The Tyranny of the Recipe

I once announced in the typically grandiose way I use when I pontificate:

All that is wrong with American food culture can be traced to the recipe. I am suffering under its tyranny.

Rather than eliciting the usual eye-rolling, a vigorous debate ensued. My wife quickly pointed to the glaring weakness of my proposition: Recipes teach you knew ways of cooking. And yes, she is right, if you already know how to cook! She is a master and almost never follows a recipe to the letter. For her, it is a starting point that she’s riffs off of to produce an amazing meal. But therein lies the trap that recipes pose for the rest of us. Allow me to make my case:

  1. Recipes Set Unreasonable Expectations

    Things don’t always work out as planned. Even the best chefs have flops when they try something new, but they learn from their mistakes. That flawless salmon Gordon Ramsay plates on camera is probably the thousandth time he’s done that dish. Give him a recipe that uses an ingredient he’s never seen before in a style that’s new to him and, well, he’s probably got a better than even chance at success. But for the rest of us? I wonder how many potential cooks were turned off by an initial failure?

    I believe the overall quality of food in America would increase with the number of people who cook. I don’t think we need a nation of Michelin starred chefs, just people who know what it takes to make the basics. We’d be less likely to put up with crap from others.

    What can we do to get more people into the kitchen?

  2. Recipes Teach the Wrong Thing

    You cannot learn to cook from a recipe. There are too many variables at play for any one recipe to be the definitive answer: My oven behaves differently than yours. The meat I buy today is different from what I bought last week in size, shape and fat/connective tissue content. Etc., etc., etc… How can I be a success in the kitchen if I don’t understand these fundamentals?

    Rather than learning recipes, I should be learning techniques. How much easier would it be to follow a Coq au Vin recipe if you’ve mastered a basic roast chicken? Sure, they’re not same thing (braising vs. roasting), but you’ll already grok what heat does to connective tissue and the absolute lusciousness that follows.

    Also, if you master a technique, it becomes easier to branch out (for example, making your own stock with the left overs from a roast chicken). You have the building blocks that make good dishes. The more techniques your learn, the easier it is to assemble and reassemble these blocks into different meals.

    Pick a basic technique and a general ingredient, then keep doing it until you feel comfortable.

  3. Recipes Subvert the Shopping Process

    I ideally, you should go to the store with an open mind, to see what’s good today. A recipe driven approach makes this difficult. Unless you’re able to memorize hundreds or thousands of recipes, what are you going to do? Flip through every recipe you have to find a match for what you bought? Sure, the internet and recipe searches make this easier, but how much effort are you willing to put into tracking down something worth cooking? This would be more manageable if you limited the number of items you bought, but you may need to make a second trip.

    It’s more likely, though, that someone is jonesing for a particular dish and goes searching for the ingredients. This is how we’ve ended up with flavorless tomatoes that are available year round. And the meat department? How often do you see something with a bone in it? They’re usually arrayed in ready to use cuts. Please, don’t get me going on boneless, skinless, all white meat chicken.

    If you start with a technique, though, shopping becomes a zen-like journey of discovery. “Oh, look, duck. Hmmm, can’t be that much different to roast compared to a chicken.” You’ll find yourself asking questions of both staff and other customers and actually getting answers you understand.

    When you feel confident enough to take home a new ingredient, you’ll know that you’re beginning to master your craft.

Let me reiterate: There is a place in the world for recipes, but they should not serve as your entry point into the world of cooking. I find it interesting to leaf through Le Guide Culinaire. Most recipes are a few sentences, maybe 2-3 paragraphs. There are no lists or explicit steps. Here’s one selected at random, Sole à la Dieppoise:

Prepare the sole and shallow poach in a buttered dish with 1/2 cup white wine and the same amount of mussel cooking liquor. When cooked, drain and place in a suitable dish, surround with a Dieppoise garnish and coat the whole with Sauce Vin Blanc containing the reduced cooking liquid from the sole.

How many assumptions are built into this recipe? You can’t make money selling a book like this since only trained chefs will buy it. And that’s the answer to my conundrum. Cookbook publishers want you to buy their books. They need to appear to contain doable recipes. I think it would be antithetical to their business model, though, to actually produce a truly useful volume. Most people would then limit their purchases. I’m looking at 6 shelves of cook books and magazines in my study, most of which are pure lists of recipes. I’m guessing that we’ve averaged cooking 2-3 from each book.

