Cooking Dumb, Eating Dumb

An essay Nach wrote more than twenty years ago still has relevance today:

Read this recipe:

To Make Green Pease Porridge

Take of ye youngest pease you can get, what quantity you please, & put ym in a little more faire water then will cover them. Boyle ym till they be tender, yn take new milke & make ym of what thickness you please. Let ym boyle well together, yn take a little flower and wet it with milke enough to thicken it, & put it in with spearmint & marrigoulds shread small. When it is boyled enough, put in a good piece of fresh butter, a little salt, & some pepper, if you please, & soe dish [it] up. (Karen Hess, ed., Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, New York, 1981)

This set of cooking instructions was handwritten in the early 1600s—perhaps a little earlier. The source of the manuscript was the family of Daniel Custis, the first husband of Martha Dandridge (later Martha Washington); it appears to have been given to Martha when she and Daniel married in 1749. The simplicity and charm of the recipes are apparent. Beyond that, one might note the quality of confidence that underlies it—confidence that the writer, in barely a hundred words, has said exactly what she wants to say and that anyone who reads those words will get from them exactly what they want and need. What is reflected is an impressive rapport between writer and user. That rapport is essential, whether one is reading poetry, cookery, or a handbook of equestrian technique. The readers of Alexander Pope knew what he was up to (and he knew that they knew) when he larded his work with the sorts of references that now send us headlong to our classical dictionaries. Pope knew what sort of education he could count on his public to have. Tom Wolfe resonates in the same way with his late-twentieth-century public; he speaks our language, for better or worse, and we his.

Although the sphere of activity of the Custis family women was probably not literary, the considerations are the same: they and the users of their offerings spoke the same language, they shared knowledge of food ingredients, of techniques, and of results desired. The main concern was in producing a simple account of materials to be used and method; all the rest was assumed to arise from common experience and common sense.

The closeness of writer and reader accounts as well for the fundamental tone of civility in the presentation of the recipe. We see here not a set of instructions to a beginner of what must be done but rather a respectful statement of an idea and then an offering of guidance in executing it: “take new milke & make ym of what thickness you please,” “when it is boyled enough,” “a little salt, & some pepper, if you please.”  This may be instructional literature, but it is also polite discourse.

Another brief example from The Improved Housewife by Mrs. A. L. Webster (Hartford, 1854)

Cranberry Sauce and Apple Sauce

To stew cranberries till soft is all that is necessary to make cranberry sauce. When soft, stir in sugar or molasses to sweeten it. Scald the sugar in the sauce a few minutes. Strain if you please—‘tis good without.

Apples should be pared and quartered. If tart, you may stew them with water; if not, in cider. After stewed soft, add a small piece of butter and sweeten to the taste.

How large a pot? How much water (or cider)? What sort sweetening in the applesauce? How soft is soft? When to strain and when not? Not a word. These are not prescriptions but helpful, over-the-back-fence suggestions, as if for someone who already knew how to make the dish but needed a reminder. How did she know? She had seen dishes, these and ones like them, made in her mother’s kitchen when she was a child, she had quite possibly participated in the paring or the quartering of the apples or the stirring and licking of the spoon when they were sweetened. She had probably seen other things as well—the varieties of apples selected as appropriate for the sauce, the picking over the cranberries to toss out green or spoiled ones, the way sauces were stored. She most likely had a good sense of how sauces were supposed to taste. She probably could have figured out how they were made, and it is possible that she could have even made her own occasional innovations.

Recipes were memoranda of ideas and methods whose use was subject to the judgment of the cook. Sometimes they were barely needed. From an 1855 cookbook: “We almost hesitate to give a recipe for this, because everybody thinks he knows how to make it best; and indeed with good materials, it is not easy to go far wrong.”

