Tuesday, October 21, 2008

After Alice (Waters): An Etiology

While it would be way reductive to date the moment in time when chefs began to pay attention to the provenance of the ingredients we prepare to the appearance of Alice Waters on the national stage, I have no qualms about giving her credit for making it loud-and-clear that we ignore how food is produced at the risk of imperiling the quality of our lives. If we choose not to know where food comes from and how it is comes to be, well, we may be able to cook it and make it taste great, but we miss out on the opportunity to know what makes it what it is.

At the moment when thousands of baby boomer chef wannabes were discovering that there was a big market for refined and innovative American cooking, Waters stood up and challenged us to discover who was producing the raw ingredients that we meant to cook, and to be confident that we understood the nature of each animal and plant that we meant to transform through our "art." I know that others have their own interpretation of Water's message, but when I dig down into it and strip off all the most obvious meanings, what I hear is a call to search for the itness or the ingredients that form the foundation of our work.

Yeah, you read that right itness.

Now I know that some of you winced, perhaps because you sensed that it (ness) smells of incense and indicates a modality of thinking that always ends up with the thinker unable to find his car keys. And that might be a fair assessment if you had reason to believe that I was really the Beavis character that I affect in the posts I write when I'm feeling cranky and anarchic. But this is not one of those occasions. I'm actually drop-dead serious here. You'll have to trust me on this, but I would never risk using a word like itness without letting you know I was screwing around. (Such posts are usually tagged with "Goofin" or "Satire.")

Itness is a (Socratic) concept that I use as a tool to help me when I'm trying to understand the characteristics and implications of the existence (or non-existence in the case of extinct things) of some material thing. Put another way, it is a device that I use to put together a description of the physical properties of living and non-living things and the fields that surround them. (The word "field" here refers to all of the culturally generated stuff that gets applied to the thing e.g., folk tales, beliefs about the purpose and proper use of the thing, how the thing interacts with other things and the quantum of information that develops from those interactions and so on.)

When I want to know something well I ask "What is it?" After the first (usually the most superficial) "It is..." answer comes back, I ask "Is that all it is?" and so on, all the while reminding myself that if there is an ice cube's chance in hell of knowing what the object of my curiosity really is -if there is any chance of knowing its itness- I better keep asking questions.

Of course the questions never stop and the answers they beggar never yield a complete understanding of what makes a thing what it is, so an absolute determination of itness is an unattainable goal. However, just because something is unattainable, it does not naturally follow that you should not bother to pursue it -not at all.

It is from the pursuit of the itness of things, and the recognition of how they are put together and what they mean and have meant to hundreds of millions of sapient beings, that there begins to emerge a profound appreciation for the extraordinary complexity and heart-breaking beauty of this life.

So when Alice Waters told us to pay attention to where, by whom and how our food is produced, I understood that she wasn't just offering us the means to become better cooks and sell better food. What she was also doing was warning us that if we did not start searching for the itness of the things that made up the foundation of our craft, we would never know what we were doing.

And that, I aver, would suck.

Here's a brief video that represents the partial result of my pursuit of the itness of pork.

It stars me and the 5 Berkshire hogs at Hendricks Farms and Dairy -where I cook and slop hogs with the stuff that at another time I might have thrown into a dumpster.

I LOVE slopping the hogs, it is one of the high points of my day. They are always hungry and absolutely revel in scarfing up the most revolting stuff. They never say thanks of course -not until we eat them anyway.



redredsteve said...

Okay, I'll probably make a complete mess of this but let me try to put another concept into words, or perhaps take what you've presented from another perspective...

You refer to things existing in fields (what surrounds them, culturally, etc.) but what if the fields ARE the things? You said that absolute determination of "itness" is an unattainable goal, but why? Do you mean that every "thing" has potential that has yet to be reached? That's what I take you to mean. But not knowing every application of thing doesn't mean we can't know what a thing is. It just means we have fully understood all of the "how" of the thing. Maybe we don't understand the purpose of the thing? Is that it?

I believe in absolutes, which I know may not be popular in this echo-post-post-modern culture (and I'm sorry, but world view will define your position in a discussion such as this). I believe that a thing is what it is regardless of personal belief or interpretation. So the only thing left is our understanding of it, not the realization of it.

See? I knew I'd lose myself trying to respond...

Great post. It definitely is a topic, if not THE topic, chefs and aspiring chefs need to spend a lot of thought on. It is why and how we are, or want to be, chefs, wether you know it yet or not.

Kevin said...

A delightfully thoughtful post.

Maura said...

