pdf Download PDF

Reviewed by
David E. Sutton, Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill, and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island. Oakland: University of California Press. 2014. Pp. xv + 238. 15 illustrations, 11 video examples (online). Paper $34.95.

The secret is out: the values espoused and negotiated in Greek island kitchens are not altogether different from those espoused in universities by scholars.

David E. Sutton’s new ethnography is a study of cooking practices and cooking-related values among contemporary Kalymnians living a still-unfolding modernity. It surely will not disappoint any reader who is interested in what it has to say about them.

Sutton articulates some terrific questions in his book, including:

  • • “Why might Kalymnians choose to cut vegetables in a way that cooking specialists would label ‘inefficient’ and ‘dangerous’?” (5)

  • • “How does the choice of cooking tools and technologies shape everyday notions of identity and morality?” (5)

  • • What are some ways that shopping can remain deeply embedded in social relations and be considered a “moral act”—and not only the kind of abstract exchange frequently imagined or advocated for by certain economic theorists? (33)

  • • What is the most important cooking-related value held by Kalymnians? (Spoiler alert: the answer is “that cooking matters, and should be taken seriously” [188].)

  • • “How is cooking learned, and how is cooking knowledge transferred from one person to another?” (75) “And is ‘transmission’ really the right way to think about how cooking is taken up by a younger generation?” (103)

  • • What is “the role of identity, memory, and embodied knowledge in the process of cultural transmission and transformation”? (24)

After cogently reviewing the key ideas guiding his inquiry—ideas drawn from studies of learning and apprenticeship, phenomenology, actor-network theory, and material culture studies—Sutton goes on to address his questions patiently, informatively, and without pretense, all the while drawing on his unusually extensive observations and video-recordings of actual cooking activities of his informants.

Although the text is outwardly almost entirely about such things, its occasional “defense mechanisms”—for example, the repetition of an assertion (left unsupported) that “careful ethnography” is the best or even “only” way to get at such questions (151, 191); the uncharacteristically impatient reference to “Freudianism” as “murky waters” (115)—make me think that this book is also (unintentionally?) about the fate of the academy in what I would also describe as a still-unfolding modernity, characterized [End Page 209] above all by a neoliberal capitalist system. Sutton’s book strikes me as ultimately about how certain predicaments of the academy and of Kalymnos are connected, and, as a corollary, it hints that academics and Kalymnian cooks might have valuable things to learn from each other about their respective, interrelated, socioeconomically driven predicaments.

Sutton illustrates how, in spite of modernity’s “objectifying trends” (195) and its offers to outsource and/or to thoroughly rationalize food production, Kalymnians continue to insist that the “skilled practice” (16) of home-cooking matters. Likewise, in spite of neoliberalism’s (not new) demand that social science knowledge be either modeled on the natural sciences or abandoned altogether (a demand not mentioned explicitly in the text but there as subtext), Sutton insists (mostly by doing it!) that the skilled practice of “careful ethnography” still matters (151). His efforts overall, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, rightly suggest that being “careful” requires, among other things, vigilant self-critique aimed at avoiding the colonialist, romantic-nationalist, and other ideological shortcomings of early ethnography.

Sutton remarks that there is “a larger tendency toward abstraction in many areas of contemporary life, from education to Wall Street trading” (194). And just as “it is hard not to see these objectifying trends as representing the opposite of Kalymnian cooking” (195), so it is hard for me not to see them as representing the opposite of Sutton’s own ethnographic practice. Incidentally, ethnographic inquiries into “learning” (Sutton’s included) leave me wondering whether it is wrongheaded to abstract, objectify, and package ethnography itself as a methodology that (to invoke Sutton’s language about learning how to cook) can be passed “seamlessly” (124) to students “in any smooth, uninterrupted sense” (101)—at the undergraduate level, at least, and especially as part of a canned course requirement (that is, off the shelf rather than interactively designed with students) within a canned social science curriculum.

A point of clarification: I actually agree with Sutton’s assertion about careful ethnography (as the “only” good way …). To be frank, though, I also believe that sometimes poets, say, or novelists are as good at it as card-carrying ethnographers.

Another point of clarification: I said above that Sutton leaves his assertions about the superiority of ethnography unsupported, but he does nearly provide justification when he writes, “[q]uantitative studies that measure the frequency in appearance of different values in cooking discourses cannot capture the nuances of the interrelation of these values … that I have documented in this book” (181). It is just that this begs the question of the superiority of capturing such nuances. After all, you do not need quantum physics to shoot pool well—Newtonian physics will do. More nuance does not automatically mean better: Better for whom? Better for what purposes? Addressing these questions, however, does lead to a justification, one that Sutton’s text leaves hidden in plain sight when he describes the Kalymnians’ view that “[f]ood fit for human consumption is food fundamentally in agreement with a dignified human existence—what people at the local level recognize as the correct or right way of existing as human beings” (47; emphasis mine). I would argue that Kalymnian cooks and careful ethnographers are both attempting to promote (what they consider to be) human well-being in (spite of) modernity’s dangers and crises, whether the “financial crisis” in Greece (198) or academic crises in the US. (Sutton mentions MOOCs and the even more worrisome tendency—one that I observe daily among administrators, educational technologists, [End Page 210] boards of trustees, and many fellow faculty members—to see “knowledge as product rather than process” [194]). I would then argue that, where human dignity matters, scientists ought not to treat humanity in the same ways that they treat billiard balls: positivist social science, modeled on the natural sciences, offers a kind of predictability and control over humanity that ethnography cannot. (Whether it actually delivers is another story.) But even the most well-intentioned offer of scientistic prediction and/or control of humans is always already a violation of human dignity in a way that careful ethnographic inquiry need not be. So, yes, for the social sciences, more nuance does mean better. At the very least, more nuance can help problematize, if not pull the rug out from under, certain generalizations—utilized for social prediction-and-control—posing as Truths.

In choosing to conduct careful ethnography instead of positivist research, Sutton (wittingly or unwittingly) models the analogy of careful ethnography to Kalymnian cooking as “really addressing questions of what kind of person we want to be and what kind of society we want to live in” (47). One soon gets the impression that good ethnographic inquiry is, like Kalymnian cooking, inefficient; that it, too, involves Pye’s “workmanship of risk” (193), does not take “convenience” as one of its “core values” (45), and is “an imperfect pursuit” (196) and “a project without an end point” (23).

Although this is only a short review (by an academic generalist influenced by schizoanalysis) of but one good ethnography, my take on Sutton’s book leaves me wondering about recent academic books in general: What if much of today’s (peer-reviewed) humanities and social science scholarship—supporting, to be sure, in myriad little ways, the value of democratic-knowledge-construction-and-evaluation—is also some sort of collective defense mechanism that helps repress the mounting evidence that institutional space for democratic-knowledge-construction-and-evaluation that values human dignity (that is, the academy at its best) is being, or is about to be, crushed like a juicy heirloom tomato by neoliberalist forces much closer to home than we are usually prepared to acknowledge? (What if my review here amounts to little more than my own coping strategy?)

Eric L. Ball
Empire State College, State University of New York
Eric L. Ball

Eric L. Ball is Associate Professor/Mentor at Empire State College, State University of New York, and the author of the memoir, Sustained by Eating, Consumed by Eating Right (SUNY Press, 2013). In addition to facilitating student-led inquiry among undergraduates into ethics, he has been building and playing lyras, occasionally pausing to reflect on his music-making in a sociohistorical context, most recently in his “Essays Before a Syrtos” in the SUNY Empire State College journal All About Mentoring (2014).