When I read this in Michael Pollan's Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, I felt like I stumbled across the secret to everything:
In ancient Greece, the word for "cook," "butcher," and "priest" was the same -- mageiros -- and the word shares an etymological root with "magic."
Of course. Cooking is the work of priests. You materially transform living things -- plants or animals -- into food, a kind of a communion, a daily Eucharist. To eat is to literally re-create ourselves; the food becomes our own selves. Each bite, then, is at once of the earth and of the spirit. When we are cooking, we cast spells with fire and alchemy. Whether we share the meal we made with others, or honor ourselves with it, we are magicians. Our home kitchen, our church. Smoke and spices, the green things growing in the soil of our cities: these are for us, for our joy and our very making.
Over the last year, cooking has become more of a regular rhythm of my life, and I've grown to take more risks with it, rather than revolve in the same small circuit of recipes I've made for years. I have an enormous amount I'd still like to learn, but this is a great trajectory simply because I like to eat, and I like to offer good food to others -- there is nothing like a shared meal to knit community together. But, to pivot off of Pollan's work (as well as that of Mark Bittman, and countless others), cooking seems like an increasingly radical act. Cooked points out that the amount of time Americans spend preparing meals has fallen by half since the mid-sixties -- it's now at only 27 minutes per day, which is less cooking time than any people in any other nation. This downward slope corresponds with the rise in food television, books about food (Pollan's popularity included), and going to restaurants where we can watch the cooking. Cooks are famous household names. "When you consider that twenty-seven minutes is less time than it takes to watch a single episode of Top Chef or The Next Food Network Star, you realize that there are now millions of people who spend more time watching food being cooked on television than they spend actually cooking for themselves," Pollan writes.
What strange creatures we are!
Pollan's theory -- and it feels true to me -- is that this attention to cooking, even as it has come to seem like so much drudgery for many is due to our raw need for how cooking and eating connects us to the world. Physically, it is our grasp on nature, the living elements. the tangible fact of our mineral earth. Emotionally, we crave the community of food, and the natural sociability of meals -- it's rhythm of pause and movement, silence and talk, the reflective table. Spiritually, we need that connection, as well as the arc of imagination that cooking provides -- to be participants in the work of simple transformations. To be magicians in a world we love.