Thursday, May 6, 2010
On the recipe
I love recipes.
Yeah, I'm man enough to admit it, right up in front of all of you gathered here today. Okay, okay, I know I've talked before about how difficult it can be for me to follow a recipe to the letter, but whenever I cook I do pretty much invariably have something in front of me. See, I love everything about recipes. The precise seemingly logical measurements, the linear directions, the sense that, like a map, if you follow their lines precisely, you will always get where you intend to go. This is really satisfying, and it speaks to the age we live in, too. You probably know this but if you study any art long enough you'll hear reiterations of the idea that everything has been done, everything thought, everything said and heard. We humans have been here on Earth doing stuff long enough that we don't really have anything new to offer, just the same old things, hopefully combined in some new way that, immediately after you do it, becomes just one more thing that's also not new. So when it comes to cooking, it's not much of a stretch to say that everything you're thinking of throwing together in a pan, someone else has made it first. And if you look deep enough on google, they've probably blogged about it too.
Think too hard on the implications of this concept and it'll drive you absolutely mad, but once it wiggles its way inside you you kind of have to learn to live with it. Me, I like to imagine that this concept of reiteration is one of the cornerstones of modern civilization, that it's comforting to be living in the shadow of history, and recipes for me just reinforce this. When I cook from a recipe, I'm just consciously reiterating a previous meal, attaching myself to a newer form of someone else's experience with a dish, when I then blog about the recipe, I'm constructing the underlying associations that society depends on. I am not saying that this is my motivation all the time, but sometimes, sure, I'm doing it to do it so that it will be redone.
As you might imagine from this, I cook from recipes quite a bit. But more and more I find that my developing sense of how things work in the kitchen leads me away from whatever recipe my laptop screen is open to and toward the cupboard, or the fridge. I guess, despite all my tangled beliefs about the power of the recipe, all my reliance on the formula, I'm finally learning to cook. I'm sure that there are a million names for this realization, for this act of breaking through the recipe, but the one that keeps running through my head tonight is this: I'm cooking freehand.
Tonight, as Dana ailed on the couch tending a fever as sudden and furious as a sunspot, I had the idea that I'd make her a soup. It was only after I'd diced the aromatics and started digging veggies from the crisper that I realized I was going about this differently than usual. I hadn't hit up tastespotting, hadn't dug through the food-stained catalog of printed out recipes we keep in a binder near the stove, hadn't even really referenced the recipes I've followed so many times I have them by heart. I just wanted soup so I put together soup. I tasted broth, and I frowned at vegetables like normal but I was doing something much more interesting than usual.
Ultimately, the soup turned out all right, good for what it was but still a little unbalanced with flavors, and perhaps that is one of the things that turns me off of cooking freehand, the sense that if something doesn't turn out quite right, it's not the fault of the recipe, it's my fault. There's no scapegoat.
Anyway, the soup's not the important thing (though it was very pretty) it was just a dish that got me thinking. So now I'm curious: what's the breakdown on this issue like in the general population?
So this is a quick sort of poll, a post that needs responses from you.
When you cook, do you dig out recipes and follow their instructions or do you cook freehand, gripping like mad to experience and--if you're a science-minded cook-- the ratios of what goes with what? Okay, why?