“I got into philosophy through cooking,” said Sharon Fitzwater. “I
know it’s not the ordinary path, but then I’m not sure any two
paths have much in common. Resemblance may be fundamentally
superficial. I certainly never expected I’d have so much to do
with Aristotle. It’s as much talking with him as about him. Or is
it that I’m trying to talk with myself through Aristotle? It’s
always been something of a mystery to me how I might go about
getting my own attention.”
She pushed her long blonde hair away from her face. “Cooking
always fascinated me because I was so hungry. My father was a
machinist in Akron, Ohio. He was very good at what he did, so he’d
get called out of town often on quite short notice, sometimes for
as long as a month. I’d come home from school to discover that
he was gone. My mother was a different person when he was away.
Even before Andy Warhol, she had a love affair with
the Campbell Soup can. She’d take a can of tuna fish, add a can of
peas, pour a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup on it, heat it a little
bit and then serve it to us.”
“I just couldn’t get it down. My brother seemed to manage, but I
couldn’t do it. So I got interested in cooking and cooking led me
to a wider world. I discovered French cooking and I discovered
Chinese cooking. I’d get cookbooks out of the library and try to
imagine what the recipes would taste like. I’d filch things from
the supermarket so that I could try a recipe. The first bottle of
red wine I ever had anything to do with I stole from Serankos Wine
And Spirit Shoppe not more than a mile from the Goodyear plant.
When I got it home, I had no idea how to get the cork out. That
was how I found out about the existence of cork trees.
“What interested me the most about recipes was what was left out.
A recipe is like a map. The recipe is not the dish. It abstracts
features from a landscape and is quite indifferent to the mode of
transportation employed. I am always amazed when I take a trip
that what the map promised is there. At the end of a recipe comes
a vision, a flavor, the road to a gustatory memory, which not only
is like no other, but transforms, to a greater and lesser degree,
all previous memories.
It acquires a life of its own in us. I stowed away on a ship to
get to France when I was seventeen. My mother who is now
eighty-eight and as full of complaints as ever claimed that by
disappearing I had taken twenty years off her life. I always tell her
that I’ve added two decades, not taken them away.”
“I learned the language, which was no great trouble, since I’ve
always been an adept mimic, probably in service of the search for
an escape route from myself. But far more important than learning
the language was learning the taste. That changed everything for
me. I began to wonder why things tasted the way they did. I’ve
since been to China as well. I’ve studied chemistry, physiology,
neuroanatomy, botany, some zoology, even calligraphy and brush
painting as well as a host of theologies. I always could support
myself cooking. I never got fat, because I noticed that only when
I started eating did I miss people. So I resist until the very
last minute and savor what little I eat.
“Also, I can always make something like the flavor come back, not
that even in the closest approximation there isn’t a haunting
difference that sounds the note of separation. My studies never
satisfied me. Perhaps I displaced my appetite. It’s a matter of
how literal you want to be. I came to philosophy really out of a
kind of desperation. It wasn’t enough to think and wonder about
flavor. I had to think and wonder about the flavor of thinking and
wonder. I confess I’ve never been able to follow a recipe
slavishly. So much makes a difference. The light, the temperature,
the amount of moisture in the air, the season, something as
difficult to put your finger on as the ambient mood.
“I was immediately attracted to Aristotle by what I like to call
his ‘tangibility.’ I was married and had two young children by
that time. I could get my teeth into Aristotle. He excited a
tingle in the buds of my tongue. I could relate Aristotle to
cooking. For example, his famous four categories of cause seemed
to me to have something to do with the act of making dinner. The
final cause of making dinner, the end being pursued, was nourishment,
not only in the caloric sense but in the relational and cultural sense.
The formal cause was the particular designs of the different dishes
and flavors being sought. The material cause was the ingredients,
whose evanescent specificity is one of the great glories of cooking.
The efficient cause was myself, the cook, my pounding, rolling,
chopping, heating, mixing, melding and so forth.
“And at each level of cause, there were peculiar fascinations, as
for example, the intrusion of urges to seduce or poison or redesign
or inspire into the realm of the final cause.
“Yet, for all my allegiance to Aristotle, the romance, the
intrigue, the body of his thought and my own almost explosive
relationship to it, I always felt there was something missing. As
I taught cooking, I observed others cooking and discovered just how
difficult it was to find the receptive moment when the other might
not only hear but grasp and receive what you had to say or suggest.
