The hands arrive out of the off-screen space. They are disembodied, or rather un-embodied, as if having never belonged to a body at all.
There is no smashing or pulling or undoing here, not unless it is visually satisfying like the peeling of a banana without brown spots. Hovering hands combine pre-measured ingredients. The pre-measured ingredients are neatly arranged in colorful bowls. Measured and arranged by whom, I cannot say. That is the beauty of the passive voice; the preparation for the preparation of food happens outside of the pixelated box. Going beyond the refrain of seen and not heard, the kitchen space and the cooking body must be hidden at all costs.
And in the end, bites disappear from the cookies. They are eaten, but there is no body that eats, no chewing or swallowing. No digestion. No hunger. The eating body must be hidden at all costs; its waxing and waning is not pleasing to the eye, the pleasant swell of skin over the jeans’ waist, the deep inhale of full-ness that spreads to the toes. The touching of food to tongue is not pleasing to the eye. The dirtying and cleaning of bowls is not pleasing to the eye. It is all too revoltingly cyclical, the digestion of food and the dirtying of dishes, the waxing and waning, always hungry again.
They call it “women’s work” when the work is cyclical, when there is no product or proof that the work has been done. The laundry is only clean for so long before it becomes dirty again and must be done again. It is a practice in reproduction, re-production. We say I’ve done the laundry and I’ve done the dishes but these English figures of speech fail us as language has always failed us, because we are never done. I push bleached cotton into my body every month and it blooms inside me. I ache with the rust of life, knowing that my body preheats on schedule like an oven preparing itself to bake bread.
The short video does not tell you that you must preheat the oven. This step is essential, as any baker knows.
And whether or not we were born with wombs, our work grows and shrinks just as our bodies grow and shrink, inhaling and exhaling, waxing and waning like the phases of the moon. They tell us to take up less space so we tuck in our stomachs like neatly pressed shirts, we iron out our wrinkles each night and wake up with new ones each morning.
Short, sped-up videos of aesthetically pleasing food preparation, as popularized by Buzzfeed’s viral spinoff page “Tasty,” have infiltrated Facebook newsfeeds with cheese-stuffed crusts and gooey chocolate chips. We couldn’t possibly resist those mouth-watering thumbnails and seductive, click-baiting titles like Wait A Minute, You Can Stuff A Cheesecake Into a Chocolate Chip Cookie. Or, Here’s What Happens When Chocolate Makes Love To Cookie Dough. “Tasty” becomes more evangelical when it comes to bread. This Chocolate Star Bread Is Literally Heaven On A Plate. Mac ‘N’ Cheese Breadsticks Are Here to Change Your Life Forever.
Click it—you know you want to—and you will enter another world, an enchanted land where disembodied hands combine pre-prepared ingredients, where an hour can pass with a snap of the fingers, where anything can be stuffed with anything if you just believe. Press share; pass the plate.
The short video is compact, it is permanent, it is a product. It is about fifty seconds long yet it also lasts forever. It does not exist in time in the way that food exists in time. Food cyclically becomes waste, either by rotting or by being consumed. Food goes cold, it goes bad, it goes.
Perhaps the most difficult part of cooking a meal is the intricate timing of the different components, turning over the chicken when it is halfway cooked, ensuring that the peas aren’t steamed into mush. To be clock-wise is a special kind of wisdom. They say your biological clock is ticking and it sounds like a threat. My mother says that if you listen closely, the rice will whisper to you when the time is right. She bends down so that her ear is level with the stove.
The short video does not exist in time. In the video, time is the number in the corner; it is not the desperate ticking of the clock that says your guests are eight minutes late and the shepherd’s pie will soon become lukewarm. The disembodied hands have no guests to entertain except the viewer, who consumes content instead of food. And there is no waste except the wasted time.
The word video itself is only present tense, after all. Translated from the Latin literally, I see. The present tense is everywhere in time and it is nowhere in time. It can express continuity but not cyclicality, not the waxing and waning of foods and bodies, the sharp flare of heartburn, the piles of dirty dishes.
