Kitchen confidential

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Stephan Palmié. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.1.032


Kitchen confidential

Stephané PALMI, University of Chicago

Response to Hau Book Symposium on Palmié, Stephan. 2013. The cooking of history: How not to study Afro-Cuban religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

I use “ironist” to name the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires—someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance.

—Richard Rorty

Responding to this set of commentaries on my “cookbook” is a task both flattering and humbling. Let me begin in the latter spirit, and agree with Michael Silverstein’s point that The cooking of history is, indeed, both a confessio and an apologia. Confessio in Saints Augustine’s and Patrick’s sense as a reflection on a process of serendipitous bungling toward a present state of—however contingent, however provisional—self-knowledge as an “anthropologist of Afro-Cuban religion” (and all of these terms deserve their scare quotes). Apologia, because such reflections are tempered by a defense of a faith, if you will, in a reflexive historical empiricism that stands at the core of the relation, as I now think of it, between me and what became my “object of study” (of course, it only became so in as much as I came to think of myself as the “subject” of such studying).

The perspective I defend in my “cookbook” is empiricist, because what I tend to are “phenomena” inseparable from my “agency of observation” and inscription, to follow Danilyn Rutherford’s mobilization of Karen Barad’s (2010) terminology. This perspective is historical, not just because such agency extends over the course of a certain stretch of my own biography (1984–2013); but historical also because [554]my own observational/inscriptional agency as a data producing “device” in human shape was and is calibrated to social, and therefore contingent standards; historical, finally, because it situates such agency in a long and exceedingly heteroglossic conversation: a conversation in the MacIntyrean, rather than Malinowskian sense, and one that has been going on for a good century now. My perspective is reflexive because … well that should, by now, go without saying.

Continuing in the confessional mode, let me say that my previous book, Wizards and scientists (Palmié 2002) was a very angry one; its tenor all too tragic. As I now better understand, that book—though largely historically focused—was deeply shaped by my experience of doing ethnographic fieldwork during the worst years of the massive crisis that gripped Cuba once the Soviet subsidies that had long financed the island’s “advances toward Socialism” had dried up. The times I spent in Cuba in the mid-1990s were, indeed, terrible ones for my friends and interlocutors. As one of them—now the wife of a French sociologist—said to me a few years ago, “you are one of the people who still remember when we ate garbage, and walked around in broken Chinese sneakers with our big toes sticking out.” She might have added: and when we used to prostitute ourselves to people just like you. I remember a day when her Jewish Franco-Algerian husband-to-be and I were taken, by a mutual friend, to the former cementerio hebreo on the very outskirts of Havana’s eastern municipality of Guanabacoa. Along the way, and to our Cuban friend’s great annoyance, we were propositioned too many times to count (“psspssque quieren tus yumas? Chicas? PPG?”—“hey, what do your [derogatory term for hard-currency wielding foreigners] want? Girls? A blood pressure medication [considered the next best to Viagra]?”). When my French companion had satisfied himself that the grave sites did not feature any Sephardic names (all the dead there seemed to be American Ashkenazi expats), our Cuban friend who had stayed behind told us that the sexton had offered to sell the foreigners bones of dead Jews (a coveted ingredient to the power objects known as ngangas in the ritual traditions of the reglas de congo where the remains of unbaptized people—Chinese bones are sought after, too—make for the most effective ngangas).

A moment of ethnographic outrage, to be sure (whoever said that the ethnographer’s outrage should not count as a datum?). But one that I have since come to put under a description informed by a stance different from the one that I took in Wizards and scientists. That redescription builds on a perspective akin to what Barad calls an “agentive realism” centered on a notion of ontological (not just epistemic) “entanglement.” And what such a perspective has done for me and my own engagement with the volatile compound—“Afro”-“Cuban” “religion”—that has been my concern for all these years, is this: to impart me with a conviction that irony is, perhaps, one of the better tools to engage a world that may well be fundamentally unkind and uncaring, unless, that is, you try to make it behave otherwise. But how to do so? One of the ways we might set our endeavors on such a track is to take a pause. Perhaps slowing down “the onrush of predictable interpretations” (in Isabel Stengers’ [2005] sense) might bring us to a realization—adumbrated, long ago, by the hero of my cookbook, Fernando Ortiz—that what he called “the cooking of history” is part and parcel of the human condition: we know the world, including the “ethnographic worlds” (kitchens of culture, as [555]Michael Silverstein felicitously puts it) that anthropologists routinely carve out of larger continua of human sociality, because we simply aren’t disembodied “thinking things,” but inescapably part of just that world. Entangled with it, for better or worse.