I believe that a thing is what it is regardless of personal belief or interpretation. So the only thing left is our understanding of it, not the realization of it.

I don't think you lost yourself at all, redredsteve. You summed that up nicely. The idea that it's our knowledge that makes something so, e.g. Schroedinger's Cat, bugs me because it's narcissistic. It doesn't matter if we know the cat is dead. It's dead and that's all there is to it. It speaks to a power bigger than we are. (Not the dead cat, of course. :-))

But wanting to know all there is to know about "a thing" is an admirable quality, and one that is absent in many people, I believe. It most likely is unattainable, if only because humans use - what? - 10% of their brain capacity? However, knowing more can only make us better, whether we're making food or giving manicures.

And that might shoot an old argument of mine all to hell. I recently got into a discussion with someone about molecular gastronomy. He said that it's imperative to know the science of food in order to cook well. I insisted that we can cook well without any scientific knowledge, considering people have been doing that for eons. Maybe I was wrong about that.

Bob, great post, even though I didn't want to start thinking quite so early today.

redredsteve said...

Cooking is science, wether we like it or not. Throwing different ingredients in a pot and using forms of control such as heat, moisture, etc... it's all an experiment! A wonderful, and hopefully tasty, experiment of love and passion, but still an experiment. Now what level you take your understanding of the science behind the experimentation is where the argument begins, but it is all science nonetheless.

fiat lux said...

So much that could be said here but I'm utterly slammed and don't have time to tease out some of the connections ... really wish we could spend an evening with some good wine and talk it out.

Jennie/Tikka said...

I'm one of those people who believe that science (chemistry & physics specifically) are the best way we can explain "itness." I include the spiritual qualities in that as well since I personally believe they can be explained in terms of physics as well.

It almost sounds to me, BdG, like you're learning towards Plato's theories of the ultimate invisible perfect form of something, that contains the ultimate purpose of that thing.

And yes, I agree as well that if you have an idea of what an ingredient is at the level of chemistry, then you can understand better what to do with it at the level of physics - adding or removing heat energy, etc., to make it into something enhanced (versus ruining it with the wrong application of something).

To seek to figure something out is the earmark of intelligence. The lack of seeking that is the earmark of a lack of intelligence.

Bob del Grosso said...


You did not mess anything up and there is nothing wrong with "believing in absolutes." To describe a dog in a manner that anyone would understand that you were talking about a dog is a very useful thing. But when you want to know what a dog is, you get stuck having to ask questions like "What makes a dog different from a cat, or an elephant and are the differences sufficient to think of them as discrete things?" is when what you thought was "absolute" gets fuzzy.

I could go on but time is tight here. I'm intrigued by your question regarding the nature of the fields around things. I was using a pretty narrow definition of a "field" because I was hoping to avoid that kind of question. There is another notion of a field that is associated with different forms of matter that comes out of physics -which I do not pretend to know very well- and suggests that every thing we see is an aggregate of matter (and energy)surrounded by fields of varying size and intensity . Each thing and it's field is located along a continuum so that there really is no true separation between things.

I hope you were not referring to that. It's way over my head.

Jennie, I'm with you about science being the best way to describe what things are. I hope you realize that what I was doing in the post assumed that.

Tags said...

Just say isness

and you'll be in business

Bob del Grosso said...

"Isness" is a Zen concept and although related to "itness" , it is not what I was writing about in the post.

Messy stuff, this.

Tags said...

Amen, Brother Bob.

And no doubt knowing the itness enhances the eatness.

Kate in the NW said...

This post is absolutely...I don't even have words. Brilliant. It makes me so profoundly happy that people are thinking and writing in this way.

Along with "what is it?" should come "who am I?" Who are you?" and "what's the difference?". Even "who cares?" (ME!)

While being reductive is great for a sauce, I think perhaps being expansive is more useful in understanding "itness". Going into a thing ultimately leads us out, and out, and out - because the boundaries between things are limited conceptual constructions, not (I beg to argue) absolutes. Alice Waters' call to understanding is, IMHO, at the very ROOT (pun intended) of this - the essential understanding that we live WITH all of our food in an inextricably linked, phenomenally interdependent ecosystem of organisms, understandings, and "itnesses". Nourishment is not defined merely by science -though I agree; science is an exceptionally useful (if occasionally myopic) lens through which to view things.

The very "itness" we attempt (rightly) to grasp eludes us in its fluidity - it begs us to seek understanding while simultaneously embracing the paradox of deep, complex, highly individual identity - identity (whether ours or our food's or anything else's) that intertwines with boundarylesness. We are not particles - we are, perhaps, waves. (My Dad is a theoretical physicist, but I don't claim to really understand that stuff at all - it's just a nice metaphor).