We sense the link somewhere in our bowels, the connection or analogy or intimacy between the cycle of eating and the cycle of living. We know that each sustains the other, we know that the ritual of food preparation is not so much an act of production as it is the continuation of a cycle that has lasted for as long as we have had teeth to chew with.
There is an Etruscan tomb outside of Rome where the dead are buried in an underground kitchen, built to scale with carvings in the walls to look like pots, pans, and utensils hanging from hooks. The Etruscans knew something about how food preparation moves through time cyclically, how it is tied to life, how it is tied to decay. Perhaps they felt that link somewhere in their bowels, just as we do. They didn’t know how our bodies break down food and build themselves up with new molecules, but perhaps they knew that our bodies are made of broken bread, that our bodies are broken bread.
For people of my faith and my mother’s faith and her mother’s faith, the cyclical nature of food is there in the liturgy: do this in remembrance of me. For people of my faith, bread is a kind of continual resurrection. It is not the second coming but rather the coming and coming and coming and coming each week.
For people of my father’s faith and his mother’s faith and her mother’s faith, there was no time for the bread to rise. The cycle of baking was broken off and although they say that liberation is sweet, it is no wonder that matzo feels like dry knuckles when it lies tasteless upon the tongue. It is no wonder that they are forever returning to the land of milk and honey. L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim: next year, in Jerusalem. For people of my father’s faith, communal dancing is always done in circles.
I have learned that ritual consumption underpins daily consumption underpins ritual consumption. That there is always a prayer before eating even when the prayer is unsaid, may this food enter our bodies, may this food strengthen our bodies, may this food become our bodies. We hear it somewhere in our bowels.
The hands are soft-knuckled as if they have never washed dishes in scalding water. They are not red and cracked like the hands of my mother and her mother and her mother.
The short video is compact, it is permanent, it is a product. It is proof of somebody’s work, some body’s work. It is proof that a person cooked and proof that a person produced a video. Sometimes I think of the person who set up the camera, who twisted the screws and rotated the focusing lenses, so that the big eye could steadily face down at the hands. Sometimes I think of the body attached to the hands, how they still have to choose what to wear every morning.
I have learned to value work only when there is proof that work has been done. But cooking is always an undoing—melting down the cheese and chopping up the onions. And there’s the rub, the friction. There’s the cognitive dissonance of the linear videos in our news-cycle newsfeeds that spoon-feed the eyes: the content is too deliciously wholesomely phallically straightforward. We do not flip through it like a recipe book, folding down the corners and spilling our own creations at the edges. We scroll down down down. And the hands arrive out of the off-screen space.
They call it “women’s work” without understanding how our work grows and shrinks just as our bodies grow and shrink, how we are running in circles even while standing still. My mother would say it’s because we make the world go ’round. Her mother would say it’s because we must always repeat ourselves to the men. At eighty-nine, she still separates compost into the green compost bin after every meal. She imagines the food scraps sinking back into the earth that gave birth to them.
We will write about it again and again and again until carpal tunnel ravages our wrists and dish soap razes our knuckles. We will spin ourselves into circles until nothing straight is left in this world. For people of my father’s faith, communal dancing is always done in circles.
Pause the video and remember what it feels like to burn your tongue on soup when you are deciding whether it needs more salt. Stir clockwise, then counterclockwise, then clockwise again. We will write ourselves into circles, producing content that comments on content, never pausing to consider the sensation of contentment that only comes after a good meal.
Observe how cheese divides itself into strings, how onions turn to a golden brown from the heat of a skillet’s breath. And if you listen closely, the rice will whisper to you when the time is right.
It is nice to know that the world is mutable, shapeable, that we can flatten it with a rolling pin and then braid it into pretzels. That we can fold other flavors into our bodies and lives as easily as folding dough. I have learned that it is better to press your hands into the flour than to toss it from a pre-measured bowl.
Then sprinkle salt generously—do not let it lose its savor. I am just beginning to learn what it means to be the salt of the earth. Another pinch, with a flourish. It is no wonder that these videos are so satisfying; it is no wonder that we feel the urge to share.
ANNA HUNDERT B’18 is learning how to cook.