Alchemical Cooking

If you are reading this book you have probably read other books on food as well and probably gravitate towards those that set cooking in its broader historical and cultural context: books like Paula Wolfort’s excellent works on Mediterranean Cooking (Wolfort 1987, 1994, 1998, 2003) or the explorations of Mexican cuisine undertaken by Diane Kennedy (Kennedy 2000) and Rick Bayless (Bayless 2000, 2005, 2007). Most of these authors take an anecdotal and empirical approach, prefacing particular recipes with a bit of the history behind them or telling us something about the person from whom they were collected. Other books, however, such as Clifford Wright’s magisterial Mediterranean Feast (Wright 1999), put forward a very definite perspective, advancing and defending a well defined thesis and even advocating a broad philosophical perspective. The same is true of this work. It might be useful to explain that perspective, contrasting it in particular with Clifford Wright’s.

Clifford Wright argues that Mediterranean Cooking as we have come to understand it has its roots not in the ancient civilizations of the region –Egypt and Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome– but rather in three critical developments in the medieval and early modern era: the Islamic horticultural revolution, which gave us many of our modern vegetables, such as the eggplant and the artichoke, the Exploration of the New World, which gave us most of the rest (the tomato and chile, maize and potato), and the peculiar aesthetic of the Renaissance, which brought an Epicurean sensibility to the tables of Europe –a focus on the pursuit of refined pleasure and a rejection of what he calls the “dietetic cooking” of the middle ages.

As an explanation of the origins of modern Mediterranean cuisine, I think Wright’s view has much to commend it, and aspects of his argument might well be extended to other cuisines as well. What would Southeast Asian cuisine be without fish sauce (probably brought from the Mediterranean by Arab traders) or chiles (from the Americas)? What would Mexican cuisine be without Indian and Southeast Asian spices? And yet, I think, Wright is missing something. Cooking is not just about the pursuit of pleasure, though it is also that. It is about our connection with the natural world, with the vital, creative principle of the universe and with other human beings, with community. Cooking has, in other words, historically been a deeply spiritual act and is becoming so once again for those engaged in the culinary counter-revolution. In engaging only the late medieval and early modern tradition, Wright misses this connection between cooking and cosmos, between cooking and the sacred. He also misses a thread which joins the Mediterranean kitchen (in which we both find my original culinary home) to the Indian and the Chinese, the Mexican, and the Southeast Asian.

This point was made admirably by Rachel Laudan in her article “The Birth of the Modern Diet,” (Laudan 2000), in which she contrasts the “Aristotelian” cuisine of the middle ages, which focused on balancing hot, cold, wet, and dry, and which dominated cooking from England to India, with the “Paracelsan” cuisine which emerged in the Renaissance and which focused on extracting the vital principles of key ingredients, giving birth to a new Western European cuisine. Laudan, however, focuses primarily on alchemy as science and technology (which it certainly was); she does not explore the larger spiritual context in which it was situated.

The Alchemist’s Kitchen, then, takes up an older tradition, one with roots which reach back to the very earliest human communities, in which cooking was the priestly act par excellence, but which comes into its own with the emergence of the great philosophical and alchemical schools of the ancient and medieval worlds –the Aristotelian, Ayurvedic, and Taoist Schools— and their reflections and transformations in the hands of other cultures which assimilated and transformed them: the Arabs and Africans, the Southeast Asians, and those masters of culinary fusion, the Mexicans. What all these traditions share is a common understanding of cooking as an extension of the underlying creative processes of the universe, now become conscious in human hands, which aims at promoting health as well as pleasure and at preparing us for still higher, spiritual goods. Cooking, in other words, is a sacred alchemy.

A word is probably in order here regarding alchemy, which some readers may still associate with mad scholars in medieval robes tending all manner of chemical apparatus in an ill-conceived effort to manufacture gold. And it is true that some alchemists did attempt to make gold. But this was only one aspect –a very minor aspect—of the larger alchemical enterprise, and one which was never very well thought of. The intellectual core of alchemy was, rather, in Aristotelian science and its Ayurvedic and Taoist counterparts in India and China. The idea was, quite simply, that once we understand the processes by which prime matter is transformed into more complex substances, we can reproduce those processes in the laboratory and “cultivate” more complex forms of matter. The drive to produce gold, with which alchemy is traditionally associated, while it was certainly not unaffected by the promise of material gain for those who might succeed, was in reality simply a part of this drive towards perfection, gold being regarded as more perfect than the other metals in virtue of its relative immunity to corrosion or other corruption. The real aim of most scholarly alchemists in Christendom and Dar-al-Islam was to create the Philosopher’s Stone, “a certain pure matter which, being discovered and brought by Art to perfection, converts to itself proportionally all imperfect bodies that it touches (Arnold of Villanova in Read 1957: 28).” The Philosopher’s Stone was understood to be the material out of which the highest, or Empyrean heaven was composed, and thus the form of matter closest to God. As James Elkins puts it, alchemy’s work “was God’s and it was the ongoing perfection of the world (Elkins 1999: 73)”

