clear that I wasn’t the only one escaping into the world of food and consumption. I wasn’t the only one finding refuge in the kitchen. It was–and continues to be–a useful proxy. 

*

In those college years, though, I had no cause to divide the self yet. I was still feeling my way into my craft. I had yet to grasp, in any real way, the concept of craft. Platitudes and enconmia aside, what exactly was craft? At nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, I had no answer. On one hand, the idea of mastering a craft, of having a metier, seemed both distant and romantic, especially in the context of writing, where the hallmarks of craft mastery were not easy to discern. On the other hand, cooking, as a craft, felt legible. Cooking reminded me of my own classical training in music and dance. There were building blocks of techniques, drills, practices, fine motor skills to grasp and master, and clear penalties for mistakes. Substituting salt for sugar results in disgust. A well-made sauce is a thing of beauty. And, perhaps more importantly, it was a practical craft. I told myself, if everything else failed, I could get a job in a kitchen. I could start my own catering service. People may not need art, but they will always need three things: food, shelter, and clothing. 

4.

Well into my twenties, I held onto a romantic notion of craft. When I first read Susan J. Terrio’s Crafting the Culture and History of Chocolate, I completely missed the power dynamics and the politics surrounding the creation–and maintenance–of a modern craft tradition. I saw only beauty and romance, conditioned by culture–and marketing–to notice only the signifiers of luxury and art. I was oblivious to the dark side of craft, the connection between craft mastery and guild structures, the way that the concept of craft maintained quasi-guild conditions that tilted the playing field against the hands that plied the craft, in favor of masters and of capital. 

The younger version of myself was entranced with the possibility of living in a world where craft mattered. That younger self dreamed of a place in Terrio’s France (or, rather, my interpretation of Terrio’s France), where chocolate masters emerged out of long, grueling apprenticeships to run successful and glamorous jewel-box ateliers. I had not yet fully absorbed the concept of alienation, and imagined a wonderland where a person with craft could make a life. 

What did craft represent, to me? Mastery of the skills necessary to create new worlds out of  base materials. A sense of oneness with the work. An ability to seek–and find–joy through the exercise of that craft.

*

Rachel Kushner, by way of explaining her own genesis as a writer, describes watching P.J. Harvey play an after hours set at the Hotel Utah in San Francisco: “The show began at 1 a.m., after her show at the Warfield. I don’t know how I got invited but I went. The Hotel Utah was a tiny room–it fit maybe forty people and about half those there that night were band members and other musicians who took turns onstage, sitting in. P.J. Harvey played all night. I think I left at about five a.m. and she was still playing. She looked joyous, like a person in a church, filling her soul with Holy Spirit as she sang. She stopped only to change guitars and the entire time, she had this otherworldly glow. I was witness to an artist who wanted to play all night because she was born to do it.”

“The message I took from it,” Kushner continues, “was: to be truly great at something is the very highest joy. And by inference, I understood this: to merely witness greatness is a distant cousin, or even not related at all.”

“Just after that, I quit my job and changed my life.”

*

Kushner gets at the heart of the romanticism that I once felt towards craft and artistry. Forget the long hours of practice, the apprenticeship, those long days and nights of empty wallets and empty stomachs. This is the very highest joy. There is no other.

I would be well into my thirties before I understood what this might cost a person. I would be well into my thirties before I understood that it is one thing to be truly good at something, to be an artist, to embody greatness–and it is another thing, entirely, to have the means to ply one’s craft. Or rather, it is another thing, entirely, to have the means to be an artist and to live.

5.

In those soft, warm Berkeley afternoons, I sat and read. Piles of cookbooks, but also poetry, novels, philosophy. The best days were the early summer days, just before the fog, when the clear air was still scented with eucalyptus and jasmine. I read–and wrote, often for my workshops–until the light turned gold and the sky began deepening, and then I got up and went into the kitchen to cook.

My college boyfriend and I cooked our way through Chez Panisse Cooking together, in our apartment just up the hill from the actual Chez Panisse. It was all I wanted, until suddenly I didn’t want it anymore.

I wish I could say what turned in me. Over the years I’ve reached for different answers. I always come back to this: I wanted something more.

6.

Unlike, say, Samin Nosrat, who went to Berkeley in roughly the same years as I did, and who also studied writing with Robert Hass, and also developed a fascination with Chez Panisse, I did not have a clear vision of what I wanted, what that “something more” might turn out to be. Reading articles about Nosrat, I am struck by her clarity of purpose. A led to B led to C. This was someone who appeared to see her way all the way to Z. While I stood outside of Chez Panisse and read the daily menus, Nosrat found her way into the Chez Panisse kitchen, and from there she moved onto various other useful and well-connected positions. She gave Michael Pollan cooking classes. She pitched a bestselling cookbook. She made a popular cooking show. Whereas I always felt more comfortable on the margins, and didn’t have the same generosity of time or spirit. I always wanted to go home and work on my writing. I could only be myself for so long, and then I had to return to my shadow self. 

Call it hubris or call it radical abjection–the line between the two is fine–but I knew I wasn’t ready, yet, to call myself a writer in public. I wasn’t done with my apprenticeship, and a good distance remains between mastering one’s craft and becoming an artist.

*

For the past few years, whenever I thought of Nosrat, I felt a twinge of envy. I envied her success. I also envied her courage, her ability to see where she wanted to go. But most of all, I envied her generosity–her ability to be open, to share herself–her experiences, her life, her thoughts, her talents. 

I stopped envying Nosrat when I understood what divided us. As a writer, as an artist, I have never been generous. Nor have I sought the light. I’ve always been private, choosing to hide, rather than share, myself. This impulse to hide derives, in part, from a misguided sense of perfectionism. Everything is perpetually “not ready.” It also derives from a love of solitude. To write is to reveal the self, and exposure brings danger. Where Nosrat is generous, I am stingy, stinting with what I share. I held my work close, constructing a cave, a cocoon, where I could hide it, nurture it, protect it by obscuring it. In doing so, I made space in my life to shelter the creative self, the part of me that needed to write, the self for whom writing was akin to breathing.

I stopped envying Nosrat once I understood how–and why–I had come to live such a private life, why I had been stinting where she had been generous.

Each choice comes with costs.

Neither is easy for a woman.

*

These days I no longer flee into the kitchen, though I still do most of my writing in the kitchen. I am less concerned about judgment, less afraid of failure. I am, in short, older. 

I keep writing because I must.

More and more, though, I wonder what it might be like to join the public and private selves together. What it might be like to be more generous, and step out into the light. 


“Craft” is part of Cooking By the Book, an essay series that explores themes of reading, writing, and cooking through the lens of personal memoir. Read other essays in the series: Prologue: Cooking Lessons.

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