Saturday, August 14, 2004

Skillet beans

Last night I was making dinner for myself and the children - H is in Mexico on important union business - sauteed pork chops, plain white rice, and steamed green beans. As I was trimming the beans, I was remembering how I used to cook green beans before the children got old enough to eat with us (or at least to verbalize their pickiness):

  1. Heat some butter or oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
  2. Add green beans, and maybe some minced onion. Cook, stirring frequently, for about 2-3 minutes (until onions start to color, if using). If desired, add some minced garlic and cook for about 30 seconds before proceeding to the next step.
  3. Pour in a splash of white wine, and stir to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add about 1/4 cup of chicken stock, bring to a boil, then lower the heat and cover the pan.
  4. When the beans are not quite tender (about 2-3 minutes), uncover and add one or more of the following:
    • almond slivers
    • golden raisins
    • chopped fresh basil
  5. Boil uncovered over high heat until the liquid forms a thick coating on the beans, season with salt and pepper, and serve.

Cooking is one of my favorite activities - not just cooking, but the whole set of activities involved in feeding my family: meal planning, grocery shopping, figuring out how to use up the leftovers, and so forth. It is, for me, the ideal blend of mental and physical work - it is skilled labor, and I have the luxury of being able to do it solely for friends and family, completely outside the world of buying and selling labor power.

I tend to think that a lot of socialists and whatnot are attracted to Marx because of the vision of a utopian society free of exploitation, but for me, the most powerful part of Marx's thought is his analysis of the labor process. For Marx, labor is the heart of what makes us human, and unalienated labor, where one uses brain and hand together, in voluntary cooperation with others, to create the desired result for oneself and one's community, is the highest form of human activity. Capitalism degrades labor by separating the brain (management) from the hand (the worker), and because the capitalist keeps the product, giving the worker cash in return. In my kitchen, I have a little space where I can engage in unalienated labor.

Of course, there are always new challenges as social structures become more complex. I now have to feed not just two adults, with adult tastes, but four individuals with completely autonomous tastes, three of whom are exceptionally picky and quite expressive about their distaste for certain foods or certain preparations of those foods. Cooking separate meals for everyone is not an option, because that creates excessive dish-washing work for H. So I have adopted new strategies, like steaming the vegetables and (when I have energy) providing sauces for the adults to spoon over them. But I still look forward to the day when I can once again cook green beans in a skillet.

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