Recipes today are quite a different story. Those who write them and those who edit them are determined that nothing “go far wrong”—or, indeed go wrong at all. What follows are examples from cookbooks or cooking magazine articles of the past dozen years or so. First, from a recipe for a Fresh Tuna Daube Provençal:

Rinse the anchovies briefly in cold water if they are very salty. Using the back of a fork, mash four of the anchovies to a paste.

In a mortar, crush the peppercorns with a pestle. Add the garlic and pound to a firm paste. Add the mashed anchovies and pound to incorporate.

And for one for Fusilli with Vinegar-Marinated Zucchini:

Soak the zucchini in a bowl of cold water for at least 20 minutes, then scrub them vigorously under cold running water with a rough cloth or a stiff brush to remove any embedded grit. Trim away the ends and cut the zucchini into sticks about 2 inches long and ¼ inch thick. Set a large colander over a bowl or in the sink and put the zucchini in the colander. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of salt and toss two or three times. Let the zucchini stand for at least 45 minutes….

And some others:

Peel the avocados and halve them lengthwise, discarding the pits. Rub the avocados well with the cut side of the lemon.

Lift the roulades from the sauce and remove the string.

Bouquet garni made with 5 flat-leaf parsley spigs, 3 thyme sprigs, and 2 bay leaves tied in cheesecloth

Discard the bouquet garni.

Lower the heat if the brown glaze at the bottom of the pan threatens to  burn.

Those who know the idiom will recognize that there is nothing very unusual about instructions such as these. They are typical, not especially complex or involved. Their premise, however, is, to put it mildly, worlds apart from that of the Custis family recipe for pease porridge.

The writers and editors of the modern recipes from which these extracts are taken have not assumed community between writer and cook. They have not assumed knowledge of technique or of materials; they have assumed, in fact, practically nothing. Their ingredients lists are, for the most part, long and explicit, and their instructions are exhaustive. They tell us to crush the peppercorns in a mortar using a pestle—in case anyone might be tempted to try the reverse—and prescribe, helpfully, mashing the anchovies with the back of the fork or rubbing the avocado with the cut sides of the lemon. They presume that their readers have never before handled or cooked a zucchini. They try to make certain that they and their guests will not try to eat the cheesecloth-covered bouquet garni. The only assumption the writers make, in fact, is that the reader, the cook—comes to each dish without knowledge, without accumulated experience, without capacity for judgment—more or less a culinary tabula rasa. 

While Martha Washington’s in-laws and their forebears expected that she and those in her kitchen would understand what needed to be done, today most writers of recipes presume nothing of the sort. And what happens? Readers come to expect that the recipe will tell them everything, some following orders like good soldiers, the rest—the disobedient—risking the ignominy of culinary failure.

The fact is, we are living in an age of recipe dependency, of cooks who crave (and writers and editors who feed the craving) safe, reliable ways of guaranteed, error-free cooking. Both sides, writers and readers, are participating in a Faustian bargain, grasping success—or reasonable success—in exchange for the risky, even treacherous, chance-taking that comes from the exercise of free will. As always with such bargains, this is a bad one, because along with the surrender of control goes surrender of the knowledge that supports it. What we are really accepting in exchange for a culinary safety net is ignorance and dependency.

“The bad cook,” says Nicholas Freeling, the respected writer of detective fiction who earlier in his life had been a chef, “who buys a bundle of recipes thinking it will turn him into a tolerable cook is in for disillusion, and so are his friends.”

As a seller of cookbooks, the most dreaded question I encounter is not whether a book is inspired or adventurous or imaginative or informative, but rather, “Do the recipes work?” I dread the question because I must manage a restrained reply. The questioners must be told—gently—that it is not the recipes but rather they that must work. That they are expected to think, to apply intelligence and judgment to ideas and to the materials that will be turned into a dish. It is up to them to bring their own good sense to cooking—their ability to understand variability in ingredients, to recognize error in a written text, to acknowledge their own tastes and preferences, to not let themselves be intimidated by the food arbiters into dreary cooking-by-numbers. They, not the food writers, are the cooks, and while everyone likes a suggestion for a good, imaginative new cooking idea, a glimpse into the not-always-obvious secrets of a remote ethnic cuisine, a boost on a difficult point of technique, or a little bit of hand-holding, there can be no mistake that cooking should be an individual, personal activity, based on the sole consideration of making a bunch of unruly ingredients behave themselves, work together, nourish, and end up tasting good.

