Book Review: Secrets from the Greek Kitchen

greek kitchen

Review of

Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill, and the Everyday Life on an Aegean Island.

By David E. Sutton
2014
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Reviewed by Rachel E. Black, Collegium de Lyon

David Sutton’s latest book delves into home kitchens on the Greek island of Kalymnos to focus on cooking as an important daily activity in and of itself. Cultural anthropologists have used cooking and eating as windows on gender relations, religious beliefs, social identities and so forth, but the idea that people place genuine significance on cooking and eating because taste, skill and knowledge matter is quite a refreshing approach. Building on his previous book Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory (2001), Sutton addresses not only questions of memory associated with food and culinary knowledge in Greece but also the ways in which cooking is a powerful daily lived experience. In particular, the author looks at the ways in which culinary knowledge is passed on (or not) in a matrilineal society, how this knowledge adapts to new technologies, and how the cook embodies cooking tools that are tied to ever-changing social lives.

The introduction tells us how Sutton came to study cooking on Kalymnos and why this is an important topic. In addition, the author places his work in the broader literature on objects, the senses and skill. He also makes a call for more ethnographic research on cooking, pointing out an important lacuna in the anthropology of food literature. Sutton talks about research methods and the use of video to capture cooking methods. Reference to these videos clips, which are available on the University of California Press web site, throughout the book give it a multi-media dimension that bring to life the ways of doing and the cooking spaces in Kalymnian homes.

The first chapter “Emplacing Cooking” starts off with general background information about Kalymnos and how Kalymnians shop, cook, eat, and think about food. Chapter two changes gears to focus on the role of tools in Kalymnian kitchens. Here Sutton gives the interesting example of the way Kalymnians cut food in their hands rather than using a cutting board on a countertop. The author explains that at first this skill seemed to be a response to a lack of counter space—it was an efficient technique that responded to the built environment. However, upon further investigation, the author discovers that this ‘technique of the body’ has deeper roots in social life: by cutting in hand, the cook can remain in contact and communication with the other people in the kitchen. She does not need to turn her back on the action. This is just one of the great examples that Sutton uses to theorize the act of cooking in order to locate deeper social meanings and actions that are embodied and embedded in this repetitive daily activity. Can openers, rolling pins and outdoor stoves are some of the other tools that Sutton uses to demonstrate the embodiment of skill, organization of social order and changing attitudes towards technology in Kalymnian kitchens.

Chapter three looks at the case of a specific mother and daughter to ask the central question of the book: how is culinary knowledge and skill passed down from one generation to the next on Kalymnos? Sutton reveals the deep-seated tensions that often exist in these generational exchanges. The themes of learning, transmission and negotiation are carried through in chapter four, which further explores the control of culinary knowledge and its transmission. Here Sutton comes back to themes such as tools and body techniques and how they are passed on through verbal instruction and demonstration. Again, Sutton underlines that knowledge is power that is not always so easily ‘given up’ or ‘passed on’ from mother to daughter.

Chapter five “Horizontal Transmission: Cooking Shows, Friends, and Other Sources of Knowledge” takes into consideration the many other ways that Kalymnians learn about cooking and food. Cooking shows are at the center of this investigation, and Sutton broadens his ethnographic scope to include participants from Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. The author does not give much explanation why it is necessary to include another field site and why Thessaloniki is representative. Although cooking shows are certainly having an impact on how people around the world think about and prepare food, this chapter is a topical and methodological departure from the other sections of this book that are tied to participant observations and interviews. Sutton mentions cooking shows in other chapters, and a stand-alone chapter does not seem entirely necessary. While interesting questions are raised about the commercialization of tradition and the development of a sense of regional and national cuisines, this is perhaps the weakest chapter in the book–a departure from the tight focus on embodiment, knowledge and cooking.

Chapter six returns us to Kalymnos and its kitchens to discuss Kalymnians’s changing concepts of shared values, healthful eating and modernity. It is also here that Sutton includes men who cook on a daily basis, suggesting that men and women have alternate ways of learning to cook and different motivations for cooking. In conclusion, Sutton comes back to the point that cooking is important work in and of itself. Sutton rounds out his conclusion with a broader comment on the production of cooking knowledge elsewhere in the world and the centrality of taste. Finally, an epilogue addresses the impact of the recent financial crisis on cooking and eating in Kalymnos. Unlike many other places in Greece, Kalymnos seems to have fared well. Growing one’s own food and turning ‘gift foods’ into commodities are just a few strategies that Kalymnians practice to weather the storm. Although Sutton mentions economic change throughout this book, more focus on the economic crisis would have been an opportunity to bring the Kalymnian culinary realities into focus with those of other struggling European countries.

This ethnographically rich book will make a wonderful addition to reading lists for courses in the anthropology of food, ethnography of Europe and food studies at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. The richness of the participant observations makes this work extremely accessible. At the same time, Sutton draws in theoretical considerations from the anthropology of the senses, skill and material culture. The author has a wonderful knack for theorizing the topic of cooking without losing the flavor of the ethnography. Although the chapters can stand alone as individual readings, the length of the book makes it appropriate for assigning as a whole.

Secrets from a Greek Kitchen is a wonderful ethnographic foray into the kitchen and an inspiration to other anthropologists to further explore the daily practice of cooking without forgetting the importance of experiences from techniques of the body to taste. “If we treat food, taste, and cooking tools […] not as some rhetorical flourish to liven up ethnographic writing, but as equally central to understanding the ways that people are living, reproducing, and transforming their everyday lives, we will, I think, see a whole new analytical terrain open before us.” [185]

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