Socrates takes on The Cook as told by Plato

Socrates seeks universal definition of “homemade.”

A work of fiction by Eric Damkoehler

I found this letter in my attic, with no date on it, written in an ancient handwriting, in an ancient language.

I spent the better half of a year obsessed with it’s contents. I studied it, and made several attempts at translating it on my own, though I could never quite satisfy my curiosity. At one point, I was certain I had broken the code into an alphabet, and re-wrote the entire letter into jumbled words, and searched dozens of dictionaries to find a possible match. To no avail, until finally I had several historians research the letter, of which here is the best, and the least expensive account:

He often dined in the same restaurant. He found the food to be reasonably priced—he seldom paid anything—and the service to be of the highest caliber. The meals were always served with abundant accompaniments, and The Cook would save his best for Socrates.

The Cook had a fondness for Socrates, who wanted to know everything that was served to him, and lest The Cook should forget to mention, or intentionally omit, Soc had a brilliant reserve of recipes at his disposal, which he gave to our cooks, who would imitate but poorly reproduce the fare.

There was one occasion, that I recall, as I too enjoyed the fine nourishment abounding in The Cook’s pantry, which you eloquently remind me of, Sir.

That recipe which, if I am not mistaken, was that of a simple pizza pie, which was quite exceptional in its seasoning and prepared perfectly by his masterful hands. Socrates tongue was as sensitive to food as it was sharp with politicians, and he chastised The Cook for holding his secrets so dear, “In trust, shall your recipe fall to me,” said he, “for I will only share it now and then for my own purposes, when your service proves inhospitable, for I hold hours well beyond that of you, my friend, The Cook, whose pleasure is my own. I implore you give me the secret which you hold so dear, so far above all other secrets of your kitchen, my dear friend and servant, The Cook.”

“Sir, my dear friend, Socrates, yours is the only pleasure which I desire, however, I must not give you this secret, for it belongs not to me. Shame, humiliation have I, and my pantry is barren. I have been put upon by so many of late, and so many are my friends and I pity the rest—and God has asked me to feed them all—but I have seldom received anything in return. Except you, my dear friend and most loyal of patrons, Socrates, your bill is always paid in good conversation, which I value more than anything else in the fine world.”

“But I see that my conversation has put upon you as well as that of the vagabonds, and the friendly merchants and the lovely maidens, and that I too am in your debt.” Socrates gave The Cook a small amount of money, of which he had very little at the time, and The Cook was grateful.

Their conversation drifted from one topic to the next, like two song birds on a spring morning, until at last Socrates made his plea, “You are The Cook, and a fine one at that, the best in Athens, will I not implore again for the secret of this meal?”

“Sir, that is the secret to which I am not privileged, for it was not I, The Cook, who made this entire meal. I am the one who heated it up, and served it to you and your companion. The ingredients were brought to me by another cook, who has patrons which he is unkind towards, who therefore pay him plentifully, but has often times a plethora of food which he can not sell, and brings it sometimes to me, who he knows has very little to offer. But, I can assure you of this: it was homemade.”

“You say, “homemade,” but it was not made in his home was it?”

“No, it was not.”

“So by what do you mean, “homemade?”

“Sir, I imply that the dish was made from scratch from basic ingredients and served to you, in a manner to which you might expect at home.”

“Then, if you say, I should remember this dish from my youth, when my home was full of the smell of fine foods cooking?”

“Yes, that is assumed.”

“But my mother and her servants never made such a dish.”

“Certainly, you may make an exception, for me, The Cook, your dear friend, and consider that I remember the exact same dish as a boy, which my mother labored over for the benefit of my siblings and I. This is the same dish,” said The Cook.

Socrates replied, “I will make that exception, but, kind and hospitable sir, tell me if I can produce something that is homemade, for I have very little recognizance of anything which was served to me when I was a boy.”

“You can make something homemade, but you must make it from scratch.”

“You disregard the second rule of the definition which you, The Cook, the expert and absolute authority of food has just now given?”

“I suppose.”

“Than homemade is simply something which is made from scratch?”

“That defines the matter perfectly,” said The Cook.

And Socrates replied, “I beg you, Sir, forgive me. I am a fool when it comes to matters of culinary art, and have little knowledge and wisdom in their regard. What, pray tell, is “scratch?”

“That is easy to define. Something made from scratch is something which I, The Cook, prepare with basic ingredients. For instance, this pizza, which you find very favorable, was made with homemade dough, homemade sauce and baked here, in my brick oven.”

“But you see that it is difficult for me to understand your meaning, The Cook, for I do not, still, fully understand what you mean by homemade, other than it is made from scratch, and you now say that something made from scratch is homemade. I ask again, what is scratch?”

“The dough was made from flour and water. It was made with two basic ingredients. That is scratch,” said The Cook.”

Socrates replied, “So then, alas, we now have it. The dough was made from basic ingredients, and therefor is homemade, which means the same as from scratch?”

“That defines the matter.”

“The Cook, my dear friend, tell me, for now I know the recipe for the dough, if I borrow some of your sauce and put it on my dough, which I intend to make, will I be able to eat a homemade pizza?”

The Cook was slow in responding, “I would not consider that to be a homemade pizza, for you must make the entire thing from scratch—sauce and all.”

“Then you must tell me the recipe for the sauce, so that I may make something homemade,” said Socrates.

