Food, Traditions, Technologies

09/18/2017 02:28 am ET

I have always loved my mother’s spaghetti alla chitarra, a specialty from Abruzzo, her parents’ native region. It is a mountain area, with great artisanal products and a hearty local cuisine. This kind of spaghetti is made by pressing a long strip of thin pasta dough with a rolling pin over a frame on which metal strings have been pulled (hence the name of chitarra, or guitar). The strings cut the pasta, which takes the shape of a relatively thick spaghetto with a square section and a slightly rough surface, perfect to catch sauce. My favorite is tomato sauce with tiny, fingertip-sized meatballs. I remember spending hours making those with my grandmother, who would scold my sisters and me if we made them too big.

My mother owns a chitarra and still uses it, as it gives pasta a unique texture. However, when she does not have the time or energy, she uses a steel pasta machine with adjustable rollers and different heads to make various cuts of fresh pasta. It clamps to the kitchen table and the hand crank makes it easy to operate. Other more convenient and expensive models have a small motor attached, so you don’t even need to turn the crank. Although I may be able to make pasta with the chitarra, I never did. That’s mom’s pasta. Those are her skills. Using that tool would somehow encroach on her territory. So I have embraced the more recent piece of equipment, even if the results are definitely not the same.

We do not reflect enough about the role of technology when it comes culinary traditions, as we tend to contemplate them in a mythical dimension shaped by nostalgia, never affected by time and all that comes with it: modernity, automation, globalization… This approach is particularly evident when we turn our attention to rural or peasant ethnic groups that we may both admire for their attachment to customs and pity for their backwardness. Technology often brings to mind computers, contemporary machinery, and sleek screens, also when it comes to cooking. The risk is forgetting that even a spoon is a piece of technology, and an evolving one, at that.

Cooking Technology: Transformation in Culinary Practice in Mexico and Latin America, edited by Steffan Igor Ayora-Diaz, explores precisely “the types of changes that occur within the space of the kitchen and that often lead to modifications in cooking practices, which then translate into changes in the taste and the meaning of food.” The book is particularly interesting because it focuses on locations that are frequently considered as fascinating because of their supposed isolation, traditionalism, or, to put it nicely “authenticity.” By doing so, one forgets how those places have been affected for centuries by flows of people, objects, crops, and animals, and even the most traditional dish is the result of these at times traumatic interactions.

The authors of the essays in the volume show how the domestic, intimate space of the kitchen is a theater for ongoing negotiations among desires, needs, aspirations, social expectations, values, and norms that are both caused and reflected by all sorts of cooking devices. Issues of class, gender, and ethnicity all influence what tools to use, how, on what occasions, to make what food, and to transform what ingredients. Instruments are far from neutral, everyday objects. Their transformations over time become central elements in understanding culinary cultures, their history, and their future.

Cooking Technology takes us to Mayan communities in Yucatan and Guatemala, to the Venezuelan Amazon, to Oaxaca, Peru, Colombia, and Costa Rica. By looking at everyday practices, at special occasions, or just at the layout of kitchens (both enclosed and open), we can observe how culinary gestures that we assume express long-standing patterns are constantly renovated, pulled between efficiency and practicality on the one hand, and the aspiration to adhere to established standards and long-standing memories on the other. Once we start noticing these dynamics, our own kitchens – wherever we are – will also talk to us in new ways. We may reach a better understanding not only of our behavior around exciting gadgets and novelties, but also of our more ingrained habits and daily gestures. We may end up learning more about who we are. It happened to me, when I tried to cook my great-grandmother’s recipes on a wood stove...

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