Rooftop “Recipes” for Relating: A Commentary on Recipes, Ethnography, and Theory

Photo by Noha Fikry. A tree's affair on a Cairo rooftop.

I titled my 2018 anthropology MA thesis for The American University in Cairo “Rooftop Recipes for Relating: Ecologies of Humans, Animals, and Life,” but it took me months after its submission and my graduation to fully understand and appreciate the implications of this choice. Based on one year of fieldwork on rooftops in Egypt during 2017–2018, where families raise animals for consumption, I argue that these multispecies rooftops are embedded in surrounding ecologies of not only other humans and nonhuman animals, but also trees, economies, and markets. This essay is a reflective commentary on the choice of recipes as one of the fundamental tropes that I used in order to understand and communicate my ethnography, personal trajectory, and disciplinary upbringing. The present commentary examines the etymological, philosophical, and anthropological meanings of recipes.

Among Egypt’s urban working classes is a long-standing tradition of raising a variety of nonhuman animals for sustenance and subsistence. These animals include poultry such as chicken, geese, and ducks; goats; sheep; along with rabbits and pigeons. This takes place in family-owned homes, usually four or five stories high. My fieldsite was rooftops broadly defined, including the inside of homes as families consumed the animals they raised, in five homes in various neighborhoods of Cairo and Alexandria, spanning all the way from old Islamic southern Cairo to its more deserted and recently built and developed eastern side of the city. This thesis began with itching curiosities about humans and nonhumans but, in the course of ethnographic fieldwork, unfolded as a broader account of ecological anthropology in terms of the worlds of food and waste and the gift exchange systems that working-class Egyptians engage in. As such, the coming together of those humans and nonhumans opened up a world of ecological questions, food and nutrition curiosities, and class-based hierarchies that I never considered prior to fieldwork.

My rooftop interlocutors loved their rabbits, chickens, and pigeons, nurtured them to bits, and still loved them “to death”—both literally and metaphorically. They spoke of their chickens as their children, disciplined rabbits as their young daughters and sons, and instructed me to get some maternal training before marriage through rearing/raising some rooftop animals. By the same token, they usually spoke of my eating patterns and habits as flawed and unhealthy, for the sole reason that I do not have knowledge of where my food comes from, or what my food eats. By contrast, my interlocutors claim to know everything that has been placed in the mouth and guts of their chickens, rabbits, and goats from the moment of their birth to the moment of their cooking. This was especially important given their impoverished class position and given that the government offers no decent access to a properly “nutritious” diet. Their only way “out,” then, is to grow some of their own food, and to provide themselves access to what would otherwise be inaccessible. By growing chickens, pigeons, and goats, my interlocutors regard themselves as healthy human beings, most characterized by their intimate relationship with and knowledge of what they eat. These reared nonhuman animals are fed through an engaged extended network of ecological waste-recycling, in which neighboring shops hand in their leftover vegetables and peels to provide food for the rooftop nonhuman animals. Usually rendered as working-class and environmentally ignorant if not hazardous social beings, my interlocutors in fact practiced a heightened awareness of broader seasonal shifts, tree ecologies and “homes,” and human–animal collaborations of health and illness that are ecologically sound and environmentally balanced—at least when compared to the more affluent middle-class livelihoods of most Cairenes. On another level, my interlocutors also expressed different modes of valuing and using these rooftop-raised “foods.” Their chicken, for instance, provide them with daily intake of poultry, but also a strict dietary plan for postpartum women who are preferably fed with freshly slaughtered boiled chicken.

After completing fieldwork, I was encouraged by my mentors to pursue the argument that multispecies ethnography, posthumanism, and the animal turn as standing bodies of scholarly literature provide limited or even stifling analytical purchase for my fieldwork. The worlds of companion animals, loving creaturely beings, and utopian interspecies relationalities did not accurately reflect the sometimes violent or arguably dystopian instances of slaughtering, devouring, or ritualistic cooking that I witnessed. A wholeheartedly different understanding of interspecies relationality, ecologies (a word never uttered in English or Arabic during my fieldwork), food provisioning, eating, and even living and dying was vividly in action. And it would have only been dishonest for me to reduce, flatten, and cut down these ethnographic worlds of their full potential by just relying on existing theoretical and conceptual “recipes” of love, planetary rescue, and posthuman ruins and worlds.

