Cooking is a protest against specialization. At least that’s the argument that writer Michael Pollan puts forward in his Netflix show Cooked (and, I imagine, in the book of the same name which the show is based on). And, being honest, coming from academia where everything is about specialization, that idea hit me square on.
Part of what I am loving about cooking is having the creative space to learn a wide array of new techniques, ingredients and processes. I’m not confined to having to produce one thing over and over again, I don’t have to perfect anything (or be perfect at anything), and each and every time I cook something I am drawn again into the networks and relations that each dish embodies.
Pollan argues that specialization obscures our connection to the multifaceted processes that bring food to our table. There is a chain of production, a complex arrangement of relationships and choices, that is behind each meal we choose to eat and too often we’re disconnected from those. Cooking, he argues, brings us back into contact with these. Cooking reconnects us to one another, as well as the earth and its complex ecosystems and relations.
During my PhD studies I was drawn to work that colleagues were doing that described these complex networks of care as ‘constellations’. Constellations, the Cultural Rhetorics Theory Lab writes, “allow for all the meaning-making practices and their relationships to matter.” In the constellation, one person or connecting node is never fixed – there is recognition that we are always changing and shifting and, as we do move and change our relationships also change and shift. We are all connected, but as we individually change our relationships shift with us, changing how the bigger picture looks.
Food is about more than eating, sustaining your body, and enjoying particular flavors (though that aesthetic aspect is important… and also cultural); food carries stories, cultures, and histories. And as I learn and come to appreciate these relationships, I am also shifting and changing, learning new patterns and ways of relating to the ingredients, to the food, and to the cultures and people.
So, to get back to Pollan’s idea of cooking as a protest against specialization, which he understands as a part of the separation of food from relationships, cooking is also an assertion of how relationships matter. Not only is cooking an act of giving and sharing (of time, resources, skill, etc) but it is also an awareness of the ways in which each ingredient comes from somewhere to work in relation to other ingredients and the processes that turn those ingredients into the dishes we eat.
As for me and academia: what drew me to the work I did was never specialization but relationships. Perhaps, as I cook I am also learning about why a career in academia was never meant to be for me…
Maftoul and Lentil Salad with Apricots
This salad is based on a Palestinian dish called mujaddara, typically made with rice and lentils. Instead, I've replaced the rice with maftoul, which is a Palestinian grain that is a larger, rounder version of couscous. If you don't have maftoul, either rice or couscous could be used instead. This version is loaded with fresh flavors of the season, including fresh apricots and mint, alongside the warming, comforting spice blend of ras el hanout. It's beautiful and satisfying served warm, and also delicious chilled (it makes great leftovers!). It makes a great side along some grilled meat or kebabs, as well as a nutritious, vitamin rich, filling vegetarian or vegan main dish.
- 1 cup black beluga lentils (green French lentils can be substituted, though I prefer the way the Black lentils hold their shape and texture. Don't use red lentils, which will turn to an unappetizing mush here...)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tablespoon ras el hanout
- 1 teaspoon coriander
- 4 cups broth or water, divided (I used a low sodium vegetable broth to keep this vegetarian)
- 1 cup maftoul
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small yellow onion, diced
- zest of 1 lemon
- 1 teaspoon ras el hanout
- 6 fresh apricots (approximately 1 cup chopped)
- small bunch of fresh mint, chopped
In a small pot, combine lentils, bay leaf, ras el hanout, coriander and 2 cups of broth or water. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer; cook uncovered until the water is absorbed and the lentils are tender but not mushy. When cooked, remove from heat and let them cool.
In a second pot, heat the olive oil. Once warm, add the diced onion. Cook until translucent, approximately 3-4 minutes. Add lemon zest and ras el hanout, let cook briefly to toast the spices (no more than a minutes).
Add the maftoul and 2 cups of broth. Bring to a boil and the simmer, with the lid on, until the liquid has been absorbed and the maftoul is tender. Remove from heat and let cool.
While the maftoul is cooling, pit and dice and the apricots as well as chopping the mint. Mix the lentils, maftoul, apricots and mint in a large bowl. Taste, and if needed add another dash of ras el hanout and/or salt. Serve warm.
It's still stone fruit season here but if you don't have fresh apricots, I've also made this with dried apricots before and it totally works still. Use approximately 6oz dried apricots, chopped in quarters, in place of the fresh apricots.