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  • Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill, and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island by David E. Sutton
  • Eric L. Ball (bio)
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...


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pp. 209-211
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