Alexander & Cooking: Is Only the Exhaustive Truly Interesting?
It was winter term my third year at Oberlin when the cooking thing really took off. There were 8 of us that January who decided to forego the dorm meal plan and cook in a commandeered second floor kitchen of South dorm. We stored all of our cooking gear in a giant red suitcase that I’d inherited from my grandmother, dragging it clanging down the dorm’s psychedelic hallway carpeting each afternoon around 5:00. I’d grown up helping my parents cook, but that winter term was the first time that I’d got so involved in all aspects of cooking. An inherited copy of the San Francisco Junior League Cookbook proved especially popular: the shrimp in tomato sauce with basil and feta served over angel hair pasta; lasagna noodles cooked, spread with pesto, rolled up into pinwheels and baked. There were some misfires: we improvised the seasoning of a vegetable soup, tossing in a teaspoon or two of every spice we owned until the broth tasted like soap.
When I graduated and moved to Minneapolis I was on my own for the first time. It took me a couple months before I learned to scale down the recipes and not cook for a crowd. That Christmas my mom got me the new edition of The Joy of Cooking, my first real cookbook, and I followed family members around all vacation, reading to them about the differences between black, oolong, and green teas, and how the English say aubergine, not eggplant. Back in Minneapolis after the holiday, I made up for the loneliness of cooking solo with the ambition of trying something new—at least there was less embarrassment when you screwed up. I overcooked my first roast chicken. Burned rice to the bottom of the pan. Dried out a cake. Broke mayonnaise.
This was also when I first started studying the Alexander Technique and I think there were overlapping drives between my interest in studying Alexander and my cooking obsession: the pleasure of eating well and feeling good after an Alexander lesson; wanting to refine my palette and deepen my self-perception; the desire to really understand—whether it was how food came together or how I moved. These proclivities were reinforced by my violin teacher, Jorja Fleezanis, and her husband, Michael Steinberg. They constantly involved us students in their meals, whether casual dinners or holiday festivities. I tried to match their example, making dishes that I hoped would impress. I may have made my first pie—the first time without my mom, at least—in advance of having Thanksgiving at their house. At some point that year, Michael turned to me and in his droll lilt said, “Thomas Mann once wrote, ‘Only the exhaustive is truly interesting.'” Well, if all else fails, I remember thinking, at least Thomas Mann understands me.
When I left Minnesota for grad school and to train as an Alexander teacher in Urbana, my closest friendships were forged through food and cooking. It was also when I became aware of the wave of cooking educators: Alton Brown and Good Eats, Christopher Kimball and Cooks Illustrated, Michael Ruhlman’s Making of a Chef, and Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. The point wasn’t just to follow a recipe: it was to understand the techniques and science behind it. At some point during my Alexander training I was browsing through the cooking section of a favorite bookstore and came across this quote in The Way to Cook by Julia Child, the patron saint of all cooking gurus:
Wherever possible [in this book], I have put things together by method—veal chops are with pork chops because they cook the same way. Chicken stew in red wine is with turkey-wing ragout and rabbit stew—if you can do one, you can do the others because they are assembled, simmered, and sauced the same way. It makes sense to me, also, that all braised meats be grouped together so that their similarities are clearly evident...The technique is what’s important here, and when you realize a stew is a stew is a stew, and a roast is a roast whether it be beef, lamb, pork, or chicken, cooking begins to make sense.
It was worth practicing a recipe to understand the technique behind it. When you understood the technique, you could cook any recipe that used that technique. You might even be able to write a recipe of your own!
At the time, we were reading Alexander’s fourth book, and I was struck by the similarity between Julia Child’s words and his “working to principle.”
Learning to “do” by this procedure is not learning to “do” exercises in a trial-and-error plan, but learning to work to a principle, not only in using the self but in the application of the technique outside the self. A person who learns to work to a principle in doing one exercise will have learned to do all exercises, but the person who learns just to “do an exercise” will most assuredly have to go on learning to “do exercises” ad infinitum.
In the Alexander Technique, the procedure is practiced to understand the principle involved: principles of efficient movement and principles of constructive learning. Once the principle is learned, it can be applied to any procedure.
What excited me most about this connection was a shift in attention. The time spent cooking was the same, but my mind was heightened to the connections between this dish and another. A simple breakfast of scrambled eggs taught me the process that also thickened the custard in my ice cream dessert. From kneading bread dough I learned how gluten forms, and why I should use a lighter touch with pie dough so that the crust was flaky, not tough. My Alexander insights were more complex. I was making connections between how I moved and how I learned through many disciplines: performing as a violinist and my novice attempts at teaching Alexander, swimming and biking, even the tilt of my head and swing of my arm when wielding a knife in my kitchen.
There’s a zeal to making connections and among my favorite cookbook authors, an edge of contempt for the mere follower of recipes. In his tome on baking, I’m Just Here for More Food, Alton Brown organizes his recipes by mixing method. Each method is described only once, at the beginning of the chapter—“which you will commit to memory,” he declares in the introduction.
Lots of recipe books basically repeat the same instructions over and over. They do this because it’s traditional and because they assume that you are not learning anything. I’m going to assume that you will.
Whether you thrill at this exhortation (as I do) or find it off-putting is largely a matter of intention. If your goal is to become the best possible cook, it can be incredibly exciting to be working in this way. If your goal is simply to put dinner on the table, it's a bit too much.
When I’m at home visiting my family, the discussions around what’s-for-dinner begin with, “Let’s keep it simple!” This is a preventive measure aimed at my historic tendency to deliver over-elaborate dinners three hours late when everyone is too limp with hunger to appreciate it. I have gradually acquired the pleasure of simple dinners, made with whatever’s in the fridge.
A similar shift has occurred in my Alexander teaching practice. When I finally certified as a teacher 11 years ago, I had been studying the Alexander Technique intensively for 4 ½ years. I could not identify with students who came to me who were only interested in 10 lessons, much less 6. While I still thrill at the students who become enthusiasts—studying three times a week for the first three months and then once a week for several years—I am just as engaged by students who are more tentative. Every bit of learning has value. Not only the exhaustive is interesting.