The path of American cooking, from the eighteenth century and earlier, when knowledge and control of the craft were still possible, to today’s dependency on detailed written recipes, has been a long, complicated one. A major initiating factor, observes food historian Anne Mendelson, was the loss in the 1830s and 1840s of domestic servants to the world of work outside the household. “A woman running a middle-class household,” Mendelson points out, “was likely to be more isolated in it, and to rely on the printed word, rather than live examples, for a general idea of what she was supposed to be doing.” As firsthand kitchen knowledge declined, “the woman of the house became justifiably convinced of her ignorance,” and before long, with the arrival of new immigrants to America, who brought with them little knowledge of American food or ingredients, the need for cooking schools and for instructional cookbooks that made no assumptions about what people knew was well established.

Cooking, asserted the new generation of writers and teachers, was one of the “domestic sciences.” By the turn of the century, the books and the classes were routinely employing the precise standards and precise measurements of science, the use of which, it was claimed, would surely provide a guarantee of success. Most famous of the teachers was Fannie Farmer, who from 1893 ran the influential Boston Cooking School, where she spiritedly espoused the use of level teaspoons, level tablespoons, and other standardized measurements.

Journalist and author Laura Shapiro’s fine book Perfection Salad (1986) documents the growth of the domestic science movement:

“The only things I consider beyond my control,” asserted one teacher, “are the wind and the weather.” …If the housekeeper could be made to think of herself as a scientist, calmly at work over her beakers and burners in her laboratory, then every meal would emerge as she planned, pristine and invariable…. Most women… responded gladly to the promise of order and rationality that came with scientific cookery.

In the following decades, the recipes grew more and more specific. Oven temperatures appeared in the 1920s, and exhaustive step-by-step instructions became prevalent in the 1960s. Meantime, home cooks came to know less and less about ingredients and methods. Too unfamiliar with the roots of kitchen practice and the reasons for the cooking operations they were performing, they began to substitute the swapping of recipe cards and magazine clippings for the conversations about cooking and cooking experiences that had educated them in the past. This they fell further and further from the traditions of the only craft that, by this time, any of them had.

Cut loose, as we are, from the example of our mothers (or occasionally our fathers), who showed us how to handle food and how to work with it, and coddled by the printed recipes that encourage obedience and conformity at the expense of knowledge and understanding, we have become a generation of cooks that does not know how to cook. This degeneration is, of course, not confined to food. Those things that make us lesser cooks are not that very much different from those that are impairing the quality of much of our lives—insufficiencies of the right kind of education, an unwillingness or an inability to move beyond the superficial, a reluctance to endure risk, and a stupefying laziness for anything but long hours at our jobs. What all these add up to is that, even in an era such as ours, which is at least superficially sophisticated, we are cheerfully accepting mediocrity of performance. To be sure, we do not encourage bad results; we rarely rouse ourselves, though, to achieve superior ones. Ends rather than means are our guideline—dependable outcomes rather than ventures that might take us astray. Such a standard may sometimes be appropriate. We happily praise our offspring when they have correctly assembled a dollhouse or a model aircraft carrier (“Insert Tab A into Slot A, fold tab back”). But carrying it too far, we can find ourselves with children deficient in imagination, unresourceful, and ultimately, unexcited by their world. Carried into adulthood, such habits of mind are near-fatal to the spirit.

Perfection may be an outcome of rote performance, but excellence virtually never. What is it then that allows us to rise above literalism and the unimaginative reliance on directions? More than likely it is our capacity to recognize and respond to variability. Just as biological evolution was incompletely understood until mutation was revealed as the force that made the process possible, so diversity—its discovery, its enhancement, and the uses to which it is put—is near the core of the way we live at our best.