Despite issues with his citational practices and overall arguments, journalist Michael Pollan (2013, 4) insightfully points to the shared Greek etymological root “magic” of the words “priest,” “butcher,” and “cook” in his analysis of food and civilization. Pollan argues that cooking is a transformative, almost magical, act in which basic ingredients are transformed into complex dishes—something more than the sum of its parts. This metaphor resonates with my conception of rooftop fieldwork, which I conceive as “cooking” an ethnographic and anthropological meal that, in its final product, is more than its components. I use “cooking,” then, to refer to both the material instances during fieldwork where meals were shared and rooftop chickens eaten, and to the arguments and conclusions drawn out from these fieldwork encounters. This said, I preferred the concept of recipe over that of cooking because of the connotation that the former presents. Recipe entails a guided process, a set of instructions, and a curious and avid actor who attempts to magically cook something together. Cooking, on the other hand, only emphasizes the process, and ignores instruction or guidance.

My intention of using the metaphor of recipe also operates at a second level. As a student of anthropology, I perceive the contribution of my thesis to be primarily ethnographic: an account of rooftop fieldwork encounters and the worlds these rooftops speak. My thesis, however, also makes conceptual and theoretical contributions. According to most historical accounts, the word recipe has been adopted and (phonologically) adapted from the Latin verb recipere, which translates into “take.” As such, at the heart of recipe is the second-person “taking,” receiving, or following a set of instructions (Arendholz et al. 2013, 121). Unsurprisingly, then, the same word has also historically been used for the medical act of prescribing drugs. In both cases, recipe refers to a bearer of knowledge, a recipient, and a set of instructions.

In my disciplinary training as an anthropology graduate student, our MA program required that students first take their theory courses, followed by taking methodology training courses, and finally going to fieldwork. “Cooking” fieldwork, under this model, demanded simmering fieldwork using the recipe of spiced anthropological theory and conceptual frameworks. While I wholeheartedly subscribe to this particular mode of teaching, pondering over the etymological origins of recipes helped me unpack and question some of the assumptions at the heart of this disciplinary configuration. In a sense, theory comes first because it operates as a recipe—a set of instructions that a trained anthropologist is able to decode and work through her/his fieldwork. What this assumes is that anthropological theory is more important than fieldwork. Unsatisfied with this power dynamic and with my inability to regard fieldwork as theory in its own right, I sought a more egalitarian relation between anthropological theory and fieldwork using the metaphor of recipe.

This dissatisfaction with grandiose theory, as suggested above, stemmed from my disappointment in the existing literature pertaining to my rooftop interests. Given the lack of existing literature on human–animal relations or rooftop land use in Egypt, I had to improvise, navigate, and patch together an eclectic literature review extending beyond the particularities of my topic in its theoretical and geographic context. This review then relied on scholarly trends like the animal turn, multispecies ethnography, human–animal relations, and posthumanism. This body of existing literature proved to be rather redundant, with a notable proliferation of analytical categories and labels. With remarkable differences and divergences, most of these existing literatures reproduce an ever-renewing loop of animals and humans as distinct beings, with little or peripheral emphasis on relations, connections, and overlapping ecologies. Some of this existing literature focused on and argued for what I took to be a rather romantic and largely apolitical multispecies companionship, while others fell short of ethnographic rigor (DiNovelli-Lang 2013, 151; Watson 2016, 169). In all cases, however, with very few exceptions, anthropological theory lacked the rigorous guidance that a “recipe” supposedly offers.

In his seminal Lifeworlds: Essays in Existential Anthropology, Michael Jackson (2013, 24) argues, following object-relations theory, that “culture is not some kind of ready-made, omnipresent composite of habits, meanings, and practices that are located in the individual or in the environment, but a potentiality that is realized and experienced variously in the course of our interactions with others, as well as our relationships to the everyday environments and events in which we find ourselves.” It then follows that, rather than hunting and decoding theory through fieldwork, fieldwork develops through everyday relationships with interlocutors, surroundings, and rooftop worlds. Echoing this on the particularities of fieldwork and theory, Jackson (2013, 25, emphasis in original) makes the argument that as anthropologists we need not follow existing “scripts,” but, rather, our beliefs and conceptualizations could follow “from” our actions, namely fieldwork and the subsequent theorizations to follow. This means that ethnographic fieldwork functions as the primary guide which one should take as dictating one’s consulted body of theory.

