Feeding the Masses: A Manifesto

No, this isn’t a post about eating locally or sustainably or freshly (though those things are important too); it isn’t a post about how food is a marker of class, and how eating well on a budget is something it’s difficult for people who don’t already have a lot of cultural capital to do; and it isn’t a post about cooking as an art form, about having five kinds of cider vinegar in your cupboard or making your own herb blends or replicating the dishes at Ottolenghi. Instead, it’s a post about some things I’ve been thinking about since, a few months ago, a close friend who often eats my cooking suggested that cooking was my hobby. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what it means to have a hobby, about the ways that the entirely extracurricular things that we do can help us to be better laborers and better people, and about an entirely unexpected dividend of finding a hobby that I didn’t expect when I first started to look for one two and a half years ago.

When I first came to Oxford as an undergraduate on an exchange, I found myself adjusting, effectively, to grad-school-lite: I had maybe two seminars or tutorials a week, and none of the extracurricular activities I had pursued at Princeton. My time was far less scheduled than it was with four or five classes and a host of other commitments, and I struggled to establish a routine that allowed me to get all my work done at my own pace. It didn’t seem as hard then as it does now, and I managed full days in the Bodleian with Symonds and my tutorial essays, but I’d come back to my room after six hours or so and find myself at loose ends. I watched a lot of TV, and sometimes I hung out with friends, but it didn’t seem like enough to fill all those hours. I struggled to find some other facet of my life, something that wasn’t work but that still could feel like I was really using that time for good… and so I started to learn ancient Greek, spending hours tracing the letters over and over, using Edwardian textbooks I’d picked up in the Oxfam bookshop in Turl Street to try to learn to read some simple stories. A couple classes, a trip to Greece, and many friendships with classicists later, and Greek is a huge part of both my scholarly life—in which I study intellectuals for whom the Greek language gave shape to everything they thought and did—and the conversations I have after lunch in the MCR. But even back in the spring of 2011, it didn’t feel like a hobby. It always felt like something I needed to do to learn more, to be a better scholar, to get inside the heads of my Victorians the way that Oxford taught me to do in so many respects. I felt the same way about most other leisure pursuits: reading novels also needed to have some educative purpose, as did watching YouTube or spending time on Facebook or anything else frivolous I might have imagined. Feeling acutely my ignorance, I struggled—and still struggle—to do things to relax that don’t make it seem like I’m wasting valuable time.

It turns out, however, that demands of graduate school or no, everyone needs to eat. Back in Princeton for my final year, my commitment to a cooking co-op meant that I was obliged to spend two hours helping to prepare dinner once a week; I developed there skills of creativity, to make something edible out of whatever was in the fridge, and I developed confidence, speed, and agility in the kitchen. More importantly, I developed a sense of pleasure gained from feeding large groups of people, of community and grounded sense of self through food. The following summer in Paris and Greece, I often cooked for others by myself; this past academic year in Oxford and actually in grad school, I rejoiced in having a kitchen of my own in which to ground myself. I attained new levels of independence I didn’t have in the co-op: able to decide where I would buy my food and how much I would spend, what I would make and how I would make it, whether I would cook just for me, able to indulge in private my guilty desire to eat too much cheese, or whether I would host dinner parties of eight or ten—learning to make the Middle-Eastern dishes I inherited from the Syrian Jewish side of my family, and striving to come even close to the Syrian Jewish rule of having fifteen dishes on the table.

And what I’ve learnt this year is that having my own kitchen (or, well, a kitchen I shared with three flatmates who were very patient when I was monopolizing the hobs) illustrated a sense of independence and control not only in contrast to life in the co-op, but also, and vitally, in contrast to the rest of my life. As a first-year and now second-year grad student, it often seems as if I can’t control most aspects of my life. I can’t control what I need to do each day, the standards by which my work is assessed, or what subject matter I need to learn. I can’t control where I live—which city, or which university accommodation complex—who my colleagues are, or anything about my future. I can’t control the city I will be moving to in a year for my Ph.D., whether I will get a job, what kind of job, or where, or even seemingly my work-life balance.

But I do have to eat at least two meals a day, and I can control everything about those meals. Even when I’ve had a demoralizing day making backward progress on my research, I can make sure there’s food I like on my table. I can take time away from my work to prepare it, without feeling as if it makes me a lesser or less dedicated person. Despite my constant anxieties about whether pursuing a life in academia is an ethically justifiable path, I can take some concrete steps that I believe to be clearly more ethical than their alternatives by giving up meat, shopping at local traders (within reason: there are tradeoffs, and it’s okay to admit that the East Oxford Farmers’ Market is not designed for a grad-student budget), and buying things that are fresh, in season, and didn’t have to take a plane to get to me. As I’ve learned better how to budget my stipend, I’ve identified products that are worth paying more for (fairtrade coffee, vegetable bouillon that isn’t full of chemicals) and ones that aren’t (local cheese) and I know this isn’t much, but it helps me to get through the days. I struggle, still, not to binge secretly on junk food, particularly on the really shitty days, but I’ve learned how the monotony of going to the library every day and doing the same thing can be relieved by trying a new recipe. And in a world that seems often so distanced from reality, I value the opportunity to do something with my hands, even if it’s just kneading dough: at least it leaves me with the accomplishment of fresh bread, something I made myself, and not the constant shame and demoralization that for me tend to accompany most other physical things. It’s also a way of forming connections with other people, which can be so difficult in this solitary life. Just as it was in the co-op, dinner is an excellent excuse to invite people over, gather them round a table, and get them to talk to each other.

Towards the end of last term, I had a few people over for homemade pizza. You have to wait for the dough to rise, but otherwise it’s the easiest company meal ever, and I was somewhat taken aback by the praise they (very generously) lavished upon me. This isn’t so hard! I hastened to say. I followed a cookbook slavishly! I got most of the ingredients at Tesco! I have nothing like the creativity and omnicompetence that my mother displays in the kitchen, and what’s more it turns out to be easier than it looks—and certainly no burden on a grad-student schedule—to learn how to make a few different things from scratch.

So, I guess that after all that searching, I have happened upon a hobby. But I don’t really see it that way, as something external or ancillary to the other things I do. Instead, I see it as the primary thing that keeps me sane, something that forces me to step away from the computer for a couple hours, something that helps me to create a social life, something at which I have no particular skill, but at least—unlike my academic work, it often seems—I can be competent. It feels in a life already so advantaged and spoiled and disconnected from the problems of real life that it would be absurdly self-indulgent to pursue recreation. But at least everyone deserves to eat, and to eat well, I think, and it turns out it’s not difficult to do that on a small stipend if you only have one mouth to feed, with occasional guests.

I’ve been struggling this summer with the lack of structure in my working life, and feeling weighed down by the length of the apprenticeship before I will be able to do the things that I think make this vocation a socially and culturally valuable one. It will be years before I’ll be able to benefit anyone with the profession for which I’m spending almost all my waking hours training. But at least, in the interim, I can put food on the table, and a little liveliness and color into my friends’ lives—and my own.
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