I noticed as well that the capacity to cook depended crucially on
the capacity to taste, which was highly idiosyncratic. Those who
had it in them to become good cooks were peculiar in another
respect, namely, that they neither exactly followed the recipe or
adhered to strict technique nor did they exactly deviate. They
seemed instead to alter the recipe as well as technique. They
presented it in a different light, redistributing the emphases,
participating in a sort of melding very much in the spirit of
“This got me to meditating upon a particular passage in Aristotle
that had always troubled me. It rankled, rousing a negativism in
me that I have always been able to call to my aid but also have had
to watch carefully to see that it does not do me in by setting me,
against even deeper reaches of my will, in sterile opposition.
Aristotle says in the Nicomachean ethics that it is in the nature
of the good to be clear and definite. Now, I am not so sure of
this, for two reasons. The first is that evil can be especially
clear and definite. Certainly this fading century has been full of
examples of that. The second is that the good asks for an open
margin, a horizon, a place for rest, recuperation and surprise. It
plays tag with definition.
“This meditation led me to advance the notion that Aristotle’s
account of the four causes is incomplete by reason principally of
its assertion of completeness. That is to say, since we are in the
business of putting things in words, that the four causes, final,
formal, material and efficient do not exhaust the question of
causes. I should say that before I ever even dreamed of putting
this into words it had entered into the spirit and practice of my
cooking, which had become at once more rigorous in execution and
more impromptu in the sense of being tied to the essential
accidents of circumstance, the spirit and flavor of a certain fish,
a certain region’s crop of vegetables at a certain time in a
certain season, the composite vector of a certain group’s appetite
and my own need and unease about pleasing.
“The fifth cause, whether unkown to Aristotle or simply neglected
by him, is the lost cause. It’s what every project rejects. By
its very nature, the lost cause can not be found. Everything we do
or make is a lost cause. It eludes us. It misses the mark and we
have to remark this missing. Otherwise we end up with what I have
called a fetish of the product, while the process recedes into the
background, valued only for the product. But I don’t want to
lecture. The lost cause has to do with the indefinite and the
dispiriting aspects of the infinite. It’s not a matter of defining
it, but of pointing in its direction what will hopefully be a
liberating finger, not one that only confuses or misleads. Much to
my surprise, my machinist father seemed to get what I was talking
about and to welcome it. He chuckled ruefully and said that, over
time, he had developed tolerance for tolerances.”
Sharon Fitzwater’s face lit up. A handsome woman in her middle
forties, she went on, “What I really like to talk about is what a
lost cause the idea of the lost cause is. It gets talked about,
but mostly to be pulled apart in a thousand different ways. For
example, it has been put down as a cook’s creation. Now that may
actually be a compliment, for what we cook lasts only a short time.
It is meant not to last, except in the process of human transformation.
That process for me is the most lasting form of lasting.
“What’s eaten is lost, but also finds itself in new circumstances.
“I’ve also been accused of being a vengeful woman who wants to make
a hole in Aristotle. There may be some truth in that, too, because
I think it is holes that make us whole. It’s a question of finding
a way to include the holes. That has been missing. We have to
organize the body of our thought. That takes a dash of the
indefinite. Or should it be a dot?”
“I’m intrigued,” Sharon Fitzwater said crisply, “by the fact that
my hunger is changing, not that there is anything new about that.
My hunger, I would have to say, is getting wiser. I start now with
the idea that every dish, every hope, every holiday, every
appetite, every celebration is a lost cause. I really laughed when
they awarded me tenure. I think it was only because my colleagues
have no idea what to make of me.
“I’ve offered them free cooking lessons, but none of them has felt
safe enough to take me up. I think old Xenephon wouldn’t have
hesitated for a moment. He knew his horses and his dogs. I’ve
told them I love Aristotle more than ever. The lost cause is like
the missing link. It’s the impossibility upon which possibility
depends. When I see a Campbell’s soup can, I don’t know whether to
shudder or to be grateful. Maybe there is such a thing as the
shudder of gratitude. Now I’ve told you everything that I know
about my love life.”
She smiled and we realized that she had the most complicated green
eyes that we had ever seen. We left with a pang, aware that
capturing her in words was, well, a lost cause, too.