Cooking As Sacred Alchemy

Cooking –the manipulation of earth, or rather of its products, using fire and air and water— has always been a sacred and priestly act, bound up with rituals of sacrifice and communion. And it has always been a form of alchemy, transmuting lower forms of matter into higher, making possible human life and human civilization, and laying the groundwork for spiritual evolution. Even today, culinary traditions are defined, in large measure, by religious law which determines what can be eaten and what cannot, when, and by whom. In this sense cooking is the primary act of human culture and its most enduring.

The sacred and alchemical character of cooking is woven into the very fabric of humanity’s principal wisdom (philosophical and religious) traditions. Cooking, for Aristotle and the Western alchemical tradition which followed him, was a metaphor for the whole cosmohistorical evolutionary process. The heavenly bodies, drawn through the sky by their love for the Unmoved Mover, passed over the face of the Earth and imparted their distinctive qualities to prime matter. The Sun and Moon played the principal role, providing heat and moisture (or, by their absence, cooling and drying), but the other planets contributed nuances as well –the herbs and spices, as it were, of the cosmic stew. Alchemists could nurture these same processes in the laboratory, helping prime matter along in its quest for perfection. Medicine, which sought to balance the bodily humours and ultimately the basic qualities of hot and cold, wet and dry, was itself a sort of alchemy, and cooking was its principal instrument. Even ethics and spirituality could be understood using this same metaphor as the cultivation of virtues associated with the various heavenly bodies. And Aristotle was not alone. The Ayurvedic schools of India worked with a similar and probably historically related set of concepts, classifying body types according to their doshas and seeking to balance them using various foods. In China, meanwhile, the Taoist and Five Elements schools had flowed together into a body of doctrine which emphasized the importance of balancing yin and yang in order to keep the body in harmony with Heaven and Earth, and were then integrated into the Neo-Confucian dao xue which focused on the cultivation of human excellence. Even modern cuisine is affected by such concepts, deriving as it does from a new alchemical doctrine developed by Paracelsus which centered on extracting the vital principles of various substances rather than on combining and balancing primary qualities. This new alchemical tradition in turn gave birth to a new cuisine, which we now call French, centered on meat stocks boiled for hours and the use of oil based dressings on salads –things which would have been regarded as inedible only a few centuries before (Laudan 2000).

For millennia the knowledge which linked the preparation of food to the sacred rhythms of the cosmos was a closely guarded secret, the property of hereditary priesthoods and closed guilds –or else was passed on from mother to daughter in remote villages in dialects only they could understand. When, in the late middle ages, the art of moveable type came to Europe there was a sudden frenzy of publications, called “Books of Secrets” which purported to make the secret knowledge of the priests and scholars and guilds –often richly supplemented by secrets collected from old women in the marketplace—accessible to a newly literate public. Most of these “Books of Secrets” were, in fact, books of recipes for medicines, cosmetics –or foods with healing properties. This explosion of popular publication was part of a larger movement which sought to democratize the ancient ideal of the philosopher and give birth to a new sort of human being –the citizen—who was a full and complete participant not only in deliberations regarding the common good, but in the whole work of civilization (Eamon 1996). It was these autodidact artisans who formed the core constituency of the great democratic and social revolutionary movements of the early and high modern eras.

Gradually, however, this revolutionary ideal was eclipsed by a competing version of modernity, one centered on maximizing productivity by treating everything –the natural world and the human beings and human communities that were part of it– as dead matter to be broken down in order to release energy which was then used to do work and reorganize the matter in question in what ever way pleased its owners. Villages were uprooted and ancient ecologies destroyed as the land and its people were forced to yield whatever its masters demanded of it. Millions were forced into hellish factories where they contributed nothing to the work of creation but their brute strength –and where less and less even of that seemed to be needed every year. This new system did, to be sure, produce more. But what it produced was as dead as the process of production itself.

The implications of these developments for the way we eat are by now well documented and well understood. Industrial agriculture produces vast quantities of cheap raw materials; the food processing industry turns this into “food” of the most dubious quality, full of processed sugar and carbohydrates, saturated fats and transfats and enough preservatives to ensure that our dead bodies never decay –are never rejoined with the earth from whence they came.

Today, however, a new revolution –or counter-revolution—is under way, as millions reject the industrial model of modernity and seek to recover their connections to the earth and to the creative processes which govern the universe. Our growing interest in food –in how it grows and how it is prepared— is an integral part of this revolution. And there are literally hundreds of excellent cookbooks which can teach you how to procure fresh, natural ingredients and prepare them in ways which preserve and enhance their vital properties –while teaching you a great deal about the ecology, economy, and culture associated with humanity’s great culinary traditions.

The Alchemist’s Kitchen: A Culinary Book of Secrets seeks to take this process one step further, by situating –or rather re-situating— the art of cooking in its sacred and alchemical context, providing the reader not only with a set of techniques, and perhaps some historical and cultural background, but also with the meanings behind the art, as they have been understood by humanity’s great civilizational traditions for 2500 years. It seeks to make the cook, in other words, not only a master craftsman, but also a citizen-priest –a full participant in the civilizational revolution which is simmering in our midst. It is, in that sense, a new Book of Secrets, which seeks to rekindle the revolutionary spirit of the late medieval and early modern era, in which ordinary people aspired to what formerly only scholars had possessed –the knowledge to live full and creative lives, connected to the sacred rhythms of the cosmos.

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