The Meaning of Manipulation

In a panel I moderated recently on What’s to Know About Modernist Cuisine, the subject of manipulation came up. Food scientist Cesar Vega was the first to mention it, which made sense given his background and the fact that he is the editor in chief of a book called The Kitchen as Laboratory. Chefs Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa of Ideas in Food then stated that all cooking is manipulation—not something with which I can argue. However, I keep going back to that conversation. And I think it goes beyond the idea that all cooking requires manipulation. I don’t subscribe to the idea that cooking is art so it’s not out of romanticism that I stumble on the word. I work with scientists and appreciate what a scientific approach gives to food enough that I don’t object to the idea that the laboratory can be a kitchen, and vice versa. Stainless steel doesn’t scare me out of the kitchen. Manipulation, though… manipulation seems so clinical. So devoid of rawness, of fleshiness, of glistening fat, of luscious ripeness.  Manipulation is “mano”—hand—but it doesn’t evoke the touch, the contact between human skin and food, the reactions that such contact can send to every nerve ending, the physical, simple pleasure of cooking. Intellectual pleasure, certainly—and all of us around that table that day seek that stimulation as much as we do the physical one, I dare say.

Happiness, love, and passion are essential to even the most technologically advanced approaches to cooking, all the panelists emphasized then. But the term manipulation doesn’t express passion. Passion can include control, and doesn’t have to be heady or loud or unbounded. But it does imply at least an element of complete, unbridled, full, impossible-to-contain immersion. Passion is about your whole body, and your whole mind, and the lack of choice that comes with being so fully engaged in something. Passion means you have no other choice but to cook, to eat, to build, to paint, to sing, to argue in court, and, of course, to record in a lab notebook. Manipulation—well, it doesn’t sound like that.

From a purely technical perspective, one could argue that the manipulation is also a change in chemical structure. Heating a food is manipulating it. Freezing it is manipulation. Shearing its cells is manipulation. That’s cooking. But is it detrimental to cooking to think of it as manipulation? And if yes, is there a difference between experimental cooking and manipulation, then, when thinking about cooking in those terms? Is challenging notions of what food is and should be different from manipulating it? It’s intellectual and emotional manipulation, if anything. Why is that completely ok to me, to think about my brain being manipulated, but wanting to find a more poetic way to talk about what is done to my food? Is it all about semantics?

One of the definitions of the word refers to “manage or utilize skillfully.” It has a positive meaning and doesn’t complicate things by making reference to using hands or mechanical means or to do something with the intent to deceive. Managing and utilizing food skillfully could serve as a precise definition of cooking that is devoid of the complications of both science and art. It is objective—a matter of skills. One knows or doesn’t know how to do something. One has objectively appreciable skills.

“When we cook things, we transform them. And any small acts of transformation are among the most human things we do. Whether it’s nudging dried leaves around a patch of cement, or salting a tomato, we feel, when we exert tiny bits of our human preference in the universe, more alive” writes Tamar Adler in The Everlasting Meal. Transformation seems, rightly or wrongly, to be more “manual”—more about embracing the carnal aspect of food, the voraciousness with which you can dig into something—pull an onion from the soil, bite into that salted tomato; it feels less clinical. But Tamar is definitely talking about cooking as being something that should not be reserved to professionals, and is encouraging everyone to transform, then. Does this keep us in that dichotomy of manipulation being the realm of chefs and scientists only, not of home cooks? And so, if not for home cooks, how can we stress the fact that more methodical approaches can make all of us better cooks?

“Manipulation is about control,” Cesar texted me a few days after that panel, continuing the discussion. So by manipulating food we control it—which is then not the same thing as transformation. That control, especially thinking about it from a scientific perspective, implies a controlled environment, a setting in which all variables are accounted for, measured, recorded. When we control we can track what was done, what went right, what went wrong. We can learn a lot about how we cook, when we control. When we transform, we might be more haphazard. Which is good too—but serves a different purpose and ends in different results. Haphazard and passionate and carnal feel like relatives of one another.

So it is perhaps by thinking about transformation and about control and the need for each that I can reconcile myself with the use of manipulation in relation to food, to cooking. We always transform—do we always manipulate? And why, even though I am fiercely in favor of scientific approaches to cooking and passionately studying professional cooking, do I still need to think of cooking as something sensual, without being able to think of manipulation as offering sensuality—even though it has mano, and what is more sensual than hands? Hands touching food, hands touching skin…how do I get rid of my undeniably romantic ideal of cooking that has little to do with my pragmatic perspective on it? And can I do that without having to dig back into Saussure?


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