Cooking: An Art or a Science?

Erica Ostlander and Vanessa Silvera investigate the history and creative expression of cooking.


Image(s): Web Gallery of Art , Andrea Commodi, Young woman in kitchen, 1600s


The preparation of food is essential for survival, allowing people to safely feed themselves and store enough energy to perform tasks throughout the day. On the face of it, cooking is a science of chemistry and physics, where amino acids and sugars combine to create browned bread and vegetables are ripened for a nutrient-rich snack. However, people have been known to enjoy taking creative liberties in the kitchen and have an intrinsic need to satisfy both our physical and mental needs. This overlap between heart and mind is seen in the role food plays in culture, with dishes varying around the world and across small communities. The opportunity to blend taste and presentation to create a sensuous showpiece demonstrates how personal food preparation can be to the human soul. The differences between science and art are clear and distinct, but the similarities found in cooking have the ability to bring out new ways of analysing ourselves and what we create.


Erica: I have always been fascinated with how people can take a basic rule of survival: to eat, and create a profound experience that is inseparable from our daily existence. I think the way we prepare food is a practice that is unique to ourselves, as it combines what we learn while growing up and watching others, with our own values when it comes to what we present on our plates. For example, I believe everyone has their own distinctive way of preparing eggs that I have not seen perfectly replicated once. The way we grease the pan, the choice of whether to scramble the yolk or leave it sunny-side up, and the cooking time all are personal to our environment and instincts. My definition of art is simple: anything that expresses human creativity and imagination, and this includes creations that may not fall under the traditional categories of art. Under this loose definition and through my belief that anything we create is art, then maybe our breakfast gets to be the art we wake up to every day.


Image(s): YouTube


Vanessa: I certainly agree that a ritual as simple as making scrambled eggs in the morning can be a very personal experience, not only in terms of tastes and preferences, but also in how we think about memory. Most people can probably recall at least one family recipe that has been passed down generation from generation. In my case, my parents are Colombian and one of our favorite meals in our household are homemade arepas (cornmeal cakes), but every Colombian family prepares their arepas differently, and mine is no exception. Arguments can be made for whether cooking is an art or science, but I’d like to propose it can be either or both depending on how you look at it. However, I think there is a hierarchy within the arts and cooking is usually left out of that conversation entirely. We don’t have to look much further than food art to realize that it is equally meritorious and deserving of recognition as other artforms.


Erica: I agree that food as art often goes overlooked in the professional arts community, but it has also proved to be an effective inspiration for experimental art and movements in performance art. For example, in 2015 the Getty Research Institute opened “The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals,” where sugar models decorated the halls and bread was accepted material for architectural sculptures. Peter Nadin, an artist famous for using his resources from his farm in creating his art, hung up cured meats for his contribution to comment on the state of the food industry. These artists made political statements with food, some to bring forward issues in food production, while others worked to push forward the discussion on feminism and cultural divides. One of my favourite examples of this is Sarah Lucas’s work entitled Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, where food was used to represent the female body on a table to reflect back to the viewer society’s derogatory view of the women as a sex symbol. By comparing our need to consume food to a human body, Lucas was able to make a statement by building upon our complex relationship with food. Although this type of art is mostly shown in a small space in the artist community, it gives us the chance to see how our relationship with food changes our perception of the world. Cooking is a key part of our lives, and amidst the current pandemic, we are given more chances to explore how we can treat our meals differently


Image(s): Prestige Online


Vanessa: I’m not sure if you’ve picked up on this, but since the outbreak of COVID-19, there’s definitely been a surge in the number of recipes going viral, in part thanks to social media. I remember at the start of lockdown, for some reason it became really popular to make banana bread and Dalgona coffee, which began as a Tik Tok trend and has become the defacto beverage of 2020. Would you say that more time spent indoors has provided the opportunity for culinary experimentation?


Erica: I think our daily routines are changing in many ways, especially in the ways that people are preparing food for themselves. Isolation has forced people to find new ways to channel their surplus of energy into tasks that so often go ignored under normal circumstances. A beautiful presentation of food on a plate was once a privilege few could have, but now that time is being granted in excess, more people are allowing themselves to experiment with their meals. I have also noticed more people documenting their meals on social media along with a rise of home-bound food businesses like cake decorating services and meal kits. Some of my personal favourites of these accounts are @cakes4sport, @cookingaesthetics_, and @doofmagazinewhich all help showcase how food can be experimental, intimate, and imaginative, all of which describes the fundamentals of a work of art.


Image(s): rebelrecipes.com


Vanessa: Couldn’t have said it better myself. There’s really something beautiful about an emerging foodie online community during a time of hardship, it kind of reminds us that despite coming from different backgrounds or walks of life we are all brought together by this common experience. Even if you’re not much of a chef, there is still plenty of creative license to be had even if that decision is as simple as adding salt or no salt. But in my opinion, just about everything tastes better with a bit of salt.


From the moment we wake up, we’re thinking about breakfast and within hours we’re ransacking the fridge for a snack or two. However mundane fixing a quick sandwich on your lunch break may seem, it is an integral part of our daily routines and the human condition. The art of cooking lies in the unique choices we make from its very inception; beginning with the idea, followed by the ingredients all the way to the plating. Like a series of performances of the same play, no two plates will ever be executed identically. In sum, the kitchen is our studio, food is our medium, and the sky’s the limit in how we choose to express ourselves. Bon appetit!