David Sutton on his book, Bigger Fish to Fry

Bigger Fish to Fry: A Theory of Cooking as Risk, with Greek Examples

Interview by Ariana Gunderson


Ariana Gunderson: You write that “cooking involves a code and its instantiations,” (Sutton 2021, 15). Do you consider the code of cooking to be analogous to linguistic codes? If so, how?

David Sutton: This question is really at the heart of what I was trying to do in this book. Because when I started studying cooking, I was very far from a structuralist perspective, and was much more drawn to approaches to cooking as embodied sociomaterial practice. Much of my work on cooking that was based on my video ethnography, especially in Secrets from the Greek Kitchen, focused on skill, tool use, the kitchen as environment, and other concepts that I adopted from people like Tim Ingold and Jean Lave. But what kept nagging at me was that cooking clearly wasn’t just emergent. We don’t just start out with a random set of ingredients and see what bubbles up; we set out to make something. So the whole dialectic between structure and practice that was so much of my graduate training seemed relevant again, and especially in the form that Sahlins writes about, since his approach is all about understanding the riskiness of all practice. And of course he was drawing from and modifying the linguistic-derived approach Lévi-Strauss. And then of course there was Mary Douglas’s work on food categories. So I think that at first I believed that these new approaches were what I needed to understand cooking, but the book is really about reconciling a dynamic structuralism with a more embodied phenomenology.

Ariana Gunderson: Might we consider recipe-writing a process of entextualization? Is the moment of recipe inscription a risky one?

David Sutton: On the one hand I have long felt that the moment of entextualization of recipes has tended to be problematic, a claiming of authorship that has often privileged male chefs over “anonymous” female cooks, a point made by Luce Giard, among others. And this appropriation of power often occurs in the process of inscription, whereas oral transmission is still controlled by ordinary women. So it’s risky from the point of view of who gets credit and who gets forgotten. It’s also risky in the sense that a recipe is always a “moment in time,” as Jacques Pepin puts it, the freezing of a process, which is the opposite of an approach attuned to contingency. So inscription is also translation, a translation of an assemblage of experiences; it is doubly risky. Perhaps triply so because in many culinary memoirs the moment of writing down the recipe from an older relative almost always presages impending death. At the same time, I think that the written recipe has a function, at least as a memory jog. Although the more I think about it, I realize that on Kalymnos this function is served by other people, mostly women that share the matrilocal kitchen space, and who constantly remind each other of the ingredients, proportions, and tricks that are involved in each dish.

Ariana Gunderson: Your research has been rooted in Kalymnos for decades, enabling you to examine long-term change and continuity in this new book. What do you see as the connection between an extended period of study and paying attention to small scale change?

David Sutton: I’ve always admired long-term fieldwork and the insights that come from it; I think it provides insight into continuity and change, or “changing continuities” as my mother, Constance Sutton, described it based on her long-term engagement with Barbados. Given that my initial fieldwork on Kalymnos was about historical consciousness, it’s also been interesting to see how ideas about the past change over time, and especially how small-scale change can lead to bigger changes. But small-scale change is important in other ways, in that you can see it happening ethnographically much more clearly than you can see a change, let’s say, from so-called traditional to modern world views. So I’m suggesting that focusing on something like cooking allows us to see the process of change (and continuity) in action, rather than comparing how things were at two points in time and making assumptions about what happened in between.  

I’ve noticed how many social theorists use the metaphor of recipes to talk about various social processes, though as with my comments above, I think the idea of the recipe can be problematic. On the other hand, I like to think about how much of the activity of cooking is similar to anthropology: attention to detail, participant sensing, focus on parts and wholes. Making cooking more explicit as part of our research can illuminate a lot of the social processes that we are interested in.

Ariana Gunderson: In an autoethnographic interlude, you describe recreating your late father’s spinach casserole in search of his voice. This calls up Annie Hauck-Lawson’s use of the concept of food voice to assert agency and the real-world impact of non-verbal, edible communication. Can you speak to how you find the concept of food voice useful in your ethnographic work?

David Sutton: I’ve always liked Hauck-Lawson’s concept of food voice because it can both extend and stand in for other ways that people express themselves. In Greece food voice is expressed at least in part through smell as neighbors pay attention to, and comment upon, the smell of what’s cooking next door. But I think I was most directly influenced by Carole Counihan’s slightly modified use of food voice, or what she calls “food centered life histories.” Especially in her book A Tortilla is Like Life, she uses the concept to get at the very distinct personalities, and distinct life trajectories, of the Mexicana women in southern Colorado that she was studying. I tried to do a bit of that in my previous book Secrets from the Greek Kitchen. In a way I feel like food voice does some of the work for me at the micro-level that gustemology does at the collective level. Both are about exploring peoples’—individual and collective—food-centered world views. I feel that the best ethnography moves between these two levels.  

Ariana Gunderson: Did writing Bigger Fish to Fry change how you cook? Do you hope it will change the way readers cook?

David Sutton: I think it did and I hope it does. One of my targets in the book is the idea of culinary perfectionism, what John Finn calls “culinary fascism.” It’s the idea that there is one right way to do some kitchen task, or one best recipe for any dish. I think there are a lot of lingering problematic assumptions in this approach to cooking, which can lead to things like molecular gastronomists claiming to separate old wives’ tales from scientific truths about cooking. My focus on risk and contingency, I hope, challenges the idea of perfection: in other words, I suggest that, like the Kalymnians, we should imagine good cooking as managing contingencies (material, sensory and social), rather than achieving perfection. Also, I think that the idea that I develop from Sahlins that every reproduction is also a transformation suggests a greater willingness to accept and enjoy the differences and similarities when we cook a familiar dish. I think that if we think about what makes cooking cooking in terms not of a product but of a process of confronting all the contingencies that arise both in and out of the space of the kitchen, and developing our own tricks to deal with these contingencies, to improvise, we might develop a healthier, more equanimous attitude, rather than the more dichotomous one of success versus failure, which can lead to stress and frustration.