Food and the Art of Generosity

An improvised scene from Jamie Oliver’s cooking show in Greece says something about our relationship to food, to cooking, and to each other.

In all the cooking shows I’ve watched, some of the most memorable moments come in Jamie Oliver’s Food Escapes. I believe one improvised scene in particular from the episode in Greece says something about our relationship to food, to cooking, and to each other.

Jamie’s on a fishing boat off the coast when another boat pulls alongside, and a fisherman gives him a massive fish. It’s a striking act of generosity. Immediately, Jamie and crew find a beach, set up a small makeshift barbecue pit, cook the fish, and eat it together. All the forethought, pretense, and mania that often accompany cooking shows is stripped away as the waves lap gently at the shore and Jamie reverently describes the fish and the process of cooking it just right. The moment is so simple, yet so sublime, that it transports both him and us.

There’s something about this moment that captures the essence of what cooking is all about.

Consider the generosity of the Earth providing for us—in this case, the fish. That in itself is something to be appreciated. But if Jamie had caught the fish and cooked it, the meaning of the moment wouldn’t have been the same.

He was given the fish by another person. The generosity of the Earth was coupled with the generosity of a fellow human being—a situation analogous to how most of us receive our food. Even though we pay the farmer or fisherman, there remains a golden thread of generosity in the transaction. After receiving the fish, Jamie cooks it with the intention of sharing it with other people, reciprocating the gift for the benefit of others.

In this light, cooking is the Art of Generosity. Maybe that’s why you see the word generous used to describe dishes on so many menus. Through cooking, we receive the generosity of the Earth, and of our fellow human beings. And we artfully reciprocate.

It must be said that human beings have also abused the generosity of the Earth. Thankfully, chefs, like a lot of us, are realizing the error of their ways and working to bring cooking, and our food, back into balance. Look no further than Jamie’s TED talk, Teach Every Child About Food.

Happy birthday, Jamie.

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