Review: Bigger Fish to Fry: A Theory of Cooking as Risk, with Greek Examples

David E. Sutton, Bigger Fish to Fry: A Theory of Cooking as Risk, with Greek Examples, Berghahn, 2021, ISBN 978-1-80073-223-0 (hbk), ISBN 978-1-80073-224-7 (ebook), 142 pages.

Amy Trubek (University of Vermont)

David Sutton’s investigations of food, cooking, and culture are seminal to the anthropology of food. He has published three earlier monographs based on long-term fieldwork on Kalymnos, a Greek island in the Aegean, two of which focused on food and culture. In 2001, he published Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory (Berg), a pioneering consideration of the role of food in the creation and recreation of historical consciousness. Secrets From The Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill, and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island (University of California Press), published in 2014, examined everyday cooking practices.  

In this, his latest investigation, Sutton aims to consider important anthropological theories in light of cooking practice; theorizing and doing are always intertwined. His consideration is nothing smaller than theories of culture, for as he states early in the book, “food is a nexus of activity that can lead to many other issues and understandings of both the structure and everyday negotiation of social processes and cultural meanings” (p.4). He wants to extend and expand the possible repertoire of theoretical engagements with food that have emerged over the past twenty years (e.g. food and gender, food and class, food and aesthetics). In Bigger Fish to Fry, the anthropological “big fish stories” Sutton considers are processes of continuity and change, the tensions between tradition and memory, the acquisition of skill, and the place of risk in everyday action. Cooking, especially cooking on Kalymnos, is his focus; ethnographic examples from the author’s decades long ethnographic work on Kalymnos ground this ambitious and important book.

Bigger Fish to Fry asks the reader to take cooking practice seriously on its own terms. But as well, we are asked to see it as a “micropractice with larger implications” (p.15). Thus, when a cook on Kalymnos makes moussaka, she simultaneously enacts a cultural tradition and a set of skilled actions, but also makes a series of decisions that may put those very traditions and actions at risk. Here, Sutton is in conversation with several cultural and social theorists, but particularly Marshall Sahlins and his theory of historical practice and process. This book is a meditation on cooking as a practice; the focus on cooking reveals but also reinforces not just “culture” as a manifestation of traditions but also “culture” as the on-going creation of a certain fabric of human experience.

The book is short (an Introduction, Conclusion and three chapters) but it is not slight. The argument is complex; we are asked to think deeply about the motivations and consequences of human action and the implications for scholarship that seeks to make general claims about the nature of human experience, both past and present. All the while, we are informed, in examples that range from the home kitchen on a small Greek island to contemporary American food magazines and blog posts, about the extremely complex actions involved in cooking, too long considered a mundane and trivial practice. In Chapter One, the focus is on Sahlins’ emphasis on ‘the risk of categories in practice’ in understanding continuity and change. In Chapter Two, the issue of risk is considered in the context of cooking as a form of skill, framed by David Pye’s fascinating ideas of the ‘workmanship of risk’; in this chapter the small adjustments of everyday cooks are identified as stretching the categories in practice. One great example is adjusting the recipe for brussels sprouts by adding more water to the pan if needed – an adjustment to the structure of the recipe developed with the skill of repeated experience making that same recipe for brussels sprouts. In Chapter Three, Sutton considers categories, skill and risk with a focus on contemporary Greek culture: is the acceptance of contingency part of Greek cooking practice but also a recipe for how to live in an uncertain present? Yes, Sutton builds the case for a theory of cooking but along the way he also serves as a master teacher of the longstanding human tensions between structure, agency, and meaning that have preoccupied generations of scholars.

By the Conclusion, aptly titled, Take the Risk, he asks us to join him in further pursuing the fine-grained analyses of everyday cooking practices, wherever and whenever makes sense, to both deepen and broaden the anthropology of food but also the discipline itself: “I have suggested not just that cooking needs to be studied because it has been ignored, but because it provides us a way to answer questions about tradition and change, or continuity and innovation, that have implications for our anthropology more broadly” (p. 92). To make this argument, is for David Sutton, as an anthropologist, to also move beyond scholarly tradition (in this case the ends of theoretical explanation) into categories at risk (the anthropologist’s role in interpreting meaning in action). The practice of cooking shows that the weaving of human cultures is not ultimately static, as the shuttle moves the thread between warp and weft it is not to make a finished piece of fabric. Rather, cultures are made and unmade each day, in the choices that are made, the risks taken, and decisions abandoned. Anyone interested in further exploring the complex realities that are involved in the intersections of food, cooking and/or culture (from undergraduate to established researcher) will benefit from reading this book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s