“That is easy, my dear friend, Socrates; it is made from the canned tomatoes which my fellow cook brought me, and cooked with onions, garlic, and a humble amount of herbs, which I bought recently from a traveler.”

“Did the cook who brought you tomatoes can them himself?”

“I should doubt that. He purchases directly from a tomato canner. But they were canned by the best tomato canner of all of the Achaeans, and would be considered homemade by most, except, perhaps, my dear friend Socrates,” reasoned The Cook.

“The Gadfly’s work is never done. I pry at you only for knowledge, so that I may someday recreate this masterful pizza. My kind and hospitable friend, The Cook, did the tomato canner grow the tomatoes in his own fields?”

“I am certain he did not, for he had a dispute with a neighbor who destroyed his entire crop.”

“That is a shame, but, for the sake of our discussion, how did he come about the tomatoes he used to can?”

“As restitution, the neighbor was forced to deliver them to him, which came at a great expense, with the market being driven high by lack of supply; a result of the destroyed crop.”

“It seems the neighbor of the canner was properly punished. Tell me, now, how can you consider your sauce to be homemade if the tomatoes, the main ingredient, were purchased several times over, and handled by several different people before they arrived in your kitchen?”

“Socrates, my dear and wise friend and patron, I must now bite my tongue, so I may not offend you, for you have raised my ire. I say only, and I am an expert in the matter, that my sauce was homemade.”

“Do not shy from the truth for my sake, I am unable to be offended by someone who is so much wiser than I upon the subject which we are discussing. I wish only to understand a finite amount of your expertise. Mustn’t you handle the ingredients in their entirety for your sauce to be homemade? That is, what would stop someone from adding salt, or lavender to the tomatoes before they arrived in your kitchen, an ingredient which you would not know was there, even with your expertly refined pallet? It may be an ingredient which you could not so easily duplicate, if you were to make the sauce in another kitchen, with another canner’s tomatoes.”

“Do you think I should have grown the entire crop? Would that satisfy you? Then, would it be homemade? And what of the seeds? Must I only use my own, or may I buy the seeds for my tomatoes, so I may grow them?” replied The Cook.

“You grow irritated with me, I am an expert in arousing that feeling—“

“And I arresting it. Forgive me, have some more wine.” The Cook poured Socrates some more wine, and they drank together for a quiet moment, before Socrates began again.

“You are the expert in the matter, and I wish your opinion. Should you have to grow your tomatoes in order to make, truly homemade pizza sauce?”

The Cook replied, “Since you have proven that to be true, for the reasons you mentioned, yes, I suppose. My sauce is not homemade.”

“Nor is the pizza?” asked Socrates.

“No, the pizza is still homemade. I ask that you grant the exception of the sauce, for I only now realize my error, and faithfully trust I will grow enough tomatoes in a neighbors field, on commission, from now on, and make my sauce from scratch. Consider, for the time being, that something which is made mostly from scratch, with only a few exceptions, is homemade.”

“But, there are more exceptions, my friend. What of the cheese?”

“Ah, there you thought you could catch me, but I’m so clever that I made the cheese myself, and I am very proud to say it is the best fresh mozzarella around!”

“What is in it?”

“That’s no secret—the secret is in the stretching, which I could not explain, but I’ll gladly show you some time. There is milk, rennet, citric acid, water and salt. Very simple, and entirely homemade,” said The Cook.

Socrates probed, “Again, where did these ingredients come from? What is rennet? Who sells citric acid in the year 450 BC?” (Socrates was ahead of his time)

“Then I will never satisfy you. It is impossible to make cheese without these ingredients. If, for the sake of argument, I told you I milked the cow, would that settle the matter?”

“It would not. You should have to raise the cow, in order to make homemade cheese. There are now several exceptions to your homemade philosophy. Did you mill your own flour? Did you grow the wheat? Even with your most basic recipe there is a question! I enjoyed the pizza thoroughly, but why must you insist it is homemade, when it is not?”

“Socrates, I beg you, allow me to consider this homemade, for if I can’t, I don’t know what is!”

“Yet, you neglect one of the more important ingredients, the pepperoni. Was the pepperoni also made from scratch?” prodded Socrates.

“I suppose, not by my capable hands, but grant yet another exception to the rule, for most cooks whom I have trained under do not make their own pepperoni,” replied The Cook.

“Never mind that, let us settle this once more. What is homemade?”

“Homemade is better than the crap they call pizza at Big Greek Chain! It doesn’t come out of a freezer, but it can be made from frozen ingredients. It was grown in a garden, but it doesn’t have to be your garden! If you add powder to water it isn’t homemade stock, but it can be used to make a homemade soup taste better! Don’t you see, homemade comes from within the cook, it is what defines him in his trade, it is something which can’t be easily duplicated, though it can be repeated. Homemade is the soul of the cook, transparent with every bite, and his source of ingredients is not at question; it is his food, his recipe, his passion you taste. Not the lavender, or the rennet, but his heart, his love. That is homemade. Homemade isn’t pompous, or elite. It isn’t all-natural or arrogant. It’s just, and it’s love. It’s love.”

“Homemade is love?”

“Yes, Socrates, finally we agree, homemade is love! It is fresh, it is obsession, it is desire, it is passion, it is dedication and it is spontaneous.”

“What is this “fresh” you speak of? Can you define that?”

Meletus! Take him away!”

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