Too often in our world, the poor are made to feel ashamed for the comparatively small amount of space that they take up on the Earth—really, for the fact that they exist at all. In a less morally compromised world, it would be the rich who feel ashamed for the fact that their having so much coincides with others not having. Wealth requires poverty. It really is that simple. While it would be nice if the rich did not forget this, the poor simply cannot afford to.
Everything of any value that has ever been created in this world—every building, every road, every computer, every shirt, every meal—has been made on the backs of poor people. As such, in right if not in fact, it is the poor to which every piece of property belongs, regardless of the nature of that property. The rich create nothing except the poor and the poor create everything else.
The rich get rich by taking what does not belong to them and forcibly preventing the poor from taking it back. And what the rich refuse to let the poor have more than anything else—more than time, more than space, more than property, more than even life itself—is a life worth living. But no matter how hard they may try, the good life is not something that the rich can possess entirely unto themselves. The rich have convinced themselves that the only things worth having are those that they can possess. However, the good life is not something you have, it’s something you do. In fact, the most essential part of the good life can actually be quite cheap, though the rich do their best to prevent anyone from knowing this.
Eating well is the first and most essential part of living well. The act of eating is in itself one of the most robust forms of pleasure known to the human organism but it is also a necessary precondition for all of the other enjoyable parts of life. Without eating, no: talking, laughing, listening, reading, hugging, caressing, kissing, loving, walking, seeing, running, jumping, playing, thinking, touching, creating, making. Moreover, the better you eat, the better you will be at doing all of the other things in life that are worth doing. Eat well and not only will you live longer; more importantly, you will live better.
Eating without cooking is a myth created by the rich. This myth consists in nothing more and nothing less than the denial of the simple fact that every act of eating requires a prior act of cooking. Like all myths, it benefits no one, but it hurts some (i.e., the poor) more than others. At least the rich have their wealth to help them turn this myth into some form of reality. The poor are left with nothing to eat but the myth itself, which the rich have sold to them through their own labor.
Eating well takes labor. It requires finding food and separating good food from bad food. The labor requisite for eating is the most fundamental form of labor that there is. One of the things that defines the rich is the degree to which they separate themselves from this fundamental form of labor (if not from labor in general). The rich use their wealth in order to engage the poor in procuring and preparing their food so that they can eat without ever having to cook. However, by removing themselves from the task of finding good food, the rich simultaneously remove themselves (and that portion of society which they control) from the source of life’s pleasure.
At first, the rich denied only the necessity of their own participation in the act of cooking. Today, however, the agribusiness and food science industries have sought to marshal the labor of machines in order to manufacture a more absolute version of the myth of eating without cooking: no one (i.e., not even the poor) needs to cook! The absoluteness of this fantasy has introduced a level of alienation into our lives that goes well beyond the economic alienation that is part and parcel of work within capitalism. Today, not only are we alienated from our work; to the extent that we are alienated from cooking, we are alienated from the very idea of pleasurable work and thus we are alienated from any and all truly pleasurable experiences. Cooking is the form of pleasurable work which naturally precedes and makes possible all other forms of pleasure. Instead of pleasurable work, we have only consumptive leisure. To eat without cooking must ultimately mean eating oneself.
Cooking is the act of deciding what is good to eat. Everything that enters the body was at some point selected more or less blindly from amongst the Earth’s remarkable profusion of living and non-living entities. Maintaining life with any degree of reliability—not to mention style or pleasure—requires an amazing level of selectiveness with respect to what we do and do not put in our bodies. Industrial society has both gradually lulled us and actively forced us into the belief that we can trust others to make decisions for us about what is and what is not good to eat. At first, this trust was extended to decisions concerning which foods were to be grown and gathered and how they were to be grown and gathered. Finally, over the course of the 20th century, this process culminated in fewer and fewer people deciding not just what foods the human species eats, but how those foods are prepared as well. All of this has led to the point where actually cooking has become the exception rather than the rule. And thus, we have the myth of eating without cooking.
The rich were the first to think that they could afford to eat without cooking because of their ability to employ the poor to cook for them. Freed by their wealth from the labor of deciding what to eat and what not to eat, the rich could instead utilize the bulk of their time and energy to create more wealth—i.e., to further their domination of the bodies and minds of the poor. Really, all the rich can think of is how to get richer, which always also means how to make the poor poorer.
