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Archive for January, 2010

I glimpsed tonight as I was cooking this Tuscan-style kale soup–which, disappointingly, but more importantly, opaquely, did not benefit from my modifications–a very central reason why I enjoy cooking: I am enchanted and often mystified by the gap (what accounts for its existence?, what determines its size?) between reading a recipe and actually following the steps required to prepare that recipe.

The strength of this feeling that I’ve done something creative or, at the very least, “learned” something through following the steps required to make a certain pre-created dish is difficult to account for. Haven’t I, in cooking someone else’s recipe from a book or website, simply verified the relative success of an already-tested experiment of sorts? Interesting to a degree, important from the point of view of hard sciences, but hardly useful enough to be the stuff of wonder for a lay chef.

First, I look to motivation: why did I read, and then cook, that recipe? In this case as in most, I lit upon this particular recipe because I knew that in theory I’d be able to prepare the dish and would enjoy eating it, too.

It’s almost as if a recipe, understood–which feels and seems seamless upon reading–has rips and tears in its fabric (a kind of knowledge) that only become visible–and often yawningly so–as one moves bit by bit through a recipe, as a whole. It can feel like, as it did tonight, that as I executed each instruction, I was testing that sentence, that bit of descriptive copy on how fine to chop a certain amount of something, to see if its seams held.

For example, I remember reading the Ribollita recipe and passing blithely over the section instructing me to “tear bread into bite-sized pieces.” It was only as I stood over the bubbling pot, baguette in hand, that I asked myself what bite-sized means, or could, or should, mean: surely it wasn’t what could actually FIT in my mouth…so it must be a piece that would be of a size that seemed appealing to include in one bite…but bread is soft, so since it will break down in the liquid, I asked myself, is making an overestimate of “bite size” the correct way to conceive of the instructions?

This can seem like cooking neurosis, and I’m sure at least in part is, but I think there is a real point to be brought up about how it is only by following a set of instructions that a person can know what is and isn’t straightforward, from a “doer’s” perspective, about said instructions. What separates cooking from, say, assembling a piece of IKEA furniture is that 1. wrong and right are much more relative with cooking and 2. even when “wrong” and “right” can be assigned to certain preparations or measurements, the element of time enters: each day could shift the assignation of these conceptions.

As an example: the bread I used was initially a failure. I didn’t realize how important having the bread be crustless–and as such easily incorporated as a thickening element vs. another bit of “chunkiness”–would be until altering that instruction in favor of using a nice (flavor: yes; texture: not so much) sourdough baguette. Though the crusty bread was not so great a choice the night I first ate the soup since it was weirdly incorporated into the whole, that “error” turned out to be just the thing to give the soup the textural heft that made it so much more delicious the next day.

Another unpredictable element, time aside, was the lemon zest. It seemed perhaps optional, like the chopped olive garnish, and the Parmesan cheese. In fact, that lemon zest–which couldn’t have been more than a teaspoon’s worth of volume in over 15 cups of steaming soup–was pure alchemy, delicious. This is something I did not predict, and feel even in retrospect that I could not have done.

Without a doubt there are cooking shortcuts, tricks, norms, and simple bits of chemistry that take shape and form solid knowledge, I’m sure, as a person cooks more and more, and a wider variety of dishes.

That said, I still feel compelled to submit the idea that only by physically engaging with a recipe does a person realize the existence of, and boundaries of, the uncertainties–which could also be conceived of as creative spaces, or liminal territories between the desirable and undesirable, gastronomically speaking–that are built into the fabric of a recipe. To find and peer into these torn seams–different from person to person, but not fully subjective, in my view–shows not only how deceptively elastic the linguistic fabric of a recipe is by definition, but also demonstrates to some extent that there is indeed a gulf between understanding and the enactment of that knowledge. And, in a world that can feel altogether too tethered to the dryish dictates of physics, experiencing enactment as enchantment is, well, enchanting.

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