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The Case for a Cooking Class at BC

I have nine tubes of acrylic paint in a plastic bag under my bed. They sit there untouched, probably undergoing some kind of chemical reaction in the shadows of my empty suitcases and laundry basket. These tubes are a memento of my dalliance with the Fine Arts Department of Boston College. They remind me that, although I am not a painter, I have taken Painting Foundations and I have the leftovers to prove it.

I enjoyed Painting: the quiet of the empty studio, the swish of paintbrushes, smudges of acrylic paints on my forehead. But let’s not play around, I chose to take Painting for one reason alone: to complete the dreaded core. Compared to dance or theatre, painting seemed like a safe choice. But what if there was another choice? One that didn’t require a trip to Blick or a confrontation with stage fright. What if there was a choice for those who aren’t inspired by music or drawings, but rather the hiss of fresh eggs in hot butter or the clatter of pans in the kitchen? What if cooking was considered a fine art?

I’ve always suspected that cooking does more than just satisfy hunger. When my grandfather, a chef and the greatest eater I’ve ever known, unveils his Grand Marnier soufflés each Christmas, my family sits in awe. When my dad arranges seared scallops on a heaping pan of paella, he does so with the tact and vision of da Vinci or Caravaggio. Although, admittedly, my dishes often look more like Picassos than Renoirs, the idea still stands. Cooking and cooking well is not merely a trade or a skill. It is an art, and a useful one at that.

Some schools recognize the link between artistic vision and food. Schools such as the University of New Hampshire, and Boston University offer courses or programs in the culinary arts. Within these programs, students learn and practice the techniques used in professional kitchens. They also study the indelible connection between culture and food. Although BC offers courses such as Food Writing and Food in African American History, we have few other classes that bring students into the kitchen and allow them to explore the techniques, traditions, and trends within the food world. BC students are not given the opportunity to study food, and we are worse off for it.

In the summer of 2015, I took the Food Writing course in Paris. As we poured over essays by MFK Fisher, Michael Pollan, and Elizabeth David, I began to see the hidden depths of cooking. Within each kitchen is a complicated jumble of relationships and histories, intense emotions that only the sight and smell of food can evoke. When, after three weeks in Paris, we prepared a class lunch in a rented-out professional kitchen, I saw that cooking class could mean more than just learning the steps of creating a meal. It could mean developing the tools to create edible art.

Although I firmly believe than anyone with a stovetop and a frying pan can cook an egg, exceptional cooking requires careful practice, vision, and creativity. What more does the Fine Arts core hope for? The addition of a culinary core class would dispel the idea that the arts are limited to visual or auditory media. It would affirm the idea that when we create things that inspire and evoke emotion, we create art. This can be an oil painting or a blackberry galette. And a cooking course need not mimic Home Ec or a simple lesson at Sur La Table. With proper planning, this course would follow the structure of other Fine Arts core classes. Rather than learning about shading or brushstrokes, Cooking I students would master knife work, roasting, and plating. They would learn from the work of Julia Child, Auguste Escoffier, and Alice Waters, as well as contemporary chefs in Boston.

BC’s failure to recognize cooking as a fine art reveals a deeper distrust of culinary arts on campus. Most students live on campus, and most have a meal plan. Although some students have kitchens in on-or-off campus apartments, many eat out. I have seen an anxiety in the kitchen similar to that seen in Painting I or Drawing I, the fear of trying something complicated and expressive. Practicing and experimenting in the kitchen can be a scary thing, especially when stovetops and finicky apartment fire alarms are involved. Unfortunately, there are no academic outlets for this fear. No classroom with a stocked refrigerator and a stack of aprons and a professor trained in the culinary arts. No place to learn about and demystify fine cooking.

An elevation of the culinary arts would do more than ease the stress of the core. It would bring life to food on campus. It would remind students that they can eat more than El Pelon and halfhearted salads from Lower. They need not travel far or spend that much money. With practice and vision and perhaps a stint in a Cooking I course, students could gain confidence in the kitchen. More importantly, students might begin to view food as more than just nourishment or a guilty pleasure, they could see it as a form of expression and a thing of beauty. An art of incomparable joy and reward.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Staff

January 22, 2017