My wife and I are addicted to the Netflix series Chefs Table. Each of the six episodes features a world renowned chef. The dishes are exquisite, many are improbably complex, all extraordinary: and yet… six months later there are only two that we now remember. The first, Massimo Bottura's, ‘Oops! I dropped the lemon tart*,’ is a delightful combination of mistake (the tart quite literally dropped) and improvisational genius; once dropped Bottura repeated the process and reframed it as a ‘work of art’. The second, Enrique Olvera’s Mole Madre is strictly speaking, not a dish but the ubiquitous Mexican sauce, ‘mole’ with a twist. While both chef’s share a flair for the improvisational it is Olvera’s Mole Madre that breaks almost every conventional culinary code; defying rather than defining what we would expect from a Michelin star restaurant. The Mole Madre you taste on a Tuesday will not be the Mole Madre you taste on a Wednesday. It is I realise, a recipe without a recipe; a metaphor for growing and nurturing ‘daring’ relationships.
Mole Madre has no prescribed palette of ingredients to choose from. The one rule is that they are indigenous and locally produced. The dishes success relies not on the chefs ability to follow the recipe but to follow the dish. With Mole Madre the traditional role of chef, that of architect and builder, is transformed into something that resembles that of a guardian. ’’The only thing we know’, says Olvera, ‘is that the seasons and the mole’s attitude on the day in question are going to determine the preparation.” As such Mole Madre reframes the relationship between chef and dish. To those of us who are used to following the formula and getting ‘it’ right this might look like a recipe for chaos. However a closer look reveals that Mole Madre has its own language.
Viewed through the lens of second-generation cybernetics, Mole Madre provides us with a useful metaphor as to how relationships change and grow in ways that are both unexpected and endlessly surprising. Mole Madre is a relational dish, recursive in nature and enfolded within an infinite number of recursive systems that are at once autonomous and related.
Mole Madre is a relationship between what might ordinarily be viewed and therefore defined as autonomous systems: the raw ingredients, the regions climatic changes, geography, socioeconomic history and the chef no longer exists. The emergent dish, cannot be traced back to a single controlling source.
Like the best of relationships, the ones that feed us and help us to grow as individuals and as a couple, Mole Madre does not strive for consistency, or change for change sake. Nor is it some ‘thing’ to be controlled and shaped but rather to be respected as a living entity. It is at once independent and dependent of those responsible for its ongoing development. “I think,” says Olvera, “it’s beautiful to have something that we have nurtured for these past few years and will continue to nurture in the years to come. It’s like a tree branching out in many directions we could never have imagined.”
Mole Madre’s main ingredient is corn and when I hear Olvera speak about that most humble of Mexican ingredients I am struck, not so much by Olvera’s culinary expertise, but by his sense of awe and wonderment. For Olvera, corn, of which Mexico has over 50 different indigenous varieties, is far more than a staple ingredient, it is a sociological roadmap to Mexico’s past and its future: the history of corn is intricately and inseparably intwined with Mexico’s culture and people. Olvera is in love with corn, in love with its unfolding mystery. And it is in this quality of listening, one filled with respect and reverence that allows the Mole Madre to become greater than the sum of its parts.
Held within an ecological context, rather than a culinary context, Mole Madre looks both infinitely vast and infinitely small. It’s continuing development and maturation embodies the greatest and most daring adventures of all. Daring because mystery cannot be reduced into a theory with its constituent parts. Loving because relationships, offer no guarantees, they unfold in the cooking and refuse to be explained.
* Brent J. Atkinson Ph.D. Anthony W. Heath. Ph.D
Further thoughts on Second-Order Family Therapy
Family Process Vol. 29, June, 1990
‘I have a theory that theories are destructive.’ Carl Whitaker
Despite Carl Whitaker’s iconic status, and his success in challenging psychological orthodoxies, nearly half a century later we find ourselves no less mired in theory.
For many, theory and increasingly formula, in the guise of theory, offers the hope of a prescribed way out of the uncertainty and anxiety of a disintegrating relationship. That we should find ourselves reaching for such formulaic devices is not surprising. In times of increased anxiety our natural inclination is to crave peace through the safety of the known.
However if the theologian Bonhoeffer is to be believed, we are unlikely to reach peace through safety; for peace, says Bonhoeffer requires, ‘the opposite of security [and is] itself the great venture and can never be safe.’ As a family therapist, Carl Whitaker like Bonhoeffer, was committed to the cessation of war with ‘another.’ Whitaker while widely admired for the efficacy of his work was a maverick. It was this embracing of the unconventional that lead the family therapist Salvador Minuchin to describe Whitaker’s approach to family therapy as ‘dazzlingly creative’, and ‘unpredictable.’ Which is to say unteachable.
Unfortunately today, as in the 1960’s, most therapeutic modalities are, to a lesser or greater degree, taught, copied, repeated and held in a way that robs them of their original vitality. In other words they lack the vital spirit of adventure that would have them bring any real and meaningful change. The result in its most brittle and dead(ly) iteration, the formula, usually takes the form of painting by numbers: seven ways to, nine steps to… Which surely explains, if not in its entirety at least in part, the woeful state of therapy and its ability to improve the lives of others.
If then, the formula’s promise of the ‘known’ and by inference the ‘safe’ will not save the relationship, will not take it and us toward a peaceful and loving relationship, what if anything will? Are we to simply cross our fingers and hope that somehow things will work out for the best?
The good news is there is a recipe to peace and with it the cessation of war with another. Unlike the formula, this recipe requires us to step out from under the safety of theory and into mystery.
This stepping out is an invitation to travel somewhere we have never been before and in doing we open ourselves up to an experience that changes our lives. I say ‘our lives’ because the recipe requires the active participation of both. The relational dance, if it is to provide any meaningful change, cannot be choreographed. In a meaningful relationship no two dances are ever the same.
The degree to which we can embrace and hold a loving relationship with mystery determines the extent to which the relationship can grow and change. When this happens we give ourselves permission to move from being good partners to loving partners. In doing so we embark on that loving relationship, one which is in Bonhoeffer’s words, ‘‘itself the great venture and can never be safe.’