What new scheme did the rich think up thanks to their freedom from the labor of cookery? Why nothing less than the outlandish plan of convincing the poor that they could live like the rich! Of course, the rich were not so crazy as to actually give the poor their money. What they gave them instead was an impoverished version of Culture, if it may be so called. Eating without cooking, once a myth only possible among the rich, has today infiltrated the minds of the poor. Never before has it been easier to survive without cooking, this much is true. But all we are doing is merely surviving—and sometimes not even that. We are not eating well and largely because of this we are not living well.
More often than not, Culture (in the dominant, artificial, capital C sense of the word) refers to what the rich find to be worth knowing. As such, secondarily if not primarily, Culture always implies the enslavement of the poor for this is the sole fact that defines the rich as who they are and the sole condition that sustains them as what they are. This is the not so hidden secret embedded within Architecture, Oil Painting, Classical Music, Grammar, Logic, Literature, and Cuisine in particular. The state of “disinterested pleasure” that Culture takes as paradigmatic of the aesthetic experience—i.e., as opposed to the true pleasure found in sustaining labor—is little more than an expression of the depressive alienated boredom that is the natural biological response to the overabundance of leisure.
Leisure is the motivating force behind Culture, but it is not nearly as innocent of a thing as it sounds. Behind every moment of leisure, lie two corresponding preconditions: an act of labor and a threat. Leisure is possible for a few (i.e., the rich) only insofar as there are others (i.e., the poor) who work in order to provide the few with their material necessities; this is what leisure means—being freed from work by the enslavement of others. But why would the many labor time and again to provide for the few when no one is willing to provide for them? Generosity of the human spirit, surely, but like stupidity this extends only so far.
Fundamentally, it is the threat of force issued to the poor by the rich which makes leisure and therefore Culture possible. The threat of force is what motivates the poor to labor for the rich and thereby make the rich richer and themselves poorer. Anytime there is a moment of leisure for anyone anywhere, it is because someone somewhere is working his or her ass off out of fear. Over the years, this fact hasn’t fundamentally changed but it has gotten harder and harder to recognize.
In post-industrial societies, it has become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between work and leisure just as it has become all but impossible to know what separates freedom from slavery. The computer is the dominant instrument of work—that is to say, the marshaling of the threat of force across time and space—but it is also the dominant medium for leisure. Whether “at work” or at home, we spend more and more of our time in front of computer screens doing things like: social networking, playing computer games, reading news and celebrity gossip, online shopping, etc. The simultaneously public and private nature of computing—the screen is a fundamentally personal interface, so that even when “at work” one has a modicum of privacy; on the other hand, thanks to the omnipresent saturation of e-mail and social networking, even when you’re at home you’re never really alone, nor are you ever really away from work—has all but collapsed the distinction between times and spaces used for economic coordination and those devoted to leisure. Hidden in plain sight everywhere one could possibly look is the fact that leisure and work are really two contrasting indices of the same underlying phenomenon: the domination of the bodies and minds of the poor by the rich. Work extends, coordinates, and executes the threat of force that makes the domination of the poor possible whereas leisure presupposes and retroactively justifies this domination.
The collapsing of the temporal separation of work and leisure ushered in by the computer has profoundly altered the manner in which we use both social and domestic spaces. As a paradigmatic example of this shift in the utility of social spaces, we see that the coffee shop has matured from its Enlightenment origins as a place of leisured and leisurely public debate to become a breeding ground for busy, myopic, self-contained mouse-clickers. As profound as the changes in social space have been, there has also been an equally profound change in the domestic arena. Until the 90s, the living room was the space in the home synonymous with leisure, manifested chiefly by the familiar consumptive practice of gathering together around the television screen. This scene of domestic leisure that dominated the Cold War years has been fundamentally fractured by the ever-deepening saturation of personal video/computing/gaming screens. The living room does not mean what it did—namely, the preeminent site of leisure— when everyone in the family has his or her own personal and portable screen(s) (e.g., laptops, cell phones, personal gaming devices, etc.) that can be taken anywhere.
Where then has leisure gone? In short, we can say that today leisure goes wherever the computer goes—and so does work. However, while leisure practices are no longer tied to any particular locale, the signifiers of leisure remain essential for the maintenance of one’s profile as a conspicuous consumer. As long as the kind of stuff you have still has a role in showing yourself and others the kind of person you are and what you are worth—that is to say, as long as the rich dominate the poor—that stuff will always have to go somewhere. In the post-personal computing era, no site has come to take on more of the signifiers of leisure—whether or not these objects are ever utilized in actual leisure practices and so much the more conspicuous if they are not—than the kitchen.
