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Name That Thing

Mar
10
2008

The other night I participated in a call-in radio program, Dinner with Chefsline, with a fellow who owns a butcher/wine/cheese shop in Charleston, S.C. I was introduced as a chef, but I prefer to be called a professional cook. Chef means “chief” and it refers to the individual’s position in managing the kitchen crew in a professional kitchen. Chef is a management job and I’m seldom a chef. Ninety-nine times out of a 100 I’m simply the cook – paid or not.

During the show the hostess mentioned she’d had a piece of meat “butchered” (badly cut) and then got flustered at the implication she was demeaning the other guest’s profession. He gallantly asserted: “I’m a meat cutter.” And in fact, from his tone of voice I think he was sincere in the distinction. After all, there was no “meat cutter of Ramadi put” on trial; the word butcher has negative connotations.

Names matter. In my first job as a magazine editor the editorial director, my boss, refused to permit anyone to refer to our publication as a “mag” or, even worse, “rag.” His assertion – heard at some length whenever someone transgressed the rule – was that we devoted our intellect, commitment, long hours, and even, occasionally, sweat into producing a superior magazine. To refer to our efforts as anything except a magazine or, perhaps, publication was to demean it.

What I learned from him was that labels not only affect how others think of what you do, but of how you think of what you do. So when the meat-cutter went on to refer to his hand-made corned beef as “product” he ticked me off. A lot of chefs, careful, thoughtful craftspeople, refer to their work as “product.” You hear the term on the Food Network and it pops up even more often when talking to professional cooks and it’s annoying. These people have allowed Wall Street into their kitchens.

That other New York community, Madison Avenue would celebrate how special and unique a cook’s efforts are, talking about “succulent beef brisket, brined in a special mixture of the chef’s devising.” It might be a bit of a fib, but it would give the “product” some dignity.

We make a terrible mistake when we think of food as a commodity. This mistake leads to hog lagoons, E. coli on spinach, and downer cows. In the process of thinking of food as a commodity we turn what we eat into stuff to buy, not something nutritious or enjoyable. Oh sure, the food is cheap, but it’s often bad – low in nutrients, sometimes poisonous, and it just doesn’t taste good. And it reduce our enjoyment and understand of food place. In this view, the brisket I purchased from a local farmer, that I have curing in my refrigerator right now in anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day is no different from the corned beef sold at the local grocery store – they’re both no more than products. But clearly, they’re not.

Furthermore, we’re crippling our kids’ future with the attitude. When some bug evolves that devours the only kind of commodity corn (or pigs or potatoes) we grow and wipes it out, our children are never going to know how good barbequed ribs with corn on the cob and potato salad can be on the Fourth of July. And even if they can still get that meal 20 years from now, without anything to compare it to, say Berkshire pork versus Poland China pork, how will they know it’s good? How will they know what they like? We’re not only turning our food into what industry hopes will be replaceable widgets, we’re turning ourselves into replaceable eating widgets, too.

So the next time you hear a chef or cook refer to her Chicken Piccata as “product” get ticked off. It either is a product and something to be avoided, or it’s a “free-range breast of chicken, lightly seasoned, dusted with Parmigiano Reggiano, quickly sautéed, and topped with a luscious pan sauce made of lemon juice, vermouth, and capers.” At any rate, that’s how I’d like to hear what I cook described; as a dish, a savory meal, a delicious dinner, a delightful treat, something created by my hands, mind, and passion. It’s not a product, it’s a meal.

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