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  • Bigger Fish to Fry: A Theory of Cooking as Risk, with Greek Examples by David E. Sutton
  • Stephan Palmié
David E. Sutton. Bigger Fish to Fry: A Theory of Cooking as Risk, with Greek Examples. Berghahn, 2021. 142 pp.

David Sutton's slim but eminently provocative book centers on a problem that has been a hardy perennial ever since the inception of our discipline in the second half of the nineteenth century. Call it what you will—continuity and change, tradition and innovation, structure and event; the question of how human agency takes off from inherited forms and either replicates them, if, perhaps not under conditions of one's own choosing; or departs from them, either due to situational contingency, sheer whim and fancy, carefully planned innovation, or utter accident. This is what anthropologists have been worrying about for as long as there has been a name for them.

We have read about this moment in all kinds of contexts—from Rivers' "disappearance of useful arts" (2013 [1926]) in Melanesia to Kroeber's (1919) correlations between skirt-hem length and American social conditions, or Kuhn's (1962) paradigm shifts in science. But not in the scenario of everyday kitchens, where, as Sutton persuasively argues, history is made—cooked up!—day in and day out and can actually be observed ethnographically in the form of micropractices that aim at reproduction, but always include variation, controlled improvisation, and sometimes can lead to genuine transformation: something that everyone involved tends to think of as utterly new (for good or bad). As in all other domains of culture, not only recipes or actual culinary practices (which may depart from them) may change; rather, the ways in which the resulting dishes are judged by competent eaters as similar or different, authentic or contrived, successful or not—depend on situational, and so ultimately historical, felicity [End Page 195] conditions that transform seemingly dead stretches of time and drudgery at the stove into an event (or not—as the case may be).

Drawing on decades of ethnographic fieldwork on the Greek island of Kalymnos, and written in eminently accessible prose, Sutton's book thus aims to fry a rather large theoretical fish. But it does so in an immediately relatable manner. Though pegged to the ostensibly homely domain of everyday cooking—say, making moussakas that Kalymnians would recognize as acceptable versions of the dish (even though canned bechamel has been invading their culinary praxis), or throwing leftovers together to make a tasty dinner at home in Southern Illinois—Sutton's contribution aims at a theory of history making in Marshall Sahlins' (1981) sense of exposing the categories of a culture or cuisine "as constituted" to the risk of praxis in a recalcitrant, unpredictable world.

This is a theory for which the story of Chicken Marengo may serve as an illuminating foil. As the well-known myth goes, after the crucial victory against the Austrian army near the hamlet of Marengo in the Italian Piemonte, Napoleon's cook François Claude Guignet, better known as Dunant, was scrambling to create a semblance of dinner for the youthful military prodigy and political usurper, artfully throwing together what was ready at hand: a chicken, olive oil, tomatoes, some crawfish, a bit of truffles and a fried egg. Eh voila! The birth of poulet à la Marengo, a dish which, from Carême onward, would become a standard in la grande cuisine.

Of course, as Andrew Uffindell tells us in his charming book Napoleon's Chicken Marengo (2011), none of this is true (Dunant became Napoleon's chef de cuisine only two years after the battle of Marengo, olive oil would have been hard to come by in the Italian Piemonte, no eyewitness to the battle and its aftermath ever recalled the dish, etc., etc.). But it serves as an apt illustration of the kind of theory of cultural change that Sutton aims to complicate. Obviously, heroic top-down innovation does occur, here or there, but who replicates Ferrán Adrià's molecular cuisine in their day-today dinner making? By and large, culinary—and eo ipso cultural—transformation is driven by far more mundane factors and considerations, and Sutton...