Once regarded as the last site within the home exclusively devoted to labor, the kitchen is now almost exclusively seen as a place of leisure. For the speculative real estate boom that extended largely unabated from the late 90s until 2007—during which time homes became regarded primarily as investments and only secondarily (if at all) as living spaces—no room was more important for determining a house’s price and salability than the kitchen. During this period, no other room in the house grew so much in size or received such lavish attention in terms of furnishing. Prior to this era, a kitchen was a largely utilitarian space that contained a stove, a refrigerator, a microwave, a modest amount of counter space and cupboards, and not much else. Today, the ideal kitchen is equipped with massive stainless steel appliances worthy of a restaurant, seating room for no less than 8, bookshelf space sufficient for a not-so-small library of cookbooks, enough counter space for a team of chefs, and, last but not least, dazzling granite countertops—one of the last overtly aesthetic features left in the post-industrial home, which nevertheless masquerades in a quasi-utilitarian form. Kitchens have become spaces for sitting, eating, reading, conversing, watching, listening, and, only secondarily, cooking.
Interestingly, and somewhat paradoxically, this shift in the size and social importance of kitchens has directly coincided with a greater and greater percentage of meals being prepared outside of the home. Pizza and hamburgers, those ever prevalent staples of American consumer culture, are only the tip of the iceberg of the prepared foods offered today. The 90s and 2000s saw the birth of a plethora of “casual dining” restaurants offering bastardized versions of foods from throughout the world. Mexican, Thai, and Japanese are just some of the options of food that can be picked up in 10 minutes or less at a variety of outlets throughout the country. It is easy to forget that 50 years ago most Americans had no idea what a burrito was, much less sushi.
In addition to the exponential growth of casual dining, prepared foods of various sorts have increasingly made their way into grocery stores. In fact, boutique grocery stores, like the ironically named Whole Foods chain, often devote nearly as much (if not more) space to their prepared foods as they do to produce. At Whole Foods, one can find a wide selection of freshly baked breads, cakes, cookies, and pies, cooked side dishes like cous cous and asparagus, and even already prepared main courses like barbecued ribs and grilled salmon. Recognizing the potential of this expanding market, even the average workingman’s grocery store routinely offers all sorts of prepared foods—albeit of less fancy and generally less healthy varieties—from fried chicken to deli sandwiches.
Not only are grocery stores increasingly sites of food preparation, they are also warehouses for the ever-burgeoning selection of processed food items designed by international food conglomerates for fast and easy consumption at home, at work, and/or on the road. The ever popular microwave dinner now comes in vegetarian and even organic versions. Canned soup is available in microwaveable containers. Additionally, a host of frozen foods—really microwave dinners in drag—now provide the consumer with the illusion that he or she is cooking as a part of their product: potstickers, perogis, frozen pasta, frozen pizzas, crock-pot meals, etc. Increasingly, these quasi-cookable foods bear the branding of casual dining establishments and/or celebrity chefs. Make food at home that tastes just like it does at TGIFriday’s! Throw your frozen pasta in the pan and pretend you’re cooking with!
The changes in the nature of the kitchen, eating out, and grocery stores that have transpired over the last 20 years have one thing in common: the myth of eating without cooking. In post-industrial societies, cooking is no longer something done out of necessity—it is done as a leisure activity when there’s enough time. When there isn’t enough time—which is most of the time, given how busy all of us are thanks to the 24 hour shift of work/leisure involved in manipulating and observing pixels—the kitchen either goes dormant or becomes the site for the hurried consumption of processed food before rushing out the door and/or back to the screen.
Cooking actual meals is an activity almost exclusively reserved for special occasions. For instance, a couple might decide to cook together one evening in the effort to reconnect—i.e., to describe what’s been on their respective computer screens of late. Alternately, cooking takes on more traditionally bourgeois connotations in the context of a dinner party. In this case, the leisure time required for cooking serves as a not-so-veiled signifier of wealth with which to impress one’s friends and acquaintances. Surely, there are many other reasons that lead people in post-industrial societies to cook but the fact is that today cooking requires one reason or another—it’s no longer something that people just do. For the bulk of people in post-industrial societies throughout the socioeconomic spectrum, cooking is today an exception to our everyday habits rather than an instance of them. As our kitchens have grown and grown, we actually use them less and less.
These trends do indeed signal a profound change within the fabric of everyday life in post-industrial society. Never before would it have been possible for so many people who ought to know better—i.e., poor people—to even imagine, much less to actually believe in, something so ridiculously self-contradictory (not to mention something so fundamentally contrary to their own interests) as the myth of eating without cooking. However, as significant as the changes in lifeworld within post-industrial societies over the past 30 years certainly have been, in many respects, these developments are but a new variation on a very old theme. The rich have always used the threat of force to make the poor believe the unbelievable.
