Sunday, January 11, 2009

On Cooking

Regular readers of my blog might be surprised to know that I also write a column for a local newspaper. Although I've been writing my "On Cooking" column for almost two years (predating the creation of A Hunger Artist) I've never mentioned it here and, until now, never posted any of it content on this site. My reasons for this are complicated but mostly have to do with my perception of the nature and interests of the two audiences and the need to change my voice to the tastes and mores of each. My voice in The Daily Local, which is distributed throughout Chester County, Pa, is more staid and less prone to glibness and gallows humor, while A Hunger Artist I think has more of the flavor of my natural speaking voice.

Anyway...I'm not going to make a habit of cross-posting content from my newspaper column on this site. However, I decided to post my most recent column because I thought it might interest those of you who have given positive feedback on some on my more philosophical treatments on this thing we call cooking.

Resolving to learn about
cooking [Source]

I learned decades ago that New Year's resolutions about things that had to be achieved within the new year are doomed to fail. I thought long and hard about why I failed to live up to most of the goals that I set for myself at the beginning of the new year, and came to the conclusion that the reason lay in my core belief that goals that have a definite beginning and end point are dumb.

I recognized that the platonic idea that life is a process of "becoming" or striving towards an ideal Utopian state is correct and that my life is about moving in the direction of a desired state of being. There is no arrival because there is no end point (utopia literally means "no-place" in Greek). So it's foolish to make resolutions that are meant to be achieved within a specific amount of time. Now when I make New Year's resolutions (or any resolutions) I don't put a termination date on them.

Now I understand that I am not in a position to tell anyone what to do. But if there are any of you out there who have made resolutions to learn to cook or improve your cooking, you might consider taking a platonic approach to getting ( "not-getting" is more accurate, I suppose) to where you would like to be.

First of all, consider that cooking is not an activity that has a specific beginning or a definite end. Does the cooking begin when you turn on the stove and put on your apron or at the moment when you decided that you wanted to make chicken for dinner and began to think about how you will prepare it? I can't answer that question and I doubt anyone can (to my satisfaction anyway).

Cooking is nothing more or less than an activity that involves the conception, acquisition, preparation and serving of food. And if you cook and think about cooking every day, what you soon discover is that it becomes a lot like breathing, when you are active you breath faster than when you are relaxed but you are always breathing. In other words cooking becomes a type of life process.

So if you want to begin to cook or improve your cooking focus on learning and refining the process. Never mind about trying to make the perfect omelet. (There is no objective way to describe and identify such a thing anyway, so why bother?) Rather, resolve to focus on learning about what eggs are and how they cook and how to mix them, how hot to get the pan and so on.

If you concentrate on learning as much as you can about the ingredients and work on learning and refining the techniques that are used to transform them into the dish you want to prepare, as long as you have a good idea of how you want the final dish to look, you'll be fine. Plus, since cooking techniques are almost never specific to one dish (for example, thousands of recipes require that something be sauteed) each time you concentrate on refining a given technique for one dish you are working to perfect it for every other dish that requires that technique.

Now for some really good news to kick off 2009.

Once you acquire a comprehensive understanding of ingredients and all the techniques of cooking, as long as you know how you want something to look and taste, you won't need recipes for anything other than the most complicated dishes. So you can sell or give away most of your cookbooks, stop reading recipes (Is there anything more boring to read than a recipe?) and just cook.


Bob said...

It's not the getting, it's the going.

So, get going.

blondee47 said...

i don't know where this fits in: reading about cooking is like breathing to me; natural. However when I am stressed out the physicality of cooking as a verb totally destresses me and the end result doesn't, I am somewhat ashamed considering the company that is kept here, really matter although it is always inevitably delicious.

Jo said...

Sorry, I have to disagree with you on cookbooks. I find them fascinating, they help me to travel to places and learn about foods that I would never have the chance to see or experience without traipsing around the world and given limited funds and time I know that will never happen.

Some of them show my a slice of life in a period and time, some talk about family traditions and how the food affects memory, some explain how to use an ingredient.
But mostly I read them for inspiration and ideas. I may never follow one verbatim, but the ideas that I glean from them are worth the price of the pages. My library contains hundreds of cookbooks from all over the globe and I read them like a novel, cover to cover.
I can however agree that too many people feel that a recipe is a series of steps from which one should never deviate...1, 2, 3, 4. When I teach I tell them to read it through once to get the basic gist of what they are making and then put it away. Listen to the pan, smell the oven, watch the bubbles and consider how you want it to taste and then work on getting there from here. Expect to fail and get back on the horse and perfect is only how you like it, not how anyone says it should be.

Charlotte said...

I learned a lot from James Beard's Theory and Practice of Cooking -- it's arranged by topics like: boiling, roasting, pan frying etc ... It was a good overview which helped give me the confidence to substitute or riff off recipes.

maurarose said...

I would never get rid of my cookbooks. I have an aversion to certain types, e.g. the celebrity chef book and the baking books. How many ways are there to make a brownie? But the ones I have are precious to me.

I won't decry "the recipe" across the board. People have to start somewhere, after all. As Jo said, it's more about how someone treats a recipe (and she really hit the nail on the head about how to advance your skills); although, really, if you find a recipe that works beautifully the first time (a rare event, I know), do you need to mess with it?

I've developed some pretty good instincts about what works with what, and I can certainly make dinner without opening a book. But people cook for different reasons, and in different ways. Some are great technicians, some are natural cooks, and some will never really get the hang of it.

