Locution Note:
Cooking Food
24 May 2019

¶ Alexander Payne’s The Descendants is a movie stuffed like a piñata with delights — welcome pleasures, given its two grave story lines (not to mention its extraordinary presentation of George Clooney as an ordinary-looking guy). One of these is Nick Krause, the actor who plays Sid, the boyfriend. Not altogether welcome by Matt (Mr Clooney), Sid trails along with his girlfriend (Shailene Woodley) and her little sister (Amara Miller) as their father conducts them through the improvised rituals of his injured wife’s last days alive.

Mr Krause’s performance has grown on me over the years. When the movie came out, in 2011, I found Sid to be cute but clueless, an adolescent buttinski. I was not entirely unsympathetic when the very dislikable Robert Forster character told him, “I’m going to hit you,” and then punched him in the eye. But much laid-back wisdom has since emerged. It doesn’t have much to do with pithy sayings, but is more a matter of the way Sid holds himself.

Matt is deceived by Sid’s still-unpolished speech patterns, and, in a brief late-night conversation, he tells the boy that he is “not smart.” Sid takes issue with this by listing his achievements, which include serving as an officer of his élite school’s chess club. (By now, this is not a surprise.) It’s another thing that Sid does that always snags my attention, though. “I cook food,” he tells Matt. “I cook food all the time.” Is this some new barbarism creeping up from the vernacular swamps? Or is it just something that Sid is trying out? Perhaps it’s something that he picked up in Mandarin class, where indeed he would learn that the Chinese “cook food.” 

In English, though, we either cook particularities, such as meals or food substances, or we just cook. It’s the same with reading. You can read War and Peace, or you can read “all the time,” but you do not “read books.” (People who say that they don’t read books obviously and ipso facto don’t read at all.) What else would you read? Tea leaves? They don’t count. What else would you cook? A batch of meth? Better not talk about it. 

“I cook food” sounds gross. It suggests indiscriminate orgies of ingredients, caviar poached in ketchup. “Food” is actually something that doesn’t appear in the Anglophone kitchen. Whether euphemistically or otherwise, we don’t let “food” in the house. I can remember when nice people didn’t speak of “meals,” either. “Meal” was still the word for uncooked, edible grain, and its appearance on affluent tables, as cooked mush, was rare. (“Oatmeal” comes to mind, and we remember what Dr Johnson had to say about oats.) There was something almost vulgar about “three meals a day”; certainly the phrase struck an institutional, undomestic note. To stay at a resort “on the American plan” meant to eat whatever they put in front of you — and to show up on time for it. 

It would be interesting to know what Sid’s culinary specialties are. “I cook food all the time” suggests burgers and nachos for a bunch of hungry surfers. But Sid’s father recently passed away, and his mother is struggling, he tells Matt. Perhaps he is helping out by serving healthy dinners to younger siblings. Being a very young man, he has learned a skill set before learning how to talk about it. Most important of all, though, to his girlfriend is that he radiates an innate faithfulness. Whatever he cooks, it will be good for you. 

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