In February this year I taught a unit called Table Spirituality. I’ve taught the subject before, many times, and each time I begin the first session with an extract from one of Jill Dupliex’s books, the unfortunately titled Old Food. Though Dupliex writes beautifully, I keep returning to this piece for more than good writing. For in a few simple paragraphs, she captures something deeply true about the spirit of cooking. It resonates each time I read it.
There are ghosts in our kitchens. You feel them at your back as you push the onions around in a little oil, when you crush the garlic or when you pull a cake from the oven and feel the heat against your face. These things have been done before, and will be done again: your actions are the actions of the centuries. You can hear them, too, in the whistle of a kettle, the gentle simmering of a stew, the sound of a broom sweeping the floor – the music of the kitchen, over the centuries.
Every time you pick up a knife or wooden spoon, you become part of a continuous human flow, a chain whose links are forged by sweat, sacrifice, steam, soil and a strong sense of survival. Centuries of chopping onions, shopping, stirring soups, peeling potatoes, stoking fires, sniffing stews, baking breads, grinding spices, pounding grains, baking cakes and caramelising sugar stand behind you as you move from shelf to sink to stove.
Centuries, too, of burning your wrists, of grating your knuckles, of slicing into your fingers, of dropping and breaking things and of leaving the dishes until the morning. Years of planning special effects, briefing servants and worrying about who to sit with whom at the table. Years of people carting their produce to market, of praying for rain or sunshine, of moving stock from one field to the next, of slaughtering animals, hunting game and throwing lines, nets and traps into rivers and oceans.
To me, this is one of the deepest, most fundamental rewards of cooking. To know that generations of men and women have stood in the kitchen, stirring, simmering and spicing as we do. Hoping that ‘they’ – the people who are about to eat – will like it, as we do. Sneaking a glass of wine, as we do. And sometimes, wishing ‘they’ were somewhere else, as we do.
Preparing a meal can bring a deeply felt sense of the continuity of life. It hits you with the force of the ages felt at the birth of a child, but it’s easily forgotten in the hurly-burly of daily activities.
Jill Dupliex, Old Food: New Ways with Old Favourites, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998.