These are the types of food books I’d like to see more of:

The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh

The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh

The Tex-Mex Cookbook

by Robb Walsh

Yes, there are recipes here with your lists of ingredients and steps. But that’s only a part of the book. The author goes into the history of Tex-Mex; how it came to be and how it straddles the border between Mexican and Anglo cuisines. Not only do I have a recipe for an excellent chili gravy, but I also have a counter move when someone swings the term “authentic” like a club. This is a cookbook that can be read cover-to-cover.

The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky

The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky

The Big Oyster

by Mark Kurlanksy

This is not a cookbook, though it does contain recipes (pickled oysters, anyone?). It’s a history of New York City told from the context of this bivalve. It’s a fascinating read (dang, the oysters were the size of dinner plates when Europeans first showed up), but I appreciate the insight it gives me to one of my favorite foods. I understand this shellfish better.

Well, enough of my rant. I need to figure out how to prepare a flatfish.


Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

by Michael Pollan

A while back I was having dinner at a new place with colleagues after a particularly grueling week of work. Exhaustion and wine had combined to make me lose my focus in the conversation and I only came to attention when I heard someone say, “They have really good food here, I wonder how you can scale an operation like this to make some serious money.” I smacked my hand down on the table and shouted, “You can’t scale good food.”

Awkward silence, everyone in the restaurant looking at me. My friend asks, “Why not?” If I had read this book, I would have had a good answer, but I would have tempered my opinions somewhat. How food is created in America is a complicated story. There are clearly some bad guys who do not care for good food or the health of those who eat it, but it’s not obvious who wears the white hats.

First of all, this book is a great read and in a format I greatly enjoy: one part a deep dive into an interesting subject and another part travelogue. He breaks it down into four stores: Industrial production with a tour of the Midwest, Industrial Organic on the west coast, a process he calls beyond organic in the Shenandoah Valley and finally an attempt at living the Hunter-Gatherer existence in California. Each one of these stories could stand on its own, but the combination truly brings America’s perplexing relationship with food to light. I took these lessons from the book:

Do Not Look to Corporation for Dietary Advice

Given that eating is something everyone does, the food market can only grow as fast as the population does. This means the only way for a corporation to profit at a Wall Street acceptable rate is some combination of lower cost of production and convincing consumers to spend more for the same thing or to eat more of it. The former means ruthlessly standardizing the production of food. Mr. Pollan ably demonstrates why this is destroying the environment and making us less healthy. As for convincing us to spend or eat more, that’s not hard. We seem to be prey to all kinds of marketing gimmicks and health concerns which Corporate America has no problem stoking as they have just the antidote to sell us.

Organic Processes Are not a Panacea

The only way large organic concerns such as Whole Foods can work is to scale things up. This, ultimately, requires a standardized (there’s that word again!) distribution network. Small farmers cannot reliably meet their demand, so only the large concerns succeed. Yes, it is true that this is healthier than regular industrial food production, but it is not environmentally sustainable and, arguably, uses more energy than non-organice food production.

Doing the Right Thing is Hard

Part of the reason many farmers have gone industrial despite it being a losing business is that it is extremely easy. You only have to work for a small fraction of the year and you don’t have to think much, industry tells you what to do and when. Sustainable farming that produces healthy food requires a lot effort and thinking in order to balance the diversity of plants and animals that a sustainable concern needs to manage. Those willing to do this deserve our support. I shall seek them out and give them my business. And why not? Sure, it will cost more money, but the food will taste so much better.

A Well Thought Out Animal Rights Philosophy

I love meat. I always will, but that doesn’t mean I condone maltreatment of animals. I have had difficulty arguing against folks such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. They seem to provide a good moral argument that’s difficult to contradict. Mr. Pollan, though, does this well. I agree with his statement on page 328 of the paperback version of the book: “What’s wrong with eating animals is the practice, not the principle.” We can humanely raise and slaughter animals. Moreover, a healthy environment demands that animals are eaten. It’s part of the cycle that we break at our own risk.

A Losing Battle?

The weak arguments that I did make to my workmates as to why good food shouldn’t and can’t be scaled were met with a shrug of their shoulders. “Why bother, then?”

A good meal should be more than just a business proposition, more than just the sum of the ingredients that went into it. It’s the appreciation of the effort, wonder at a magical combination of flavors and the joy of the people you share it with. I hope this wins out.