Hence the impossibility of a “recipe,” in M. F. K. Fisher’s (1968: 11) sense, as “a formula, a means prescribed for producing a desired result, whether that be an atomic weapon, a well-trained Pekinese, or an omelet.” Fisher’s notion of a “recipe,” of course, recurs to the kind of “entextualized” metaculinary prescriptions that arose at a moment of high culinary modernism (datable, in the United States, perhaps to Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Boston Cooking School cook book) when a properly disciplined regime of gastronomic instructions seemingly drove a Cartesian wedge between the cook’s embodied practical knowledge and her food, thus displacing the “add this and that at the appropriate time” style of older kitchen-aide de memoires that, from Apicius and Platina onward, had always presupposed just such knowledge.1 Yet however much prescriptive regimentation may work for some forms of cookery (baking, for example, with its chemically required quanta of ingredients, temperature, and time), recipes turn into utter illusion when it comes to the contingency and transformativity of the “self-writing game” that we have come to call history. This is so because history, as Fernando Ortiz tells us, is a “stew”: An ever-changing heterogeneity that indeterminately (and indeterminably) bubbles away on the hearth of time, accommodating the agency, shortor farsighted (we only ever know in the aftermath), of a multiplicity of cooks. Stews are patient. Patisserie is not. One consists in a manifold of variables. The other is unforgiving in its exigencies.

Notwithstanding attempts on behalf of the supposedly “harder” social sciences to come up with predictive indicators, there thus just cannot be a recipe for “history” in Fisher’s sense—and precisely because historiography (always a belated inscription) cannot be but “intra-agentive” in Barad’s sense and “dialogic” in Bakhtin’s. That, of course, is what the methodological hallmark of our discipline implies as well: to do ethnography—inscribing history as it is made (if under conditions of none of the actors’ choosing)—may well be to engage in a fool’s errand. Richard Rorty (1989: 73–74) is speaking about just this when he circumscribes the ironists’ (anthropologists’?) dilemma “as never quite being able to take themselves seriously because always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change, always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies, and thus of their selves.” Since the “Writing Culture” moment of the 1980s, it has become trite to point out that we’ve never just been flies on other people’s walls, or that our monographs pander what Marilyn Strathern (1987) called “persuasive fictions” of ethnographic factualities. But perhaps we have been too unkind to ourselves. Here, Science and Technology Studies might [556]give us courage2: much like physicists in their laboratories actively produce observable phenomena by “intra-acting” with the world and its materiality (Barad’s scenario) and thereby “cook up” a universe deeply entangled with themselves, so we might say with Ortiz that the phenomena that we confect in our ethnographic “laboratories” (a bad metaphor of far too long a standing in the discipline) emerge from our intra-actions with a good number of other cooks, not a few of whom may have strong feelings about—curatorial interests in, as Silverstein puts it—the dish in the making.

Just like a different experimental design configures light as wave or particle (or rather, cooks it into one or the other of its potentialities), so do different epistemic and conceptual frames variously configure sets of ethnographic data as divination rituals or baseball game-planning, as spirit possession or tourist exploitation. This is a point well exemplified in Silverstein’s discussion of what it takes to bring a “religion” into institutionally legible being, or Kristina Wirtz’s elaboration on the question of origins that has haunted Afro-Atlantic anthropology from its inception. To put it with Emily Yates-Doerr and Annemarie Mol (2012), contrary to Plato’s vision of analytical boucherie, different cuts into the world yield different ontologies. So in the cases I have been concerned with in The cooking of history: just as institutionally undifferentiated references to the realm of the divine were laboriously brought into line with legally entrenched “common sense” about what “a religion” should look like—by the US Supreme Court, for instance—so were vague notions of an “Africanity” inhering in such references construed, again laboriously so, into “Yoruba traditions” (that came into being at virtually the same time as their “survivals” in various New World “diasporas”). But the point is, none of this happened because Santeros started to realize, out of the blue, that they had been practicing “a religion,” keeping a faith in the oricha alive, or needed to realign their own practices with ethnographically authorized “Yoruba origins.” All these were processes that unfolded in the neighborhood of nascent forms of institutional knowledge: anthropology among them.

