Crude Food : Both An Aesthetic And Ideological Revolt
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An Eater essay titled "I’m Finally Getting Rid of my Instant Pot, and I’m Not the Only One" by Bettina Makalintal posed a burning question: "Is the Instant Pot’s star finally fading?" 

The premise was straightforward enough. Makalintal, having stared at her unused-for-years instant cooking pot gently gathering dust on a shelf, had finally decided to sell it to a worthy soul. As she posted a message about said pot’s availability on the appropriate forums online, she found that there were a plethora of similar listings, from people who hadn't gotten around to using theirs either.

The answer to why so many people wanted to sell their ICPs was simple: Because too many had bought them in the first place, lured by the mass acclaim for this kitchen equipment to beat all kitchen equipment, the one that would help you turn over a new leaf, acing quick-wholesome-delicious meals in a nearly negligible amount of time, and with such little fuss/effort that some other avenue of self improvement could be pursued while your dinner gently simmered in its magical environs.

Spoiler alert: It didn't turn out that way for all of these people who were now looking to divest themselves of their once-coveted ICPs.

It’s not that the ICP isn't a perfectly serviceable cooking implement, it was this whole other idea that had been sold along with it that didn’t necessarily deliver. When  we struggle with our real or imagined shortcomings, when the living of life and all its demands of us feel too overwhelming, it's tempting to think that there might be a quick fix for at least some of it. That this One Cooking Pot To Rule Them All might make us better at managing our days and our roles.

But as Makalintal concluded: "Maybe the next time I try to buy a solution, I’ll think a bit harder about whether I actually have a problem in need of solving.

A Salon report from 2017 talks about the depiction of female protagonists who struggle in the kitchen, and the "lessons" these characters are meant to illuminate. From Lucille Ball to Lorelai Gilmore and Carrie Bradshaw, depending on the era these women featured on screen, there are different implications attached to their inability to cook. For Carrie, who bungles even the fondue and bread she wants to serve Big, this isn't a deficiency as much as it is a statement of who she is. For Lucille, it is framed as a speed bump on the path to domestication.

Think of Meg March from Little Women, and the scene where her jelly won't gel: her frustration at being incapable of accomplishing this seemingly straightforward culinary task leads to a showdown with her husband John who has chosen just that inopportune evening to bring a friend home for dinner. For Meg, the less-than-satisfactory showing in the kitchen reflects poorly on her status as a capable housewife; it also leads to the first instance of marital strife between the newlyweds. The space between Meg and Carrie's dinner disasters is occupied by the shift in how women are perceived in respect to the kitchen and the act of preparing food.

From Carrie to 2021’s Cooking With Paris is even more of a paradigm shift. During the pandemic, as the tides of Among Us and Tiger King ebbed and flowed, a little tutorial video by Paris Hilton on her YouTube channel was creating its own considerable eddy. The hotel heiress, It girl, reality TV star, entrepreneur was instructing her audience in the fine art of making a Sliving Lasagna ("sliving" — a mix of slaying and living — being another one of her catchphrases, although it never gained the cultural cachet of "That's hot"). The video spawned a Netflix series with the same concept.

Watching the 15-minute-long Sliving Lasagna video is a little like viewing footage of a ship caught in a storm, or of a tsunami hovering ominously above a shoreline, or of a shark cruising just below the surface of a sea full of summering swimmers. As Hilton boils pasta sheets, drops more salt outside her food than into it, brutalises a pan full of meat before dunking it in tomato sauce, and furiously churns a bowl into which she's emptied five tubs of ricotta, you find your anxiety rising: surely, that pan is going to tip over from the weight of that oversized spatula she got on her sixth (seventh?) trek to the other side of her kitchen island? Surely that hot water is going to scald one of her dogs? Surely her hair is going to catch fire on her next sweep by the stove?

The least harmful consequence you anticipate is that the lasagna will be an inedible mess. The worst is that the kitchen and Hilton herself will look like the aftermath of a war zone.

So it's almost a cathartic release, and an anti-climax, when the lasagna comes out lasagna. There's the cheese layer on top — a nice golden brown. The baking dish is sans suspicious bulges and spills. The oven hasn't exploded in a kaleidoscope of cream and red.

Viewers haven't been able to figure out how to categorise Cooking With Paris. Was Hilton in on the joke, her performance a nudge-wink? Was this a display of out-of-touch and tasteless privilege? Was it satire? Art? A cash grab? Cultural commentary and critique?

Even as it inspired a host of interpretations with (what some critics termed) its central blankness or vacuity (like Hilton), Cooking With Paris was also part of a larger, burgeoning genre of celebs-can't-cook content. Selena Gomez, Amy Schumer and Ludacris had variations of the theme, where they learnt to sharpen their kitchen skills with diverging approaches and degrees of success. Food fails and "bad (looking) cooking" have always been good for a laugh, but such type of content has tended to focus on regular people for the most part. This juxtaposition of celebrity and cooking calamities is different. It may have been a "celebrities struggle, just like you and me" moral or a "let's laugh at these celebrities making fools of themselves" moment or just a "hey this formula seems to be working, let's milk it" chain of decision-making. But Cooking With Paris transcends these suppositions. 

Instead, it harks back to The Promise Of The Instant Cooking Pot and those who no longer subscribe to it. In a world where food is often performatively pleasing, the anti-cooking show can be both an aesthetic and ideological revolt. Not for its acolytes the perfect processes that lead to perfect dishes, or the tidy and systematic methods that lead to miraculous Instant Cooking Pot meals. No, they’d rather embrace messiness, vulnerability, imperfection, inefficiency, inadequacy.

Because sometimes, even when all directions indicate impending disaster, your lasagna turns out sliving.