Saturday, March 31, 2018

Nota bene: Cooking warm, cooking cool

I’m in the middle of a lovely beach break in Costa Rica, but for some reason I haven’t been able to get the egg spoon story out of my mind. And so, by request, I’ll come out with what’s been bothering me. Which is: The difference between an egg spoon and a sous vide machine is real enough, but it’s not nearly as gendered as the NYT would have you believe.

Here’s the bit which I’m getting hung up on (and, full disclosure, I’m a man who loves his two sous-vide machines, and uses them all the time):

Cooking an egg in an iron spoon over open fire is really no more precious and probably a lot less elitist than cooking an egg in $300 sous-vide machine, said Samin Nosrat in a recent interview — except that women tend to do the former and men the latter.

I just don’t buy this. For one thing, the egg spoon is hand forged, in iron, by a man (Angelo Garro) to specifications drawn up by another man (William Rubel) in a book carrying the title “The Magic of Fire: Hearth Cooking: One Hundred Recipes for the Fireplace or Campfire”. That might be a gendered book, but if it is, it’s not gendered as female.

Similarly, cooking an egg sous vide is no more masculine than using a hair-dryer to dry your chicken. It’s a food hack, a way to predictably get exactly the results that you want. The act of setting a sous-vide machine, or hair-drying a chicken, or using a Thermapen to gauge the doneness of a piece of meat, is deeply unsexy. It’s practical and utilitarian and can even, in some parts, be considered a bit of a cheat. But it’s a very handy means to the end of getting a certain piece of food to taste exactly how you want it to taste.

That kind of cooking is cool: think stainless steel and induction stovetops and Instant Pots and steam ovens and Corian countertops. Your kitchen is a machine: ingredients go in, food comes out.

The opposite of cool cooking is warm cooking. Think wood, earthenware, cast iron. Warm cooking can be gendered female: your grandmother’s wooden spoon which has been stirring much-loved ragú for decades. Or your abuela’s mole. But it can equally be gendered male, in the form of, say, just about any form of cooking over an outdoor open fire, or anything which involves taking a heavy cast-iron pan and picking it up with one hand. Or it can be somewhere in between: think of that giant pot of ramen broth which has been bubbling away on the same stove for years.

In warm cooking, people love to say things like “the secret ingredient is love”; in cool cooking, that makes no sense. Warm cooking is not always impractical, but in the case of the egg spoon it certainly is. (Just think through how you’d serve even four eggs using this method, without the first one going miserably cold.) Cool cooking, by contrast, takes practicality seriously: I can throw a dozen eggs into 75°C water, leave them there for ten minutes, and transfer them back to the egg carton they came in; by the time they cool down to room temperature, I have perfect hard-boiled eggs which will last in the fridge more or less indefinitely. That process is much, much less pleasurable than roasting an egg in a custom-made iron spoon over perfectly glowing embers, but it’s also vastly more practical.

Warm cooking can also be decorative and performative in a way that cool cooking just isn’t. No matter how infrequently you use your egg spoon, it looks amazing hanging by your fireplace. An Aga stove is a gorgeous centerpiece to any home, just like a perfectly-oiled wooden kitchen counter. A sous-vide immersion circulator, by contrast, goes straight back in the drawer the minute it’s no longer being used. How can you tell that a Chemex is warm while an Aeropress is cool? One stays out; the other gets put away.

If you have a gut dislike of the quaint economy, and there’s no shortage of reasons why you might, then of course you’re going to hate the egg spoon. But there’s plenty of rugged workwear and beard oil in #TQE: it’s not a gendered thing. I know lots of men who would love to have (and even, occasionally, use) an egg spoon; they would probably keep it quite close to their collection of Damascus steel knives. Meanwhile, simple hacks which make delicious food with little effort — the Instant Pot creed — have historically been the purview of homemakers. It’s easy to construct a gendered story where Dad makes the fire and does the special once-a-year egg spoon eggs, to general acclaim, while Mom is the one thanklessly churning out hard-boiled eggs with a sous-vide circulator, throwing them into the kids’ lunch boxes every day.

For me, then, the egg spoon vs sous-vide debate has little if anything to do with women vs men. And yes, of course, you really don’t need any expensive gadget at all to cook eggs. But if you are going to get yourself an egg gadget, I can heartily recommend the egg skelter, at least if you live in a country which doesn’t refrigerate its eggs. You automatically use exactly the eggs you should eat first, you can see at a glance how many you have left, and it takes up very little counter space. Plus, it warms up any kitchen. It would look amazing next to your egg spoon.