Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Always Bee Cooking #3: Pork and Reproductive Labor

I initially thought I wasn't going to put any recipes up this month. It's been like that. I changed my mind, though. There'll be one at the end. If you want to know how to make ham shank so tender even the fat cap will dissolve on your tongue, skip down to the bottom. If you want to get a better understanding of what I've been up to, including some considerations of why reproductive labor is such an important consideration for me, even (and especially) while cooking, come on this journey. And then make some excellent pork.

There's not going to be any real sense of cohesion to this post, other than me trying to convey just how bizarre this month has been for me in terms of cooking. It isn't that I haven't been cooking. I have. Maybe too much. It also isn't that I haven't been experimenting. A couple weeks ago I grabbed a hardboiled egg and dipped it into a mason jar I had juiced a lemon into. It was good; a little like a deviled egg, less the fat and spice. I'm still learning flavors slowly, after a lifetime of ignoring them.

As far as cooking: around three times every two weeks, I make a big meal of chicken, rice, and vegetables. It's meal prep. I think I do a good job. I can't really be sure, though. I eat it the night of and never again. It's not for me. I don't eat it in the conditions that I cook it for. That looks like: it's been refrigerated for a few days and then reheated in the style that suits the person I'm making it for. They don't have any criticisms, other than that they are sick of it sometimes. They also don't have any thoughts (that they share with me) about any of it when they aren't. This is something it's taken me a little time to come to terms with, as someone who has basically only ever either cooked for myself or for a big, supportive group.

Some other things I've tried: peanut butter & wine marinated chicken - it turned out great. With none of the flavors of the two main aspects (I added too many spices and too much oil). Another round of Doenjang Guk, the first I've made in a few months. It came out flavorless (again, I did too much and all the flavor was sucked out). A half dozen different varieties of smoothie. Almost all serviceable, none particularly good. Continued variations on my original post's Home Base Home Fries, with and without the scramble. They let me live. I've kept working on my roasted veggies, and on my herb butter pasta. Both continue to work for me, in that I keep eating them. The latter continues to fail for me, in that I can never push it past a thing that I will eat, regardless of quality.

There's been another factor, too. I spent the first two weeks of July with one of the worst colds I've had in years. It wouldn't go away, and while it migrated around my head and face, it consistently stayed wrecking my sinuses. The minute that cold ended, I hit a depressive spiral that dragged me out of communication with the world. I'm barely crawling out of it right now. It's been a shitty month for my cooking for material reasons - being unable to inhale through your nose means smelling is pretty hard, and when you're already working with a child's palate that's not great for tasting what you make - and being caught in bad brain territory means not having anyone to talk to or share with, and so not being able to get feedback or even just feel good about helping someone.

If there's one constant in all the work I do, whether reviews or essays or organizing or making weird noise pop mashups or whatever else, it's that I'm constantly thinking through some aspect of reproductive labor. That's the Marxist term for the work that goes in to, well, reproducing labor. As a class, that means biological reproduction (new babies that will become workers), education (teaching people the skills, social and practical, to do the work society will need them to), and so on. As an individual, that means taking care of biological necessities like eating, but it also means addressing psychological needs. We do that by watching movies or TV or playing videogames, having a partner or friends or family who can do care work for us as we do so for them, going to therapy, getting fucked up.

In the broader discourse, this is generally swept up into the category of emotional labor, which is in turn swept up into the general notion of unpaid or underpaid women's work. It's also wrapped up in the idea of the feminization of labor (via Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman), which understands that term to mean both that the workforce is more feminine and that work itself is becoming dominated by jobs that are traditionally feminized - the bulk of jobs created since the 2008 recession are in the service industry and in precarious industries - because they require emotional (or affective) labor. I think Malcolm Harris puts it pretty succinctly when he says that "Any job it's impossible to do while sobbing probably includes some affective labor" (Kids These Days, 76).

And there is good reason for that. These terms end up covering much of the same territory. But reproductive labor is the one that continues to resonate for me. Because it feels more holistic, more material, and more true to my experience, for example, to say that there is something fundamentally connected about cooking, eating, shooting the shit with friends, processing serious emotional harm, sinking three dozen hours into Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (again), making art, organizing shows and compilations and rituals and hangouts, sleeping, going to the gym, getting wasted, having pets and bearing children and sharing skills and teaching and so many other things. And not because they are all secretly work either. And especially not because they should be valorized as self care. 

Reproductive labor is crucial to capitalism because people are crucial to capitalism, and people need things. They need to eat and fuck and sleep and shit, and they need to socialize and learn and rest and feel. Capitalism is built up around this, providing shelter and dating apps and groceries and toilets and bars and beds and media at a price manipulated to produce as much surplus value for the owners as they can manage to strangle out of the workers. And so workers become the product of their consumption, that they themselves might be consumed in production. I come back to section 2a of Appendix 1 of the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy twice a year to brush up on that, and every time it feels at least as correct as before.

If there's an intellectual seed that my politics grew out of, it's this concept. My own communism comes from a place of understanding that the things we do with our time, when our time is ostensibly our own, are deeply meaningful and deeply implicated within the oppressive mode of production. These things are not contradictory except in the ways that they are contradictions inherent to capital, and so show a way forward out of this world and into another, attenuated as it must be by the lessons learned in revolution.

And cooking has already helped me sharpen my thoughts and feelings on that. Because it is barely a metaphor to say, for instance, that cooking is one of the few examples workers can experience where they directly reap the fruits of their own labor. You purchase capital in cookware, consume materials in groceries to create a product, and then consume the product, reproducing yourself. And then you do so with others, building community. If you can imagine a world without the initial investments and the ultimate consequences (you go back to work), you can imagine a world built differently than the one we have. If you can understand that the ultimate consequence is both a real end and an unnecessary one, we have some common ground, at least.

Which is why I'd like to share this recipe for Braised Ham Shank with you.

What You Need

  • Dry Rub
  • Dutch Oven
  • Tecate Tall Can
  • ~2 1/3rds lb Ham Shank

Start by mixing together a dry rub. I threw salt, pepper, coriander, sage, and some of that dried celery leaf into a mortar and pestle & crushed them up. That's not absolutely necessary. Whatever's to your taste and you have available will probably work. Rub that into the pork. Let it sit in the fridge for at least a couple hours, possibly overnight if you're feeling feisty.

Once you're about to start cooking, preheat your oven to 325 degrees.

Heat the dutch oven over a medium flame and add oil once hot. Sear all six sides of the cut. Each side should take between one and three minutes, would be my guess. You could also go medium low here for a little longer if you're worried about burning the spices. Remove from heat.

Pour that tall can of Tecate into the dutch oven and get it all mixed up with the oil and the spices. Cover and put it in the preheated oven. Go do something else. This is going to take somewhere between two and three hours. I checked in after one hour to flip the meat, another to check, and then every fifteen or twenty minutes until it looked good. I also used a knife to cut the meat at the fleshiest part, near the bone, to see if it looked uncooked. I definitely didn't need to do that; at about two and a half hours in, the bones literally fell out as I lifted the meat and I could have checked with a fork. Cut up and serve; I also roasted some carrots and broccoli alongside it, which turned out great.

For next time, I think I'm going to try a Mirepoix before adding the beer (onions, celery, carrot, and maybe lemon zest?), letting the rub rest for longer, and actually using the leftover liquid. I've never made a gravy before - I suspect I could let the beer & meat juices reduce some, cook some mashed potatoes alongside it, and have something there.

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