The paper roll on an old-fashioned player piano knew only that E♭ was E-flat. Arthur Rubenstein, however, knew that E♭ was actually hundreds of sounds, varying in every imaginable reach of volume, intensity, tone, color, duration, even in minifractions of pitch. And these variations reflect, in turn, variations in the materials and tautness of metal strings, of touchy delicate soundboards and the sturdy woods used in the piano case of the mechanism that moves the hammer and direction of the barometer, of the characteristics of the stage floor and the auditorium, of the pianist’s strength and disposition at a given performance, of a composer’s intentions, and of the effects of adjacent notes in the passage. One could practically say there is no E♭.

So too with food. There is no bouillabaisse, no chicken curry, no scrambled eggs, no roast beef, no Fresh Tuna Daube Provençal. Are there no mussels in the market?  Is one of the guests allergic to clams? Does the chef have a heavy hand with garlic? Those conditions add up to one bouillabaisse—there are scores of others. Old chicken or young chicken? With bone or without? One combination of fresh spices carefully toasted and ground or another, perhaps taken right out of the supermarket bottle? The result: two curries that wouldn’t know each other on the street. Old eggs or very fresh eggs? Whipped with water or not? Salt? Herbs? Cooked hard or cooked soft? A nation of scrambled eggs. Roast beefs in their legions, even the hundred daubes of Provençe.

The fact is that the central element in good cooking is an understanding of the diversity of the substances we work with and the staggering range of possible outcomes. Food making is a product of mind and eye and skill applying themselves to materials as variable as the blessed caprices of genetics and environment and circumstance can make them.

So what’s going on here that’s dumb? We should look back to the recipes, look to the spurious precision that makes them traps rather than sources of inspiration. We should begin to understand that numbers—teaspoons, cups and ounces, seconds and minutes—are generally there for guidance, not to produce mechanical performance. It is common to claim that in baking, where the chemistry of ingredients is more important, those numbers, or at least those proportions, are critical. But even there we should know that variables such as temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, the vigor of yeast, and the quirkiness of ovens impose themselves on the most careful attempts to be precise. And when we cook, let us recognize that a tomato is not in fact a tomato—that tomatoes vary not only in size but in acidity, density, and ripeness; let us remember that some tomatoes have tough nasty skins and some have soft lovely skins; that some tomatoes are two-thirds flesh and that some tomatoes are two-thirds water; that some have hard bitter little seeds, that others have soft plump little seeds so exquisite that they can almost be eaten on their own. We should keep in mind that asparagus tops and asparagus bottoms are different creatures with different preparation requirements. and possibly different cooking times. And we should not forget that some melons must be given a squeeze of lemon or lime, while the perfume of others will be impaired by the use of acid.

To quote Nicholas Freeling once again:

The most wicked [cookbooks] are the dogmatic ones, which give good quantities and times, peremptory stuff about giving your chop seven minutes on each side. The inexperienced cook, starting confident in his mentor, becomes flustered by strange gaps in the information, is confused, irritated, and finally exasperated—what should have been a nice meal turns out spoilt and it is the wretched book’s fault, not the cook’s. You cannot teach cooking out of a book any more than you can carpentry. No two stoves, frypans, ovens—come to that no two cooks—are the same. No good writer on food gives formal recipes. (The Kitchen Book, 1970)

So what has to happen if we are not to be dumb in our kitchens? We have to begin to think about foods and their properties—their handling characteristics, their seasonality, and their variability; we have to remember that although certain produce may be available year-round, it may not be best to use it year-round. Plain and simple, we have to understand the stuff we work with—the stuff we peel (or not) or chop or slice or bone (or not) or boil or bake or steam or poach or eat raw. To discover that a vegetable is properly cooked in butter or olive oil or ghee or bacon fat because these are all different substances with different flavors and different behaviors. To know enough about onions to decide, in making a particular dish, whether to use the onions whole or in quarters, whether to slice them thick or thin, or chop them, or dice them, or mince them, to know whether they should be cooked fast, or be stirred or not stirred. The idea is to inform yourself well enough to make choices rather than merely do what you are told. Once food is understood, recipe instructions begins to stand in clear relief, serving not as marching orders but as proposals for the good cook to accept or to alter—perhaps even to reject. That ability—to make choices and to control—defines the highest standard.

