I’ve been thinking about recipes.
And I’ve been wondering, how do you use a cookbook?
Do you use it like a bible? As if its been written by an omnipotent creator, tested by minions of recipe testers that will bring you guaranteed, consistent results? But, my ingredients can never be the same as the author’s because they come from a different place and time. Or maybe the heat and humidity will not be as controlled as a test kitchen. Or maybe the recipe creator and I have an entirely different set of expectations.
Do you read a cookbook like a detective novel? Looking for clues in the ingredients, a motive in the in the instructions? Are you hoping to solve the riddle of how the photograph of the dish and what you’ve made look so very different?
Are you a voyeur? Peeping into someone else’s head as you thumb through the cookbook? (I am.) Looking for titillation and inspiration in someone else’s cooking? (I certainly am.) Spying on someone else’s techniques, seeing if you can lift a bit of expertise and incorporate that into your own bag of tricks. (Am I stealing from, or honoring the author? )
Why else would food porn be so popular? That piece of a divine desert, with one inviting cherry rolling off the plate. We live vicariously, promising ourselves if only our oven were a little bigger, or our counters uncluttered, then we could also make gorgeous food. Slickly styled food, in lush settings, is really no different than an impossibly beautiful model perched on a table with her legs crossed. Both promise a nirvana that most of us will never attain.
Mostly, I’m a scanner. I scan the list of ingredients, check the proportions and go on my merry way. Submitting to a recipe makes me feel shackled and nervous. I check the list over and over, double and triple checking myself.
However, I must use recipes for bread baking and deserts.
Bread recipes are often referred to as formulas, because you really do need to get the proportions right: too much sugar and the yeast misbehaves, add the salt too soon, and you’ll get tricked into adding too much moisture to the dough.
For desserts, I need to seek out recipes, because I have no discernible sweet tooth and it’s like a tone deaf person playing music.
I’m not saying we don’t need cookbooks or recipes. We always will need a record, a way of passing along kitchen culture and knowledge. I have good cookbooks that I refer to, and I look at websites and blogs that I trust. Cookbooks have been around a long time because we need them and use them. (And some of my good friends are cookbook authors and they write from their heart.) But, I’m starting to think that in some cases, recipes are a crutch, or sometimes, an excuse.
A few weeks ago, at Civitella Ranieri, we attended a performance by the composer and sound artist, Theresa Wong. She asked us to give her something from our pockets, or our handbag, and she would make music from these random, common place objects. She entered the performance space dragging a large tree branch, letting it scratch and rattle against the stone floor. Slowly, I felt my listening sense start to relax and open. I heard staccato music come from keys being rattled, the force of a drum beat from something being dropped and a droning repetitiveness as the object rolled away.
With a sense of adventure and curiosity, I came back into my kitchen. Fresh pea pods have a gorgeous wet popping sound as they release their fruit. Dried pea pods barely have the energy for a whisper of sound. Boiling water is urgent. Sizzling oil demands attention. Making risotto while cleaning lettuce for the salad, means you have to be attentive to the little hiss that means its time to add more broth.
I bet we could all be better cooks if we listened more. So, today’s cooking assignment, if you are in the mood, is to stop and listen. That’s all. Just listen.