Eat Craft

Soba kiri, or soba-giri bocho, a Soba cutting knife. 

There are many noodle restaurants near me in the East Village of Manhattan. What is different about Sobakoh is that the noodles are cut by hand. And you can watch them being cut by a master soba maker, Hiromitsu Takahashi.  Japanese food + handcraft = I’m there.

Sobakoh has been making hand cut soba, from organically grown sobakoh (buckwheat flour), since the mid 2000’s. Nozaki’s book on Japanese kitchen knives mentions soba was originaly a kind of fast food in Japan, beginning about 300 years ago. [1] Hand cut soba is called Teuchi-Soba to differentiate it from the machine cut variety.

A special purpose knife is used to cut the soba: a Soka Kiri. Takahashi’s knife, above, is a beautiful example. Note the straightforward contour of the scales as they transition to the blade and graceful curves on the blade. If you look at the two spots of light reflection towards the left of the blade, you can see the secondary bevel where it is sharpened.  The knife is not over finished, or excessively polished in one area or another, but is well integrated, especially with the functional, lightly varnished (?) handle. [2]  I’m becoming more and more a fan of wood handles with little or no finish on them: although they get a dirty, stained or develop a patina quickly, the feel of the uncoated wood provides unparalleled tactile feedback and comfort. Any surface coating changes this, to a degree.  Obviously, different woods feel quite different,  from silky smooth swiss pear wood to a almost rough feeling burl. The handle on this knife knife is similar to a bearded axe; an old form, supposedly dating from the 6th century. This handle position allows a high degree of control of this hefty knife which weighs about two pounds and has a blade length of about 12 inches, since the placement is directly behind the blade. The weight of the knife does most of the work: the soba master places it and slides it downward in a diagonal. Slicing in a diagonal, like a guillotine, lowers the effective cutting angle of the blade, giving a cleaner cut. A clean cut preserves more of the food’s visual integrity and umami.

But as I was inexpertly slurping my soba, occasionally with the noodles slapping up onto my glasses, I wondered if these hand cut soba noodles tasted better because they were hand cut, or if it were due to other factors:  the broth, the fresh buckwheat, the slightly irregular size, the knife used, the cutting board,  etc….  Or is it because I naturally value the work of the hand more than that of a machine.  Was I subscribing to a cultish adulation of  handwork?  What I respect in David Pye’s work is his refusal fetishize handwork. [3]  Pye has a craftsman’s take on the philosophy of handwork that lead him to emphasize the rational, aesthetic and practical advantages over machine production. But Pye also has a great respect for well designed machine craft.  Soetsu Yanagi, who is Pye’s more romantic Japanese craft/philosopher counterpart, has a more dichotomous view, linking machine work – science – the head, in opposition to hand work – religion – the heart. “Moreover, the nature of machine work is such that its products are standardized and thus monotonous and cold, ill-fitted to serve as man’s companions in his daily life.” [4]  Some of the heart, in this case, is reflected in the small variation of noodle width and thickness. Yanagi has an entire chapter on the beauty of irregularity.

Sobakoh – Soba Master

So to return to my question; why does handout soba taste ‘better’ than machine cut, other factors aside? I think it does, although I haven’t done a rigorous, side by side blind taste test.  Is it only the subtle irregularities in size of the noodles (sabi?) that identify them as handmade, and therefore are perceived as better than a machine made noodle?  These variations in size are extremely small. If you watch the video of Takahashi cutting the soba, he works in a highly methodical, almost machinelike manner, moving the wood cutting guide (komaita) a small amount with each precise cut.  His foot positions steady his entire body and notice the way he holds the knife: it is not his arm the guides it downward, but his shoulder and upper torso.  Even his surroundings emphasize his machine like nature. He enclosed in his small soba room, like a motor encased in a machine, on display.  He is the first thing you see from the street as you walk into the restaurant, so you know these noodles are handmade.

Or could it actually be that this physical action of his hand, done with a careful movement by a skilled master who has trained in the tradition of the soba craft, that somehow affects, almost inexplicably, their taste in a way that no machine can replicate? Is this the taste of craft?

…………………

[1] Nozaki, Hiromitsu. Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes (Tokyo, New York and London: Kodanasha, 2009), 131.  There is also a nice closeup showing hand and body position while cutting soba on page 130.

[2] Pye, David. The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Bethel, CT: Cambium Press, 1995), see Chapter 9.

[3] Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship,  23-29.

[4] Yanagi, Soetsu. The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty (Tokyo, New York and London: Kodansha International, 1978), 107.

[5] Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman, 108.

The Craftsman: A Book Review

 

“Craftsmanship… the desire to do a job well for its own sake.”  

-Richard Sennett


Beginning with this disarmingly simple premise, Richard Sennett proceeds to explore the largely undeveloped, complex world of craft.  This is the first of three  planned volumes, the next dealing with the crafting of rituals that manage aggression and zeal, to be followed by an examination of the skills used in designing and developing sustainable environments. He intends technique to be the theme that unifies these volumes.  Although there have been numerous attempts over the years to examine craft, often from  the viewpoint of anthropology, sociology, personal experience, labor history, technology or phenomenology (see note A), craft  is somewhat resistant to scholarly explication.  Sennett, with one foot in praxis as a trained musician and the other in theory as a professor of sociology at New York University, seems well poised for the task.

This book is divided into three sections–Craftsmen, Craft and Craftsmanship. In the course of 296 engagingly and coherently written pages, the book references a myriad of philosophers and writers. (see note B) Perhaps it is the holistic nature of craft that demands a multidisciplinary approach?  Or is it over-reliance on research assistants?   The first section compares craftsmen and artisans, examines the workshop as the locus of learning and communication, then reviews how craftsmen have dealt with industrialization.  The second looks at craft as a learned and transmitted skill, with emphasis on the hand, hand skills and tools.  The third places craftmanship in the Pragmatic philosophic tradition (the authors orientation as well) and considers the three basic aspects of ability..”to localize, to question and to open up” (277).

