Life in Community

Smart Kitchens? What Happened to Love and Skills?

November 1, 2017 by

baking muffins

I read foodie blogs – it’s one of my vices. Don’t hate me. Coming to Paraguay weaned me off of some of my regular sites for a while, but when a well-meaning friend (a really dear friend) sent me a link, I was well and truly off the wagon. In defense, some of the funniest and best impromptu writing is on food and cooking, because whether we admit it or not, our day-to-day life tends to form itself around when we will be eating. So I can do my escapist reading in  the New York Times Food section or other foodie blogs and be equally content. These blogs in particular emphasize the emotional value of cooking and eating together, the numerous benefits of family or best friends hanging out in the kitchen and preparing food which will be shared. Only read the post about the chocolate babka from a “fearless cook in a tiny New York kitchen,” and you’ll want to convert to Judaism on the spot!

I have a soft spot for well-designed kitchen tools and elegant tableware. I can go into a trance over a perfectly proportioned pitcher or a glazed platter that doesn’t ever need to hold anything but its own beauty. But I was startled recently when I saw an article in the Food section of the New York Times about smart kitchen devices, and a conference in Seattle where such devices were showcased and demonstrated. The stated purpose of the conference was to figure out how to move the digital revolution deeper into the kitchen.

I won’t reiterate all the ways artificial intelligence is poised to invade the sacred space above the stove. Suffice it to say that if trends go the way the article predicts, we won’t have to know how to cook rice, we won’t pre-soak our beans, we’ll never need to remember to get meat out of the freezer, and artificial intelligence will tell us how, what, when, where and with whom to eat. We won’t even have to let the others know when dinner is ready. Your oven will text everybody. Admittedly, the article didn’t engender much enthusiasm for this trend; the headline was “Smart and fast but not much fun.” Still, many tech companies are focused on the kitchen, according to the same article, and want to woo us away from spitting frying pans, steaming pots, overflowing colanders, and the alternative art forms that we create in our kitchens.

If kitchen smart devices are to replace skill and love, what is their value?

Why is this so wrong? It is wrong because preparing food is an act of love, and eating together is a sacrament. Breaking bread, the beautifully symbolic term for eating, is something that Jesus has told us to do. He did it himself, many times, and his disciples were accused of breaking the Sabbath by plucking heads of wheat and chewing on the raw grain: food in its purest and most fundamental form.

At the Bruderhof we eat together about once a day, keyword being together. The Bruderhof’s public account of our faith and descriptions of the tenets and orders common to all our communities, Foundations of our Faith and Calling, even includes a section on our mealtimes.

Our common meals are an important and joyful part of church community life. Each meal is a time of thanksgiving. We often invite visitors, neighbors, friends, and newcomers as guests to our table, whether in our family homes or communal dining hall; through practicing hospitality as commanded by scripture, everyone is enriched. When eating together, we celebrate occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries, often with children’s performances, music, or other presentations. We observe the major holidays of the church calendar with special festivity: Advent and Christmas, Holy Week and Easter, Ascension Day and Pentecost.
Taken in a spirit of thanksgiving, every mealtime gains deep significance through Jesus’ example. He ate and drank with outcasts and sinners, fed the five thousand, and broke bread with his disciples as a sign of friendship. In scripture he speaks of his wish to be with us in the same way: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20).

On our larger Bruderhofs, mealtime counts are between two- and three-hundred, sometimes more, and preparing these meals draws on a deep ethos of love, of care, and of thanksgiving. From the garden and pasture to the table, this labor becomes sacramental as well.

Why is the common table so important to us?

When we pass on knowledge and experience from old to young, we form an environment of learning and skill-building. The novice cook learns good work habits, food safety, presentation, how to minimize clean up, and endless time-tested tips: how to sharpen a knife and cure a cast-iron frying pan, how to debone a chicken or mix a vinaigrette. The sense of passing on a gift is immeasurable, and there is scope for creativity and invention, talent and vigor. The kitchen becomes a place with a pulse: joy alternating with stress, anticipation mixed with nerves and all of it good and healthy. It provides opportunities to commend and to apologize, to pay it forward or remind a co-worker of overlooked responsibilities. Does anyone really believe that reducing the loving labor of food preparation to techno-bytes and sterility will yield the same experience?

“All sorrows are less with bread,” goes a truism by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. But bread that has been mixed and kneaded with care, baked and served by compassionate hands. Not automatic bread machines that regard calorie count higher than the quality of the crumb.

The kitchen is where we have always used our skills to demonstrate our love for those we are feeding. If these so-called smart devices are to replace skill and love, what is their value? Let’s keep one place in our lives free for creative love, let’s protect the skills our mothers and sisters taught us, and remember that love is a meal carefully and thankfully prepared.


About the author

Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey and her husband Stephen live at the Mount Community in New York State.

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