In further reflecting on my status as an ethnographer, and through Jackson’s work I arrived at the work of Michael Joseph Oakeshott, a philosopher and political theorist, whom I was never taught about in any of my classes throughout my anthropological training. Jackson refers to Oakeshott’s (1967) Rationalism in Politics, in which Oakeshott consistently uses cooking as one of several examples to make his arguments. Oakeshott suggests that the main critique of rationalism, in politics as in other domains of knowledge, is that rationalism assumes that human knowledge is solely and predominantly governed by a preexisting set of rules. Rather, in examining “rational conduct” as a desirable quality of any activity—be it in politics or scientific inquiry—Oakeshott (1967, 119) uses the example of cookery to argue that “the cookery book is not an independently generated beginning from which cooking can spring; it is nothing more than an abstract of somebody’s knowledge of how to cook: it is the stepchild, not the parent of the activity.” As such, he argues that it is our actions, in this case our ethnographic fieldwork as anthropologists, that define the questions we are trying to tackle but also the ways—namely, the theoretical body of work—through which we attempt to answer these questions (Oakeshott 1967, 97). Oakeshott (1967, 97) then elaborates, “Now, if we consider the concrete activity of an historian, a cook, a scientist, a politician or any man in the ordinary conduct of life, we may observe that each is engaged upon answering questions of a certain sort, and that his characteristic is that he knows (or thinks he knows) the way to go about finding the answer to that sort of question . . . it is the activity itself which defines the questions as well as the manner in which they are answered.”

My decision to use recipes as an analytical category, conceptual tool, and analogy filled me with ambivalence given its power-laden connotation of a blind and perhaps naïve obedience to an existing script or a scholarly convention. In other words, why use the word recipes at all? Oakeshott suggests, however, that any effort of teaching a body of knowledge must inevitably rely on existing “traditions,” which are composed of primary questions, propositions, and a “grammar.” Rules and recipes, but also existing theories and conceptual frameworks, are not to be ignored, attacked, or fought against. As such, rather than ignoring or attacking existing theories and conceptual frameworks, we need to honestly revisit existing recipes and rules—not as unproblematic foundations, but as always open to modification and recreation (Oakeshott 1967, 103). As such, my intervention lies not in abstaining from or subscribing to recipes, but rather revisiting my stance and power vis-à-vis the recipes that I have inherited, as guided and informed by my ethnographic explorations.

These brief encounters with theory through Jackson and Oakeshott reformulated the ambivalence of my fieldwork–theory relationship. Rather than blindly and obediently following a strict recipe of companion animals, posthumanist theory, and anthropological rituals of sacrifice, I came to assume the more polemical role of allowing fieldwork to inform, dictate, and revisit an existing body of theory. My disciplinary and theoretical “recipes” for relating were inspired by a prolific existing body of theory, which I faithfully took and engaged with, only to be revisited and expanded through murkier, muddier, and more polyphonic modes of multispecies relationality and ecological living. In short, as anthropology has taught me, the main quest here is to relate and translate, in an effort of multiplying worlds, rather than to flatten these or to reduce them to ever reverberating recipes, theories, or conceptual traditions. In shaping ourselves as anthropologists, both ethnography and theory create us and the broader worlds anew—always simultaneously familiar and strange.


Arendholz, Jenny, Wolfram Bublitz, Monika Kirner, and Iris Zimmermann. 2013. “Food for Thought: Or, What’s (in) a Recipe? A Diachronic Analysis of Cooking Instructions.” In Culinary Linguistics: The Chef’s Special, edited by Cornelia Gerhardt, Maximiliane Frobenius, and Susanne Ley, 103–119. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

DiNovelli-Lang, Danielle. 2013. “The Return of the Animal: Posthumanism, Indigeneity, and Anthropology.” Environment and Society 4, no. 1: 137–56.

Jackson, Michael. 2013. Lifeworlds: Essays in Existential Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Oakeshott, Michael Joseph. 1967. Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. London: Methuen.

Pollan, Michael. 2013. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. London: Penguin.

Watson, Matthew C. 2016. “On Multispecies Mythology: A Critique of Animal Anthropology.” Theory, Culture, and Society 33, no. 5: 159–72.