Published in: on April 12, 2010 at 2:43 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Old School Big 3

Escoffier, Larousse & Julia Child

Back in the day, Fine Dining and French Food were synonyms. There’s a reason why they called it haute cuisine. I’m agnostic when it comes to food trends and am willing to try – and usually enjoy – anything, but I do like the classics. Dressing up to go out to an ornately furnished, ever so slightly stuffy restaurant with the frightening maître d’, 500 piece place setting and a tab equal to your paycheck.

Alas, there’s not many places like that left. I have to satisfy my jones by reading about such experiences. And when I do, I will tell you about them. My experience, though, is not that deep, so I have to rely on experts to help me fill in the details and provide the backstory. This is what I mean when I make references to Old School Big 3.

Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier

Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier

Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier

M. Escoffier is the founding deity of what we now think of as the fancy restaurant. At the time of his death, in 1935 at the age of 88, he was called the King of Cooks and the Cook of Kings. The GC (pronounce it “Zhay Say” if you like putting on airs) was his effort to systematize restaurant cooking. This was not written for the home chef. In fact, it assumes that the reader has a fair amount of knowledge and skills. It has to, there’s over 5000 recipes and 68 menus packed into only 600 or so pages!

It’s a fascinating read, though. You’ll run across tid-bits like this one, early in the book, for Sauce Currie à l’Indienne:

In India, there are innumerable variations of this sauce but the basis of its preparation always remains the same. It may be of interest to note that the authentic type of Indian curry is not suitable for European tastes, but the flavour of of the above sauce is generally acceptable.

I also like the suggested wines in the menus, like the Perrier Jouet, extra dry, 1898. I bet, even if I could find and afford one, it ain’t tasting too great any more.

If you’re looking for your own copy, be aware that there is a recently published abridged version with only 2300 recipes in it. You can still find the original, if you look on eBay, Amazon or a good used book dealer, but it’s not cheap. I consider myself lucky that mine was just under $50, shipped, but it is a former library book that’s been well loved.

Larousse Gastronimique by Prosper Montagné

Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne

Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne

This encyclopedia of French cuisine was originally published in 1938. Each succeeding edition expanded the coverage to include some elements other cuisines, but it still remained primarily French. As with the GC, Larousse is not a cook book. It’s a source of information that the classically trained French chef of old could consult when preparing a menu. True, there are entries for specific dishes, but also included are descriptions of equipment, ingredients and methods. A typical entry reads:

Dieppoise (A LA) — A method of preparation special to sea water fish. Fish à la Dieppoise is cooked in white wine, garnished with mussels and shelled fresh-water crayfish tails, and masked with a wite wine sauce made with the cooking stock of the fish and mussels. See Brill à la Dieppoise.

The Brill entry he refers to (there are 54 of them for this Flounder-like fish) pretty much repeats the above with the suggestion to serve as is or after glazing it in a very hot oven. As for the white wine sauce, there are three versions listed in a more recipe-like manner that a modern reader may recognize. So, you can track down what you need, but you’ll be flipping back and forth to gather all of your data. Painful, yes, but then you’ll run into the odd entry such as the one for Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. I know him as one of the architects of post-Napoleon Europe, but his contemporaries thought of him as the greatest of French gastronomes. This makes it the effort worthwhile.

This book is easier to track down than the GC, but it’s big, so you will still pay about $60 for a copy. I inherited mine, 1965 printing, from my mother, who seems to have bought hers new. Can’t recall her ever consulting it, though, but then, the copy is as old as me.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child

Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Mastering the Art of French Cooking

Yes, I realize that three people contributed to this book. There’s a fascinating story in The United States of Arugula that recounts why Julia is the only one remembered today by most. So forgive me if I refer only to her. You must love a woman who, in supposedly prudish mid-20th century America, blurts out, “Wow! These damn things are as hot as a stiff cock.” I’ll tip my hat to Simone and Luisette, but I’ll invite Julia to my party.

Unlike the other two, this book (or two, depending on which version you have) is written for the home chef. It is organized roughly by main ingredient / course and presents the information in the now standard recipe format of ingredients and steps (I do like how these are displayed in parallel columns, at least in my edition). The authors assume nothing on the part of the reader, so this is not just a straight list of recipes. Terms, equipment and techniques are described so that anyone can prepare the dishes in the book. The recently released movie, Julie & Julia appears completely plausible once you’ve leafed through this.

You should have no problems tracking this book down. In fact, they are selling more now, after the release of the movie, than ever. I also inherited this from my mother and it looks well used, though I cannot tell the source of the food stains. Was it a Bourguignon or just a little bit of the cooking Sherry?

Published in: on September 3, 2009 at 7:57 pm  Leave a Comment