22 May 2013

The problem of the recipe

One of the things  that I've always found difficult about blogging about food - and even cooking for my friends and family is the constant urging to write down the recipe, so that I (or they) can make it exactly the same next time.

On one hand, I don't want them to be exactly the same - the ingredients will never be exactly the same - this years tomatoes, delicious as they are, are not the same as last years... garlic I got this week is stronger than what I had last week... the humidity in the summer means my bread rises faster than when it is dry, or cold... the conditions for my pasta water are not going to be the same tonight as they were last night - all of these factors mean that the dish should be different... and the seasonality and cyclical nature implied by this difference makes me really happy. It fits with my personal beliefs so neatly.

There is something magical in the ephemeral nature of a delicious meal... that fleeting nature makes that moment even more valuable. It may be a bit cliche, but the fact that it's not replicable should make you appreciate it more. If you could have it anytime - exactly the same - I feel like it would lose that magical nature.

But on the other hand - and I know that I am what can only be classified as the rankest of amateurs when it comes to food blogging, but even with the caveat that my recipes are more guidelines, and untested ones at that, there is something about posting a recipe that implies a sameness... And I think this sameness is important for learning and trying new things.

I was recently reading and essay (I think it's actually the introduction to his cookbook, but it was in a collection of essays) by Paul Bertolli which neatly articulates this problem of recipes that had been floating around at the back of my head... "Later, when I began recording what I had done in the kitchen, I found that I was no more comfortable writing a recipe than following one. Studying my food-stained notes, I was annoyed at having to go back and measure in cups and teaspoons the ingredients that I had originally added according to taste and feel." Expanding on this problem of recipes and their disconnect from cooking, he writes, "Subtleties in the way food looks, smells, and behaves are lost when the process of cooking is reduced to a series of simple and efficient steps. Such it the unfortunate legacy of almost all recipe writing."

This is a conundrum - because on one hand the recipe is useful, for some necessary, but on the other it is a block that gets in the way of the creative act of cooking... There are no solutions here, only problems...


  1. Maybe you could revert to medieval measurements? "A goodly amount" of one thing, "sufficient" of another? That way you can remember all the ingredients you had used, but don't feel tied to the measuring implements.

    1. When I take notes that's generally what I do - but then It's difficult to pass on the "recipe" to friends and family, or to post it online, because that's not how recipes work.

  2. I disagree (naturally - it is my idiom to be contrary :)). The recipe, to me, is like the kata in karate or the pattern of steps in ballroom dancing. It is the skeleton that holds it all together; how you flesh it out is where the creativity resides. I also think the recipe is more important for some kinds of cooking than others. In baking, for example, the cups and teaspoons are often the difference between fluffy deliciousness and a soggy, doughy mess.

    This is, I think just another incarnation of your pantserness... Luckily, you have the skills to pull it off in the kitchen. :)

    1. While it is sort of true that recipes are more important - even then, it's really more the ratio of ingredients than the precise measurements. You need to know how the dough should feel and look, how thick the batter should be - those are things you know from experience and can only vaguely be described in a recipe.

      That argument made, I LOVE the idea of recipes as kata or basic patterns - that is exactly what they are and one of the main things you need them for is the initial learning and foundational knowledge that will later help you know how the dough should feel, whether to add salt, fat or acid to finish a dish, and all the other little details that seem instinctual to a good cook... but are actually learned patterns that are so ingrained that they are no longer conscious.