Handmaking

When I prepare food, I usually get my hands dirty. Not just when kneading and patting dough into shapes, although it’s true that I am quicker to stick my hands into cookie batter and roll it into balls than to attempt dropping spoonsful onto a baking sheet. I also use my fingers to work oil and spices into the crevices of cauliflower before I roast it, to massage salt and sugar into radishes before pickling, to shape the dollops of yolk on deviled eggs and sprinkle the dusting of paprika on top. I use my hands even when following blog recipes that politely suggest using spoons for mixing and knives for de-stemming.

But I usually try to conceal this hands-on cookery from my houseguests. “I washed my hands,” I say sheepishly if someone sees me–and it’s true, my hands are clean before I sink them into vegetables or dough and get coated in oil and spices, but I still feel like I’ve been caught. Perhaps I’m influenced by the same bias toward human artifacts that Claude Levi-Strauss examines when he imagines different forms of cooking in his framework of the culinary triangle: quoting Aristotle, he notes that roasting is considered more raw and primal than boiling because of the pot that mediates between food and fire. Maybe I have absorbed the idea that stirring and scooping with utensils is more civilized than using my hands.

Either way, I never gave much thought to these habits–either putting the hand in “handmade” or the mild embarrassment thereafter–until I stood in front of a wall of screens which were playing looped video of a woman’s hands at work in food.

Sarah Khan’s Cookbook of Gestures, which I encountered at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philly, shows the hands of a woman in Fez as she makes an almond-stuffed pastry called gazelle horns from memory. It’s not that she doesn’t use utensils at all–there is a spoon for stirring and a brush for egg glaze–but my eye was drawn in by the screens that show the cook’s fingers raking through almond paste and pinching closed a crescent of dough. The movement is elegant, graceful, and knowing; in silvery monochrome, multiplied on the wall of the gallery, the work of her hands is elevated, memorialized. The installation is beautiful and mesmerizing to watch.

When I worked at a rare book library, I also took close-up photos and videos of hands at work: cradling centuries-old volumes, gently thumbing the edges, turning pages as thin as onionskin or as thick as vellum where you could see the pores. Nitrile or cotton gloves may be good for handling art and furniture, but most archives and special collections don’t use gloves to handle old books and papers; no matter the material or thickness, gloves blunt the fingers’ sensitivity and make it cumbersome to turn pages. It is usually healthier for old books to handle them carefully with clean, dry hands.

I will remember this when I am next preparing food for guests. It feels right that, in my kitchen as in a library, nourishing ingredients are handled with care and clean, dry hands.

Updated to add: The National features Sarah Khan’s Cookbook of Gestures photography.

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