A Show of Hands


The greatest tool for any cook is her own hands.

I have been reading cookbooks for years–ever since I learned to read, in fact. Before that, I used to drag down my mother’s copy of The New Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook and her Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook, and look at the pictures. They were both illustrated with color and black and white photographs, not only of the finished dishes, but of the various steps of many recipes being carried out with nonchalant grace by a pair of beautifully manicured female hands.

We never saw any more of the nameless cook in the photographs than her hands and sometimes her flowered-apron covered torso. The hand model was never identified in the books, and I always wondered about her. Who was she? Did she really cook? In the Betty Crocker cookbook, I wondered if she was Betty herself, though when I asked Mom, she told me that Betty Crocker was a made up person, a fictional character, just like the Cat in the Hat. (Which of course, made me imagine Betty and the Cat having a conversation, which took my brain off into a realm of oddness from which it has never returned.)

So, I wondered who those hands belonged to.

They were awfully pretty. Unadorned by rings, watches or bracelets, the hands had lovely tapered fingernails painted a perfect porcelain pink. They were slender-fingered and endowed with an artless beauty, slender and pale like lilies.

I noticed how clean they were, too. They were unsmudged, unblemished. No sign of the small burns or cuts that my mother often bore on her hands from cooking or canning. The forearms were diminutive, lacking the sharply defined muscles Mom’s arms. There were never splatters of tomato sauce or smears of chocolate in evidence.

They were the hands of a lady, not a cook, I realized later, while I was reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. That is when I understood that the woman behind those hands was probably not a cook, and it really brought home to me how artificial those photographs were. How unrealistic it was to see a perfectly clean countertop along with beautifully kept hands and a disembodied ruffled apron engaged in beating egg whites by hand to make meringue.

Cooking is messy, and as Meg in Little Women learned, cook’s hands are not white, languid and unblemished. They are scarred, bruised, calloused and usually endowed with short, sometimes ragged, fingernails.

They bear the brunt of all the dangers a kitchen offers: fire, boiling oil, steam, sharp knives, caustic chemicals, and materials which can stain clothes and skin.

They are marvels, though, the hands of a cook. They bring into being art. They give us sustenance. They have the strength to knead stiff bread dough, and the delicacy to hand paint egg whites on violet blossoms and crystallize them with super fine sugar.

They manipulate utensils with power and purpose. A chef’s knife or cleaver is as sharp as a rapier, but it is not an instrument meant for killing. It is meant to render ingredients into shapes fit for cooking and eating, and wielded in the hands of a master, the knife becomes a paintbrush, a pen, a chisel–a tool which allows the artist to bring her conception, her vision, into being.

Hands are not everything a cook needs in the kitchen. All senses are necessary to cookery, but the hands carry a great load of the work that goes into making simple breakfasts or elaborate feasts.

Rich or poor, pale or dusky, round and short-fingered or long and slender, the hands of a cook are a beautiful sight, no matter how scarred, nicked, bruised or scraped they are. They are a pleasure to watch in their work; they move together with measured rhythm like dancers.

I used to be mesmerized by watching my female relatives cook. I learned to divine personality from the way thier hands moved as they went about the tasks of preparing dinner. Mom’s hands moved brusquely, in a completely businesslike fashion. She wasted no motion, nor did she let her fingers linger long in one place. She didn’t really like to cook; she would rather have been outside doing yard work or building something than be stuck in the hot kitchen, and her hands gave her desires away.

In contrast, Gram’s hands trailed lovingly over the food as she worked with it. She taught me to make roast leg of lamb; as she rubbed the herbs, salt and pepper over the outside of the meat, her long fingers skimmed along gently, but firmly, as if she were massaging an ailing child. She took her time in every motion; she stirred languidly, and tended to pat her biscuits as she laid them on the baking pan, as one would pat a good dog on the head.

Grandma’s hands were strong. I remember watching how the muscles of her forearm would bulge as she kneaded bread dough beneath her broad palms. Her cedar-colored skin was thin and papery and as soft as parchment, and I would watch, fascinated, as she bent pastry dough effortlessly to her will, touching it with feathery strokes, so as to keep it light and flaky.

She always told me that it is through a cook’s hands that her energy entered the food she made. She told me that was how love was put into food, by touching it while you cook, and that any cook who was afraid to dirty her hands would never make food full of love.