This book was written for a general audience, and it is the best single volume that I know of that begins to explain and define what craft is. It investigates the types of knowledge and working methods that craftsmen engage in and presents craft as “a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding.” (9)  It encourages non-craftsmen (eg. architect, lab technician, doctor) to adopt some craft methodologies to their fields.  And for the student of craft, there are more than enough nuggets of insightful observations and lucid overviews to commend this book.

Two sections were of particular interest, and could each become complete books.  The first, “The Enlightened Craftsman: Diderot’s Encyclopedia,” reviews some of the philosophy behind presenting manual and mental labor on equal footing then explores the difficulty craftsmen often have in talking about their work. “Among a thousand one will be lucky to find a dozen who are capable of explaining the tools or machinery they use” Diderot writes. (94)  Sennett then examines some of the difficulties in linguistically explaining craft procedures, “…it taxes the powers of the most professional writer to describe precisely how to tie a slipknot.” (95) then points to the limits of language as the cause of this, rather than blame the inarticulate craftsman, as is often the case.  This is the reason for the large number of plates in the Encyclopedia. “The images, in other words, illuminate by clarifying and simplifying movement into a series of clear pictures of the sort the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called ‘decisive moments.'” (95)

Chapter six, titled “Expressive Instructions”  is very provocative. By comparing four styles of written recipes on how to bone a chicken (Richard Olney’s precise how-to, Julia Child’s comforting guide approach combined with close-ups, Elizabeth David’s narrative approach and Madame Benshaw’s instruction through metaphors) Sennett queries how language can be used to transmit hand skills and craft information.   Interpreting and comparing how instructional manuals function is an useful and highly informative approach in determining how craft knowledge is preserved, transmitted and learned.

The book ends by discussing the subject of pride in one’s work, which Sennett feels is the reward  for the skill and commitment necessary to gain craft knowledge, and happens when the work transcends the maker. Whatever flaws this book possesses may well be inherent limitations of language, and thankfully this book avoids a common pitfall in writing on craft– the wheel spinning reiteration about “being in the moment” while crafting. The major problem with this book is it’s lack of distinction between craft and technology, which may be crucial to an accurate conceptualization of craft.  And should the subsequent volumes be realized, this might prove a fatal error, since they are currently  organized around the theme of technique.  However, this book  is a major step forward towards developing a coherent philosophy of craft, and how Homo faber interacts with his hands, tools, objects and the world.  I look forward to volumes two and three in this series.

 

Sennett, Richard.  The Craftsman. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008.  Pb.  $18.00

NOTES:

A.  Kenneth Oakley, Man the Tool-Maker;    David Kingery, Learning from Things;    Edward Luci-Smith, The Story of Craft;    Soetsu Yanage, The Unknown Craftsman;    Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays;    David Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship;    Don Idhe, Technology and the Lifeworld, from Garden to Earth;    Carla Needleman, The Work of Craft;    Bruce Laurie, Artisans into Workers;    Annie Wilcox, A Degree of Mastery;    John Staudenmaier, Technology’s Storytellers;    Frank R. Wilson, The Hand; How Its Use Shapes Brain, Language, and Human Culture;   Carl Bridenbaugh, The Colonial Craftsman;    Reinhard Bendis, Work and Authority in Industry;    Steven Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind;    Edward Mattil, Meaning in Crafts;    W. J. Rorabaugh, The Craft Apprentice;    James Krenov, A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook;    Mary Helms, Craft and the Kingly Ideal;    Thorstein Veblen, The Instinct of Workmanship, ...

B.  Aristotle, Arendt, Heidegger, Marx, Cellini, Diderot, Kant, Hegel, Ruskin, Plato, Darwin, Merleau-Ponty, Burke, Mumford, Dewey, Bacon, Weber, Wittgenstein, Greetz, Csikszentmihalyi, Simmel, Homer and many, many more.  

An Appreciation

 

 

The Union Square Greenmarket, NYC,  was strangely quiet on Saturday, especially in the Northwest corner.  A familiar voice was missing, along with tubs of peeled vegetables. Joe Ades, salesman of the Star Swiss vegetable peeler died on Sunday, Feb. 1 at the age of 75.  A unique, eccentric and charismatic human is gone.

At least once a week, I would often pause and watch him, usually in the company of a crowd.   He was an anachronism, a 19th C. peddler existing in the 21st C.   He never had a license to sell goods on the street, and only once did I see the police ask him to move along.  Perhaps they saw in him what I saw;  a professional barker, a fantastic salesman, a gifted street performer and a craftsman with exemplarily hand skills.

In less time than it took to explain the virtues of his peeler–he was the sole importer from Switzerland,  it could make potato chips, it could function as a mandoline, it made three sided french fries that absorbed less oil than four sided ones, it had blades made of surgical steel–he could cross section an entire carrot, holding both the carrott and peeler freehanded.  Try it sometime, it’s not easy.

The New York Times published an obituary on Feb. 2.  Strange that it was published in the N.Y./ Region section, and not with the other obituaries.  Quite possibly Joe was very rich and lived in a fancy apartment.  The article reports he stored his peelers in the maid’s room, frequented pricey Upper East-side restaurants and wore expensive suits. However, he loved hawking on the street, and I would see him out on the coldest days.  I had always thought he was homeless, or close to it. An enigmatic man he was.

One of the functions of a green market is to reintroduce the relationship between producer-food-consumer.

Joe Ades reintroduced the relationship between vendor-tool-user.  

Joe’s patter lives on in my head each time I use his peeler. 

 

joes-peeler

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