Our own presence and agency in our interlocutors’ kitchens of culture, thus, was never inconsequential: when we write about such sites of confection as part of our own “world-making projects” (Wirtz), what we do is add to, or at least reconfigure, the kitchen’s furniture. At times, we leave dirty pots and pans behind, at others we add novel ingredients to the pantry or spice rack, or drop instructions about modifications to a recipe that may or may not become subject to future uptake. If Barad’s scientists cannot help but “meet the universe halfway,” then we meet the denizens of other symbolic universes halfway, too. This is what I meant by the metaphor of an “ethnographic interface”: it constitutes a boundary only insofar as we effect an ontological cut that allows us to forget our own agency in setting up the interface as such in the first place—by severing objects from subjects of investigation, surreptitiously freezing time, or reducing the resulting confections [557]to “recipes” of methodological or analytical nature.3 On the contrary, the boundary objects that emerge at such an interface—translational devices, if you will, but with distinctly traitorous tendencies—are themselves virtual feedback engines prone to churn out proliferating differences that can come to set off cascades of novel reality effects on either side of the “interface.”

Once this machinery has properly revved up, we are in the company of Bruno Latour’s (1993) hybrid “denizens of the middle kingdom” that render belated epistemic sorting such a foolhardy enterprise (is it “African”? “creole”? “authentic tradition”? “illegitimate invention?”). Note here that this is not just the ethnographer’s dilemma: whoever congregates around the interface runs this risk. Think here of some of the characters in The cooking of history: my ethnographic accomplice Ernesto Pichardo, but also of the late King of Oyotunji, Wande Abimbola, Miguel “Willie” Ramos, Christian Carranza, or even Diane Spivey—they all faced what looks to them like a runaway world. But, and that may be the point—such spinning out of control is ultimately the unintended result of their own projects of purification: a reflex of “the cooking of history.” Windmills though our “social constructions” may well be (but here we ought to ask, from whose perspective?), our predicament—Quixotic perhaps, but nonetheless real—is that we cannot help but engage them.

Both Danilyn Rutherford and Margaret Wiener present fine examples for this moment from their own work in the East (rather than West) Indies: Rutherford does so in chronicling how seeing themselves through the eyes of the other brought the Biak from a point of national integration (in shared diversity of “tradition”) to one where Ian Hacking’s (1999) “looping effects of human kinds” began to heat up the resulting concoctions to the point of historically boiling over the very vessel of the Indonesian nation state that previously appeared to contain them. Instrumentalizing “folkloric difference” in the service of a national cultural project, it turns out, had the opposite effect from the ideological mirage of New World invocations of “creole hybridity,” inciting instead a schismogenetic process that, by the end of the twentieth century, had turned into open violence—and did so because, as Rutherford puts it, the “traditions invented” less than half a decade ago, “took on the weight of multiple histories” in the meantime, that is, no time at all.

Wiener, in turn shows how the gradual build-up of Dutch and British Orientalist circuits centered on busy ethnographic transfers between Bali and the Indian subcontinent eventually generated its own reality effects when Balinese intellectuals and Dutch colonial officers began to “curate” (in Silverstein’s sense) an entity known as “Balinese religion,” and conceptualized in a chronotopic register of additive accretion. The image here appears as a layer cake or, in another register, a rijstafel—the colonial hypertrophy of a street food known as nasi campur that ostensibly presents a similarly spatialized aggregation of discrete fringe condiments [558]surrounding a core of steamed rice. No stewing here, or so one would think. But wait, says Wiener, look again: “just when this cuisine appears to be all about the aggregation of clearly distinct elements, two other culinary methods demand acknowledgment: pounding and fermenting.” The appearance of discreteness is itself a product of the disavowal of prior processes of rhizomatic dispersion and the “cooking” effected by controlled microbial metabolization.4 Hence her conclusion: “Indonesian history may also be termed rhizomatic, a history of movement across the sea, cresting on beaches and traveling inland. If in Cuba history is stewed, in Bali it is pounded.”

As Wirtz so well puts it, in all these cases (just as in the ones I am concerned with in The cooking of history), “our very attempts at historical interpretation feed back into shaping what we can even recognize as history.” Such recognition, however, is in itself part and parcel of the cooking that affects subjects and objects of observation alike. This is a process that, once acknowledged, weakens any putative distinction between the world and its representation(s). It does so by setting such distinctions in spiraling dialectic motion, detectable in its consequentiality only once Minerva’s owl has already taken flight. No need for relativist grandstanding here (or universalist handwringing, for that matter). Instead, we might say with Vico: we can only know what we have made. To put the matter in line with my culinary metaphorics: once we retrospectively taste what we have cooked up, we might get a different sense of the recipe, and its supposed capacity to deliver a “desired result”—be it an omelet, a religion, or an ethnography. So it is with human lifeworlds, be they composed of natives, anthropologists, politicians, social reformers, legal experts, or various combinations thereof.