Aunt Judy’s hands are beautiful, as liltingly graceful as birds. They flutter over her food in gestures quick as butterflies’ wings, and she is known to dip a long, slender finger into a bubbling pot to take a quick taste. Her food is like her art, and like herself, lovely, delicate, but with a core of vitality which speaks of tenacity and strength.

To this day, I always watch a cook or chef’s hands. Every good cook has a pair of hands that tell a story by their looks and movements.

What kind of story would your hands tell, if I watched them, I wonder?

6 Comments

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  1. I would hope my hands would “Plead the Fifth Amendment”.

    Comment by Bryian — March 9, 2005 #

  2. Hm, I haven’t owned too many cookbooks, but most of the hands I see are those of old men and women, with winkles, callouses, the works. Needless to say, I don’t pick up cookbooks on American food; their demographics are so unsuitable for me. I’m no technicolor housewife.

    I’ve always stared at the hands of people who cook, hoping I could learn from that. Unfortunately, I often miss what’s actually happening to the ingredients. :P

    Comment by Allen Wong — March 9, 2005 #

  3. Barbara,
    What about your hands? What do you think of them? I only have time to cook on the weekends now, and every Monday on my way to work, I would check my fingernails, hands and the underside of my forearm for the types of damage I’ve done over the weekend or just to make sure my hands are somewhat clean when I get into the office. Chances are, I would have a chipped nail, coloured fingernail or a recovering blister on the underside of my forearm. If not the above, I would have a faint garlic/shallot/onion smell that would linger for the next few days. But, I would consider these as my little trophies for cooking and sharing lovely home-cooked food with my family. What more could I ask for? Shirley

    Comment by Anonymous — March 10, 2005 #

  4. Bry, your hands speak of all sorts of work. I will resist the urge to post one of the pictures I have of your hands at work making mead last spring, though.

    Alan–the cookbooks you read now are different than the ones I peered at in early childhood. The ones I was looking at were produced in the 1950′s and early 1960′s, and the persona they were trying to project to the reader was of the “typical” American middle class housewife–white, semi-affluent, educated, pretty and slender.

    That woman didn’t exactly really exist, mind you–she was an illusion or an ideal that was held up for women to aspire to.

    I’ve seen pictures of my mother from that time, and for all that she was “a career girl” (yes, back then, that was what single working women were called), and she wore the uniform of a working woman, including the stilleto-heeled pumps and the beautifully manicured long nails painted crimson (always with lipstick to match), I don’t think it suited her personality much. For one thing, “caucasian” she might technically be, but she had inherited the dark skin and bone structure of her Cherokee mother, and so she never fit that ideal.

    Cookbooks today are more likely to have photographs of the chef/author’s hands demonstrating the dishes. There is more of a sense of personality present, and a desire for realism. I think that comes from us growing up watching cooks on television, so we want to see the “real thing” at work.

    If you can find some of the old cookbooks from the 1950′s, I suggest you have a look at them. I was born in 1965–but those cookbooks were still a strong part of my life–they were still used by members of my family, so I grew up with them, and the images from them speak very strongly to me. Also, growing up as I did in West Virginia, a highly conservative (some would probably rightly say, backwards) state, the vast social changes that happened in the 1960′s really didn’t hit us until the 1970′s. So, much of society when I was growing up was still very steeped in 1950′s sensibilities.

    Shirley–those are my hands up in the illustration–what do they tell you?

    I look at them and see strength and sturdiness–my hands, like most of the rest of me, are shaped like my father’s hands. None of my knife scars are visible in that picture, being as my hands are pale anyway, the silvery lines have faded. There are burn scars on my forearms, though, again, they are not visible to the camera.

    What is visible is the swelling on the top of my forearms–the results of carpal tunnel syndrome. That comes of being both a writer and a cook–repeated motions have caused various sorts of ailments in my forearms, wrists and hands. It usually bugs me most in the winter, and in the spring, when I work in the garden, it gets better.

    I always have to check under my nails, not only for cooking bits, but garden bits, once spring comes!

    You can take the woman off the farm, or the hillbilly from the mountains, but she will carry the farm and hills with her in her heart–and likely, under her nails, too. ;-)

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 10, 2005 #

  5. Barbara,
    You’ve got the two words that came to my mind when I saw the picture: strong and sturdy. I also saw perseverence. Hands do tell a lot. Shirley

    Comment by Anonymous — March 10, 2005 #

  6. Shirley, some might say that perseverence=stubborness.

    I take either as a compliment, though. ;-)

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 10, 2005 #

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