I’ve started reading “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work” by Matthew Crawford. It’s been interesting so far, and I’m guessing it only gets better, or at least doesn’t fall off at all. His basic argument is that is intrinsic value in manual labor. He goes on to say our cultural has ignored this concept, and even worked to reverse that belief. To be honest, reading this books is like being in the congregation of the converted while the reverend preaches about salvation. I’ve held this view for a while. I’ve held down a job since I was 14. It started with the typical white picketed fence Americana summer gig; mowing lawns. Eventually that led me to finding riding lawnmowers with “Free” signs on their rusting frames. I’d push them back to my father’s garage, and nurse them back to life, if only for a month. On at least one occasion this put me in mortal danger. The most recent Frankenstein was a three-wheeled rider on which the rider sat, straddling the gas tank and engine. I’m not sure what part of the mower was broken it when I got it. I did what always seems to work in that situation, took it apart, cleaned everything, and put it back together. It worked. The only problem I couldn’t quite fix was a flooded carburetor. Running from the gas tank were two fuel lines. To start the mower I had to disconnect one, pull start it, and then quickly connect the line. It was tricky business, sparks and gas spraying everywhere. Eventually the odds caught up with me and the disconnected gas line caught a spark, which turned into a fire. I ran the two blocks to my house to grab a fire extinguisher and by the time I had gotten back, only a skeleton of my mower remained. Unlike the movies, nothing exploded. And it was an empty lot so I didn’t have any homeowner angry about the giant burnt spot in his lawn. In addition to salvaging, then destroying, lawnmowers, I’ve worked in the shop of a John Deere Dealership, poured concrete more times than I care to remember, cut down trees, even dug a couple of graves. All those experiences have let me know one thing about myself, I’m okay with doing physical labor. If this journalism thing doesn’t work out I’m okay finding a job as a ditch digger. I think there is something to be said for coming home and the end of the day dirty and a little sore. It certainly eliminates the need for a weight-lifting routine. Another point Crawford draws upon is that the person who is versed in manual labor, specifically one that draws on both intelligence and physicality, is less indebted to others. If there is a problem with the toilet, he or she can fix it. If the oil in the car needs changing, the person who is use to handling a wrench can do that. Knowledge of our physical surroundings and the basics of how they work allows one a certain degree of self-reliance, and thus independence, not known to the person who calls the repairman for every problem. Crawford is able to say all this more coherently than me (he also leans a lot harder on the erudite language, probably because he’s got a post-doctorate degree) so you should probably read him to fully understand the argument.
I think all of this explains why I look cooking from scratch so much. It demands a certain physicality and mentality that is kin to building furniture or working on a 1993, two liter, double-overhead-camshaft Mitsubishi engine. I enjoy slicing vegetables or rolling out the batter for real tortillas. I like starting from scratch on a bread recipe and watching raw materials transform into a delicious food. (Crawford addresses this, but not in the depth I would like.) It’s the physical and mental involvement that makes homemade food taste even better. The same principle follows when you make anything from bare materials. It’s the effort put into the creation as much as the creation itself that gives satisfaction.