It is in this context that the contributions of the Renaissance to Mediterranean (and even more so to modern French) cuisine must be understood. At issue here is not just an Epicurean focus on pleasure, but a new alchemical doctrine, that of Paracelsus. Where Aristotelian alchemy focused on combining ingredients, balancing primary qualities, and cooking in order to perfect form, Paracelsan alchemy focuses on extracting the vital principles of ingredients. Thus the centrality in modern French cooking on rich stocks made from roasted bones which are supposed to contain the essence of the animal, and on the use of various solvents (water, wine, oil) to extract principles from various ingredients which are then combined into sauces, which become the central focus of the cuisine. In its original form, this cuisine was no less dietetic than medieval cooking, nor was it any less focused on the perfection of the universe; it was just governed by a different theory and, we will see, it implied a different spirituality.

I do not reject these Renaissance and Early Modern innovations, but I do treat them as just one alchemical-culinary doctrine among many, to be evaluated on their merits.

This understanding of modern cuisine also affects my approach to culinary fusion. Most of what passes as fusion cuisine today is the work of chefs trained in the French (Paracelsan) tradition incorporating new ingredients from the Americas into their repertoire. Sometimes Chinese (Taoist) techniques are also employed, as in the work of Ming Tsai. Only a very few chefs (especially Rick Bayless) have drawn attention to the fact that most traditional cuisines are already the result of culinary fusion. And even these authors seem largely unaware that the fusions in question were carried out within the framework of an Aristotelian, Ayurvedic, or Taoist rather than Paracelsan alchemies. By bringing to light the alchemical foundations of culinary theory, I hope to show what works, and what does not, in the context of historical fusion. Specifically, new ingredients must be incorporated theoretically as well as practically into a new cuisine. Chiles, for example, which were not a part of traditional Afro-Eurasia cuisines, fit nicely as the heating ingredient par excellence. But my approach also makes possible a new degree of fusion –one based at the level of the underlying alchemies— and thus an authentically global cuisine.

The remainder of this chapter will be devoted to fleshing out the idea of cooking as sacred alchemy. We will consider briefly the role of cooking in hunter-gather, horticultural, pastoral, and bronze age societies, focusing especially on the role of food as totem (symbol of the unity of a clan), as gift and bond of solidarity, and as sacrifice. We will then explore the emergence of alchemical doctrines during what scholars call the “axial age,” the period between 800 and 200 BCE which witnessed the emergence of specialized agriculture and petty commodity production (essential material conditions for a complex cuisine) as well as the philosophical and religious ferment which accompanied the emergence of Judaism, Hellenic philosophy, the Upanishads, Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, and in the subsequent Silk Road Era (200 BCE-1800 CE), a period of synthesis which saw the emergence of global trade networks and of such new religions as Puranic Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. We will also look at the impact of the Renaissance alchemical doctrines such as those of Paracelsus and of the conquest of Africa and the Americas on cooking not only in Europe and the Mediterranean but also in India, China, and Southeast Asia. Finally, we will analyze the impact of the scientific and industrial revolutions on the way we eat and the way we relate to the world.

Subsequent chapters will look in greater depth at the alchemical doctrines behind the great cuisines while introducing these cuisines themselves. Each of these chapters is divided into a brief introduction, which discusses ingredients and techniques, a section which illustrates these techniques using simple recipes, and a longer selection of recipes (including both vegetarian and meat dishes) divided between every day dishes (Ordinary Time) and festive dishes (Feasts). Chapters Two through Four introduce the three basic cuisines which constitute elements of later fusions: Mediterranean, Indian, and Chinese. Chapter Five illustrates the process of culinary fusion using examples from Ethiopian, Mexican and Southeast Asian cuisine respectively. Chapter Six extends these principles to develop a distinctive global fusion approach. Chapter Seven, finally, looks at food, health, and spirituality. It integrates the insights of the alchemical traditions discussed in the book with those of modern allopathic medicine and suggests that the key insight from these older traditions is the existence of distinctly different body types which need different kinds of food –and different regimes of work, exercise, and meditation. It also pulls the various threads of the book together, discussing the place of cooking in a larger spirituality, and provides suggested daily and weekly menus and a global calendar of times, seasons, and feasts, with suggestions on how to celebrate them. The end matter includes two appendices: a table listing the principal ingredients used in the book (including herbs and spices) and the way in which their alchemical properties are understood in various traditions and an essay on sources and documentation for those using the book as a scholarly resource.


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