Also, the day I make a decent omelette is the day I have a little celebration in my head. :)

nhallfreelance said...

I wholeheartedly agree with pretty much everything you just said. Working toward cooking by technique, instead of by recipe, has kind of been a bell curve for me. When I first started cooking, around 12 years old, I would just do stuff, without regard to recipe at all. Some was good, some atrocious. More atrocious than delicious, I'll admit. The problem was technique. Or rather, the lack thereof. In an attempt to rectify the problem, I started cooking almost exclusively from cookbooks when I was around 15. Recipe driven cookbooks; things like "365 Ways to Cook Chicken." Still, I didn't bother mastering (or even really learning) technique, so my results were still hit or miss. More hits, though, because simply working through the process with some form of guidance had the end result of picking up a few basic skills. Then, a few years back, I got really fed up with my limitations, and decided to learn how to cook, rather than reproduce. Back to basics. Boil, fry, saute, etc. Grabbed a copy of McGee (regulars here will know. If you don't, it's a fabulous book, titled On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, by Harold McGee). I would greatly recommend this book to anyone who seriously wants to investigate the process and purpose of food preparation. Plus, I think this one will skate through even BdG's draconian ban on cookbooks! I haven't cooked directly from a recipe in at least a year, and my food has benefitted greatly. Currently, my whole family is in love with braising. I have been braising like a mad man all fall and winter. Learning the basic technique (and it hardly gets more basic than a braise) has allowed me to adapt better to what's good and fresh, not to mention the benefit to my grocery budget. Also, think of how much more focused you can be on the actual food, and on the act of preparing it, when your attention is on the food, and your tools, without having to remember if you're on step six or seven, whether it was one teaspoon or one tablespoon of fresh thyme. Truly, the holistic nature of the benefit of the kind of integrative, fundamental cooking BdG is advocating here is amazing.

Now that I've rambled on far more than is appropriate when commenting on someone else's blog, I've got a question. I agree that cooking doesn't necessarily start at the stove, or even the grocer. I actually do a lot of theoretical cooking, coming up with dishes and presentations that I will not likely prepare (at least anytime soon) due to lack of time, and/or availability and cost barriers (however perceived these may be) to particular ingredients. If the thought process is a step in the cooking process, what is required for the process to be completed? I suppose I'm sort of looking for the "itness" of cooking. If I never actually put a knife to a piece of food, or apply heat to a pan, can I say that I am cooking, in any sense? If all I do is think about food, dream up dishes, all the way through from deep prep to mise to plating, have I cooked?


By the way, Bob, I think these philosophical treatments of food and cooking are of great worth. As humans, the ability to apply so much of ourselves to our food choices and methods seems like one of our most unique and defining characteristics. I can think of few things more important, and more needing of philosophical discussion, than the method and meaning of human nourishment, and everything that leads up to it. Keep it coming.

Scotty said...

I chime in to disagree on the cookbook issue. No, if you understand the basic techniques of cooking, you don't need a cookbook, but that doesn't mean they are useless.

In the first place, they are not just cookbooks - they are books. Books that tell a story, an opinion, a frame of reference, perhaps an adventure. As such all books always have value. It can be the mundane of a spiral bound church/school/organization volume to the poetry of Jacques Pepin or Shizuo Tsuji.

Cookbooks can be a crutch, but they can also be an inspiration. Or a piece of history that can be nowhere else.

I am closing in on a thousand volumes in my library. Yes various incarnations of Fannie Farmer are there - but, so is Escoffier, and John Thorne and Michael Pollan. Mary Foote Henderson and Alfred Portale. The Rochester Hadassah Cookbook and Fergus Henderson.

Each book, from the simple to the sublime, has a place in this world, a voice to be heard, and, just perhaps, an inspiration you hadn't had.


Larbo said...

Wow! "Sell or give away most of your cookbooks." "Stop reading recipes." What are you trying to do–start a food fight?!

In one sense, you're quite right of course. Cookbooks can be a crutch, and recipes can get between people and the food they're working with. The more you learn about ingredients and cooking skills, the freer you feel to experiment, to take liberties, to make a recipe your own.

So you may not NEED recipes or cookbooks anymore in order to put YOUR food on the table, but if you want to keep learning, growing, and discovering new things, I don't know how you'd manage without them. Only a small fraction of the cookbooks that get published are worth reading, let alone owning, but I treasure those. As others have said, a good recipe helps me see ingredients and techniques through a different lens, lets me imagine possibilities I would never have come up with on my own.

Bob del Grosso said...


You wrote

"If all I do is think about food, dream up dishes, all the way through from deep prep to mise to plating, have I cooked?"

Only if you recognize it as part of the process of making real food.

To all

I'm not advocating that cookbooks be heaved over the side. Rather I am suggesting that if you focus on technique, you won't need cookbooks for anything other than inspiration.

Sorry I did not make that clear.

That said, I own very few cookbooks (about 40) because years ago I realized that if I knew how to braise, sautee, roast, grill, poach etc. I could cook whatever as long as I knew what I wanted it to be.

Anyway, I prefer figuring things out for myself by trial and error to following someone else's advice.

Okay there's more: there is crazy plagiarism in the cookbook market. I know there are great books out there with highly original recipes and so on, but I don't have the time the need or the desire to ferret them out. I prefer to make my own recipes.