There is a corollary to this, however, and it is far from trivial: the indexicalities of othernesses that we (whoever “we” may be) “discover” in the worlds we ethnographically intra-act with are far from given. Their “alterity” is the product of our very endeavors at making sense, informed as such efforts usually are by less than readily discursively available metasemiotic instructions (“semiotic ideologies” in Webb Keane’s [2003] sense). Nor does the otherness of such worlds necessarily invalidate the epistemologies that generate such impressions. We cook up the “other,” and we do so in the service of some kind of self (nothing to worry about, in principle: George Herbert Mead is still worth reading in that regard). So let us not beat ourselves up for what may well be a constant in the historical experience of a linguistically capacitated, and therefore necessarily self-reflexive species that has, shall we say, no choice but to cook along in the stews of its own making. What we should worry about, instead, is that any choice of metapragmatics is always also an ethical choice. At stake here are the recipes that we might reflexively bring to bear, belatedly to be sure, on our own, ever emergent, concoctions.

This, then, returns me to the ethical, epistemological—and perhaps ontological—implications of the ironist’s stance. In my view—and here’s the kitchen [559]confidential I announced in the title of this response—laughter (though not of the Olympian kind) at the folly of making our own history under conditions not of our choosing is one remedy that I can think of when I reflect back on the better part of my involvement with “Afro”-“Cuban” “Religion.” Perhaps the matter boils down to the following set of utterly pragmatic questions: How do we do right by our consociate cooks in the kitchens of culture? How do we calibrate our prospective recipes (for we all think we have such recipes …) to theirs in order to arrive at ethically defensible concoctions? How might we come up with forms of ontological boucherie that neither privilege the concepts guiding our analytical knives nor simply obey the grain of the presumed fibers of the world (for cutting against them sometimes yields the best results)? Can we even continue to think of “the cooking of history” without risking to fall into Fannie Farmer’s trap and reify what ought to be left in a state of open-ended indeterminacy?

Though all my critics, to some degree or other, seem to have bought into my culinary metaphorics, might it not behoove us to be on the lookout for a novel metaphoric predication of our common pursuits? Supreme ironist that he was, Don Fernando, I am sure, would have agreed. Whether we think of ourselves as “subjects” or “objects” of the social practice designated as anthropology—a particular form of cooking—we will simply never be done.


Barad, Karen. 2010. Meeting the universe halfway: On the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Farmer, Fannie. 1896. The Boston Cooking School cook book. Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co.

Fisher, M. F. K. 1968. With bold knife and fork. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Hacking, Ian. 1999. The social construction of what? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Keane, Webb. 2003. “Semiotics and the Social Analysis of Material Things.” Language and Communication 23: 409–25.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. We have never been modern. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1961. Argonauts of the western Pacific. New York: Dutton.

Palmié, Stephan. 2002. Wizards and scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban modernity and tradition. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

———. 2013. The cooking of history: How not to study Afro-Cuban religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rorty, Richard. 1989. Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stengers, Isabel. 2005. “Whitehead’s account of the sixth day.” Configurations 13: 35–55.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1987. “Out of context: The persuasive fictions of anthropology.” Current Anthropology 28: 251–81.

[560]Yates-Doerr, Emily, and Annemarie Mol. 2012. “Cuts of meat: Disentangling Western natures-Cultures.” Cambridge Anthropology 30: 48–64.


Stephan Palmié
Department of Anthropology
University of Chicago
1126 E. 59th St. Chicago, IL 60637


1. Your hands simply know when the dough has reached sufficient elasticity, and your ears and nose will tell you when the fat in the pan has attained a certain temperature. Kitchen contingencies being what they are, there is simply no way one could prescribe how to make a proper beurre noisette. Such knowledge, we might say with Bronislaw Malinowski, (1961: 20) belongs to the “imponderabilia of actual life.”

2. Paraphrasing myself (Palmié 2002), where we once thought of ourselves as scientists confronting wizards (our job, remember, once was to “explain” apparently irrational beliefs!), we have now seem to have become wizards confronting the scientists.

3. As we now understand, our interlocutors were not the ones who populated the world with things like races, segmentary kinship systems, polytheistic religions, generalized exchange, or Amazonian multinatures. We did. As a result, the world became a different one—differently thinkable, if you prefer—for better or (alas, not so rarely) for worse.

4. One recalls here Marx’s penchant for the metaphoric registers of fermentation and metabolism: a brewing rather than a cooking in which the contradictions of a certain mode of production organically hasten its own dialectic transformation (in a manner akin to that of yeasts whose activity in metabolizing carbohydrates into alcohol inescapably leads to their own demise).