Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The space between what’s promised and what’s made

For days I've been gearing myself up for (dreading) a cupcake-baking extravaganza this evening. Today I read this delicious article over lunch (tomato-artichoke salad with the bacon-olive pizza I doggie-bagged home from a trendy lounge last night).

[I]f the first thing a cadet cook learns is that words can become tastes, the second is that a space exists between what the rules promise and what the cook gets. It is partly that the steps between — the melted chocolate's gleam, the chastened, improved look of the egg yolks mixed with sugar — are often more satisfying than the finished cake. But the trouble also lies in the same good words that got you going. How do you know when a thing "just begins to boil"? How can you be sure that the milk has scorched but not burned? Or touch something too hot to touch, or tell firm peaks from stiff peaks? How do you define "chopped"?

The thing is: I think I secretly love cooking. I would love to spend my days figuring it out, the chemistry of it, experimenting with proportions, tasting exactly how much salt does to meat.

[I]s learning how to cook from a grammar book — item by item, and by rote — really learning how to cook? Doesn't it miss the social context — the dialogue of generations, the commonality of the family recipe — that makes cooking something more than just assembling calories and nutrients? It's as if someone had written a book called "How to Play Catch." ("Open your glove so that it faces the person throwing you the ball. As the ball arrives, squeeze the glove shut.") What it would tell you is not that we have figured out how to play catch but that we must now live in a culture without dads. In a world denuded of living examples, we end up with the guy who insists on making Malaysian Shrimp one night and Penne all'Amatriciana the next; it isn't about anything except having learned how it's done. Your grandmother's pound cake may have been like concrete, but it was about a whole history and view of life; it got that tough for a reason.


Unsupported by your mom, the cookbook is the model of empty knowledge.

This evening I will discover the exact proportion of lemon juice required for perfect icing, and I will note it in the recipe book I'll be consulting. And both my mother and my daughter are going to hear about it.

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