I sometimes tell people about the deep feelings of joy that I have when cutting sinewy meat with a dull knife. I get very strange looks.
I like sharp knives. Although it didn't actually happen like that, I like to imagine that the first thing I bought when I moved out of my childhood home was a sharp kitchen knife. I still have a hard time understanding why in most kitchens you won't find a single really sharp knife. But that's a different topic, one of appreciating and loving quality tools and enjoying the act of cooking through the sense of ease you get from cutting with a sharp knife. Here I will talk about the opposite. The joy that comes from the dull knife. I want to talk about the joy that comes from cutting something very tough like sinewy meat with a dull knife. It must have been almost a year ago now that this feeling came up to me, but it etched itself into me. I cannot forget it. I often think about it.
The story starts in my kitchen, where I had about a kilogramm of meat in front of me on a wooden cutting board. I have no clue anymore why I didn't use any of the sharp knives that day; there might be a reason but I cannot remember it anymore. That day I ended up with a dull knife in my hand. The meat must have been a piece of beef called "falsches Filet" in German, a piece full of sinew from the shoulder. When I started to cut it, my body, and the knife as its extension, struggled to go through the meat and I felt how I instinctively started to use the knife in a smarter way. A way that you don't need to think about when you have a sharp knife. But this dull knife made me look at the meat much more closely, trying to find the best angles for cutting, looking at the grain, looking at the fascia that was flowing through the flesh in a way reminding me of marble. Searching for good ways to cut the meat, turning it back and forth, I realised how unique this piece of meat and any piece of flesh was. I realised that I needed to find out how this particular piece of meat had been shaped. This unique piece of flesh from a cow. At that same moment, I started to enjoy the work with the dull knife, the enjoyment of the struggle of cutting through each single muscle fibre. That struggle made me appreciate my own work on this piece of meat as well it made me appreciate the meat itself. I had to put my own being into this meat. I would cut it in my own unique way. Like everyone else would cut it in their unique way. I felt reminded of a time a few years ago in February at a workshop with Lynx Vilden, where we butchered and cut up a whole deer with stone knives. Using my dull knife, my mind fell back into the same primal pure feeling of the origin of cutting that I had while cutting with the stone knives. Cutting, I felt at this moment, was one of the basic human actions, one of the basic human experiences. Dissecting the world. Creating new pieces through separation, making new shapes, taking apart and understanding the different pieces that made up a whole, like flesh, skin and bone. In that moment in my kitchen, struggling to cut through the beef, I felt very much alive. Each cut full of joy. An original moment of the human experience was laid out in front of me. I ate that meat in appreciation of the cow and my own cutting work.
Recently I had a similar strong experience peeling potatoes.
Peeling potatoes is often seen as one of the dullest things out there. But this time it somehow ended up different.
This time while peeling the potatoes a feeling of simple joy came up on me. Already the touch of the potatoes, still covered in dirt that got stuck to my hands, changed something in my mood. I was feeling the different shapes of each potato, each unique potato, and peeling their skin off gave me some instant gratification, you might say. It only takes a few seconds to peel a potato, so after a short moment, you can look at your finished work. You have indeed changed the appearance of the potato completely, stripping it of its peel, changing it from grey to yellow, now with a smooth texture in contrary to the earthy face of the unpeeled tuber. It felt like every peeled potato was a finished piece of craftsmanship, a finished piece of art. And I felt the joy of making food, taking something that was given to us by the earth, still covered in dirt, and changing it into something to eat, something that will end up on your plate. I loved the simpleness of holding something so pure in my hand, and through a few movements of my hand and the peeler, I could put my own self into the story of that potato, make it my own and cook it.
I travelled a bit. I looked into fridges on most continents. I saw many empty ones. Many people do not prepare their own food, something I have a hard time understanding. These people rob themselves of one of the most basic actions that we can do: cooking. And all that which comes with it. Getting food, cutting it etc. The process of changing individual ingredients through the heat of the fire into one dish is a very primal one. Maybe the origin of our research into chemistry.
Peeling the potatoes I felt that simple joy of doing something very purely human. Preparing my own food. In that moment, I felt that all the great pursuits were not needed. Unnecessary. All the great achievements of the humans felt secondary. You can be happy just peeling potatoes. With just the simple things. I already changed the world peeling those potatoes. My hands were creating pieces of human craftsmanship, not different from a sculptor. I washed the potatoes, cut them, ate them. I seized the day.
Joseph Bartz 2016