I think Buddha and Aristotle were BOTH right.

We move closer to an (always imperfect)understanding of anything's "itness" simply by entering openly and earnestly into relationship with it - be it food, land, people, or culture itself. It is not product. It is process. The whole idea of "product" is fundamentally flawed and hopelessly limited.

And yes - I agree - it is all profoundly, poignantly, "heart-breaking"-ly beautiful. And absurd. And deadly, deadly serious, if we are to "suck the marrow" out of this life - or any other. Failing to seek the "itness" - as a cook, as an eater, or simply as a human being seems to be to be not only tragically wasteful, but disrespectful.

That being said - there's still lots of room for sausage jokes.

What a beautiful conundrum....
I feel so lucky to have found a forum that explores all this. Thank you!

Walt said...

Stimulating post Bob and great comments from the peanut gallery.

I'm still trying to wrap my head around it all. At the very least, I see day of deep thought in my immediate future.

But I have to ask...Did you just feed my favorite food with my favorite food? It surely sounds as though you list pancetta among the ingredients you fed the pigs.

Will these hogs eventually get fried up with some fresh soylent green's?

Bob del Grosso said...

Yeah, those hogs are destined to become human food. And yes, there was salami and pancetta in the slop bucket. Cannibalism is a human construct and abhorrent to us, the pigs are true omnivores and don't seem to care what they eat -at least that's how it appears to me. If any one knows for certain they do care, I'd like to know how they know.

Abulafia said...

Puts me in mind of James Joyce taliking about epipanies where....

"the soul of the commonest object...seems to us radiant"

It's also described as the moment when you understand the £whatness of a thing"

One of those rare high wonderful moments of truth when things are really what they are.

And, according to Joyce, the artist is supposed to look for this whatness, these moments of revelation, in the ordinary, the average, and the everyday, in mundane things and mundane people and compose their work of these sparkling and transcendent moments.

Sounds like mucking out the pigs to me.

Isn't that a naked lunch?

Cool post.

redredsteve said...

From Kate - "Going into a thing ultimately leads us out, and out, and out - because the boundaries between things are limited conceptual constructions, not (I beg to argue) absolutes."

If I understand what you're saying, and maybe I don't, "limited conceptual constructions" really only describes our definition of a thing, or it's "itness", in comparison to another thing, and the other things "itness" (geesh, did I say that right?). In other words, it's our understanding of it.

From Bob - "when you want to know what a dog is, you get stuck having to ask questions like 'What makes a dog different from a cat, or an elephant and are the differences sufficient to think of them as discrete things?' is when what you thought was 'absolute' gets fuzzy."

Again, it's what we want to know. It's our drive for understanding and defining a thing.

Hmm... it's rough, isn't it? This may seem a bit rudimentary, but let's consider it this way: In 1856, Mt. Everest was found to be the tallest mountain in the world, but, until it was discovered as such, Kangchenjunga was considered the tallest. Now, before 1856, which mountain was the tallest? Everest, of course. What changed was our knowledge, our understanding. Nothing (relatively) changed about the mountains themselves. And we only know Everest to be the tallest in comparison to other mountains, but these mountains are the heights they are regardless of what we know of them or what other mountains we compare them to.

Okay... that's just in discussing the properties of a thing, merely (ha, merely) scientific. It does not address, necessarily, the "itness," which, I believe, ultimately teases at trying to know WHY a thing exists and how it came to be. I'm trying not to project too much personal belief here because I don't think that was the aim of this post - but if you believe in the theory of evolution, then the only difference of the "itness" between apes and humans is really only a few degrees of separation, isn't it, relatively speaking?

It seems just a matter of definition and understanding, both of which we are all too limited in us, but then that's the fun and the importance of this type of discussion and exploration.

The more I understand, the more I realise I don't understand.

redredsteve said...

Sorry for the long post and double post, but one last stab at what I'm trying to say...

What isn't absolute is our understanding and/or definition of "itness." But that doesn't mean it isn't absolutely what it is.

Hahaha, I love this. :)

Jennie/Tikka said...

BdG -

Yuppers, I did get that - that's why I crafted my response like I did ;)

I think I'll say at this point that this is also the very same argument for why it is so very wrong to take something that's just being "it"self as an ingredient and reorganize it so severely (just because we can) so very wrong. We can seriously mess with a tomato at the genetic level and combine it with fish genes - but is that really a good idea? In Japan they have created glow-in-the-dark cats just for the novelty of it. That screws with "catness."

On a smaller level its why its so very wrong to take a good ingredient and destroy it - and remove it's "itness."