There are two reasons that the rich will never completely control the food supply. The first reason is that without allowing the poor to have at least some food (as miniscule and decrepit as this portion may often be) the poor would cease to exist (and so would the rich). The second reason is that the fruits of sun and earth (i.e., foods) grow too diffusely and too unpredictably for the conditions of their growth to be regulated completely. Unlike money, which is easy to count and to keep, food actually does grow on trees (and all other sorts of plants). While human industry has found impressive ways of tailoring the environment to fit the propagation of particularly desired species, the fact remains that plants of all sorts (i.e., weeds) still sprout up anywhere and everywhere that the happenstance of nature divines. In their wisdom, the rich have sought to turn agriculture into agribusiness, i.e., to eliminate the variety and unpredictability of plant growth for the sake of greater yields (i.e., profits).
We used to think that the totalitarian societies of the future would try to ban things like books, music, and/or drugs. Unfortunately, the rich have wizened up. Banning books is a great way to ensure that ideas that would otherwise be forgotten about will continue to be investigated and discussed for far longer than their natural lifespan. The totalitarian societies of the future won’t waste their time with little things like books—if they’re smart, they’ll make it a crime to possess seeds and a capital offense to plant them in the ground. If you can control the spread of seeds, does the spread of books even matter?
Upon reflection, food has always been the poor’s sole source of power. Because he is without money, the slave must work the fields. But, as a consequence of this fact, the slave knows where his food comes from and the conditions of its growth, which is more than the master can possibly know. Accordingly, the slave knows what to eat and what not to eat because he oversees the production of food with his own eyes. By contrast, the master wagers that the threat of force will be enough to prevent the slave from poisoning his food. Most of the time, almost all the time, this wager succeeds and the slave surrenders to the master the best of what the earth has to offer rather than the worst. Nevertheless, because he does not see where his food has come from with his own eyes, the master is at the mercy of the slave every bit as much as—nay, even more than—the slave is at the mercy of the master. No matter the extent of the technologies of violence that he possesses, the master can never fully relieve himself of the doubt that what he eats is poisoned. Furthermore, because he always thinks that what he eats may be poisoned, in a sense, it always is—the master’s food is poisoned by his own thoughts if nothing else. For one thing, the master guards himself from truly tasting his own food because he has trained himself only to taste for what seems safe, normal, and predictable. This is not really taste so much as it is the absence of taste.
The rich cannot eat well because insofar as they refuse to make their own food, they have no idea what they are eating. They taste food in the abstract—as some combination of salty, sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, and fatty sensations—but never as the particular manifestation of ecological conditions that any given piece of food necessarily is. As Lao Tzu says, “the five tastes dull the palate.” While they use their money in order to cultivate a sense of sophistication with respect to what they eat, fundamentally the rich have the same tastes in food as the children of post-industrial societies. What the rich value in food above all else is intensity of sensation and as such they miss the sort of subtleties that make food worth eating. Every fruit, every vegetable, every grain tells the story of the environment that produced it. Taste—in the operative and experimental sense of the word as it pertains to the act of cooking—is the method that we have of hearing the stories that food has to tell us.
For prior generations of industrialization’s discontents, the quest for liberation always began with finding a piece of arable land of one’s own. Today, this particular dream is no longer tenable, for a variety of reasons: the holdings of private property are too vast, the means of surveillance too numerous and far-reaching, the technologies of control too subtle and too advanced, and in any event, there are far, far too many of us. Even if the rich suddenly came to their senses and gave back everything they had to the poor and, in the greatest feat of cooperation ever known to the human species, all the world’s land was divided equally to all the persons of the world, there is still simply not enough arable land for each of us to have even a single acre to ourselves. This is to say nothing of the fresh water supply necessary for getting that land to produce a substantial quantity of edible crops. For better or worse, today we are in it together.
As we start to take back our agriculture, let us be guided by both the collective nature of the problem we are facing as well as the precarious and whimsical spirit of nature—a spirit which respects environmental conditions but not property rights. Who is to say what may possibly grow on any given windowsill, roof, yard, or empty lot? Certainly not the rich. Food grows at all only by virtue of what can never be owned or privatized: the soil, the sun, and the air. As these qualities differ across place and time, so the qualities of food differ. What never differs is the fact that what grows does so for the sake of being eaten. All who share in eating must share in finding the edible—i.e., cooking—both for oneself and one’s neighbors.
by Marc Lombardo