Why do we need hydrogenated anything?

Why do we need corn syrup in mayo - is it really that hard to stir something that separates a little???

I'm holding off on the field comments because that really IS a topic that could be discussed for a very long time - that's a really interesting area of physics!

redredsteve said...


I don't really disagree with you, but just to pose the question:

When you cook tomatoes down, add a few things to them, add some wine, basil, etc., and make a marinara, can you still call what you have made a tomato? No. You have altered it, changed it. You now have marinara, not tomatoes. So where do you draw the line in changing something to make something else? Is the purpose of the thing the line of morality in "itness" alteration?

Jennie/Tikka said...

redsteve -

I'd still say yes, its still a tomato because it's still the primary ingredient and you haven't messed with it to the degree of altering at a genetic level. In marinara its a tomato that released it's stored water, intensified it's essential "tomato" flavor by losing the water (based essentially on the flavenoids that make it red), and bonded with the other items and formed a new compound. That's "moral" in the sense that the primary definition of "moral" is whether an action is right or not.

Its still a tomato, less some hydrogen and oxygen molecules that have recombined with the wine and the basil, the garlic, etc.

A tomato is arguably no longer a tomato when it shares qualities that it gained by being forcibly (evolution never would have done this on it's own) combined with the characteristics of a fish that makes the tomato more conveniently grown. It becomes immoral because we can't say that evolution ever would have permitted it, if left to itself, making it a profoundly un-natural change. Tomatoes and fish never come into that kind of contact in nature.

Bob del Grosso said...

I don't know. I think a tomato is a pretty transient thing and that it's only a tomato for a very brief moment in time.

And yeah, I am a Platonic at heart and believe that things are always becoming something other than what they were a nanosecond ago.

Of course I don't use that logic when I'm putting signs on produce. I don't write "Tomatoes $2.00/lb for a nanosecond, after that guess what they are and I'll change the price accordingly." I leave that kind of stuff up to the Federal Reserve Bank.

Jennie/Tikka said...

BdG -

Do you mean "transient" like ephemeral, or "transient" as in homeless and living in a van down by the river??? :D

Am I buying a tomato to experience it before it rots into a oblivion - or to give it a home and convert it to Christianity???

redredsteve said...

It all comes back to the description of a thing. You really can't call a marinara sauce a tomato, I just don't see that. It has more in common with, say, espagnole than raw tomatoes. So by comparison and definition, through the processes we have applied to it, it is no longer a tomato (though it resembles tomatoes in some ways such as color, flavor, etc).

I do agree with the natural vs un-natural part of what you say... but would you be morally offended if I made a dish that contained a fumet and tomatoes? If not, than why be offended if I combine the two in their rawer... err, more "itness" states? Nature never would have combined a fish stock and tomatoes to make food, but I did. So does it matter WHEN it is done or THAT it is done? Are we just offended because it disrupts our ideas of what a tomato naturally is?

Just saying...

Jennie/Tikka said...

redsteve -

I might just, because, you'd be putting Clamato on my pasta! :D

Maura said...

I do agree with the natural vs un-natural part of what you say... but would you be morally offended if I made a dish that contained a fumet and tomatoes? If not, than why be offended if I combine the two in their rawer... err, more "itness" states?

But a fumet isn't a fish, any more than a marinara is a tomato. Maybe it's about when and how it's done, not that it's done. Marinara has a certain "tomatoness" to it, as fumet has a certain "fishness", but marinara and fumet have their own, unique itness.

I think I'm getting a headache.

I think I'll say at this point that this is also the very same argument for why it is so very wrong to take something that's just being "it"self as an ingredient and reorganize it so severely (just because we can) so very wrong.

I couldn't agree more, Jennie. Doing something just because you can sometimes results in things like green been casserole.

Linda said...


Your description of itness seems to combine a wish for knowingness that takes from both Geisteswissenschaft and Naturwissenschaft (a combination that might also be called cultural as well as physical science).

Physical properties change, from a tomato to sauce, from raw to cooked and so forth, but as your daughter so well pointed out with the pretzels, culture also plays a part. I understand where she was coming from because symbolically the food had changed.

Alice Waters understood both the cultural and physical importances of food, and her pursuit of knowledge about these aspects of cooking and eating allowed her to share information that is so important to many of us today.

Nice post!

MadFud said...

I'm so inspired by this, Bob - thank you.

I've printed it out the word "ITNESS" and I'm going to put it in my kitchen as we move into our new home.

Bob del Grosso said...

You are welcome...think there is a market for "Itness" refrigerator magnets?