Needless to say, none of this discussion even begins to speak to the sector of the population that does not cook at all—those who have largely abandoned the kitchen, satisfying their needs with a hash of eating out, or ordering in, and of using prepared or semiprepared foods.

Although the experience of excellence may on occasion be achieved through eating out, too often going to a restaurant is merely a means of avoiding cooking. Of course, dining out is not only for feeding oneself. Clearly it has an important social component, involving entertaining and seeing and being seen. It also offers refreshing opportunities for novelty—eating in a different setting, perhaps even encountering new foods and, as a result, new sensations and often new conversation. At its best, it can be a stimulating and even an elevating activity, in which we get to know and experience the breakthrough talents of a brilliant, creative chef or perhaps the comfortable abilities of a cook who works with more common ingredients and flavors and produces admirable renderings of familiar dishes—a superb Tennessee barbecue, a handsome mess of fried chicken with greens and cornbread, fine New England clam chowder. Not the performers, to be sure, we become in such places an audience, who, like concertgoers, revel in and are rewarded by the talents of others.

Unfortunately, eating out is normally not at its best in America today, and while it is impossible here to even touch the surface of that subject, it is worth observing that not only has the level of both performance and expectation plummeted over a wide range of restaurants, there has also emerged a style of establishment in which food is barely the issue. Celebrity restaurants are one style—those with celebrity ownership and (often the same places) those with celebrity clientele. Perhaps fine food was at one point a part of their appeal, but in most cases that interest has passed; the food they offer may range from fairly good to execrable, but it is, in any case, not the reason we dine there. An understanding of food and a knowledge of cooking that goes beyond what may be chic at the moment are no part of our being there.

Another style of restaurant, also relatively indifferent to food, encompasses those places whose raison d’être is a theme—an organizing principle that has nothing to do with food. Old West restaurants, sports restaurants, Hollywood and TV restaurants, business and financial restaurants (the ones decorated with old ticker-tape machines and framed front pages from the Wall Street Journal), period restaurants (Gay Nineties, 1920s, 1950s “retro”), and dozens of other styles, limited only by the ingenuity of the promoters and investors who spawn them.

A second means of avoiding doing one’s own cooking is the somewhat newer practice of “ordering in.” Whether from regular restaurants or special establishments created for the purpose, this form of getting food usually involves switching the locus of activity to one’s home; often the food is consumed just feet away from the place where one would be cooking—were one cooking. As a rule, this is very rarely food at the highest level, in part because of the limited range of food establishments that will offer such service, in part because the foods that travel well are themselves limited. The fact is that even those foods most commonly ordered in, Chinese food and pizza, are best freshly made and lose a good deal of their quality en route from source to consumer. Some take-out foods (pasta salad, Buffalo chicken wings, stuffed mushrooms, and other room-temperature dishes) do hold up but, it can safely be said, rarely represent high points of gastronomic experience. More to the point, the ordering-in process normally involves neither knowledge nor judgement on the part of the consumer; it involves a good deal of settling for what comes.

The same is largely true of another variety of “order in”—catered foods. Although caterers frequently cook with loving care, their menus are generally controlled by the exigencies of bulk preparation, the mechanics of transport, the demands of on-site maintenance (“holding time”), and the forms of service that will be employed at a particular event. These are generally limiting rather than stimulating, and imagination is frequently defeated by matters that have little to do with the creative process. Poached salmon, grilled chicken breast, couscous salad, and ratatouille are the signature catering dishes of the 1990s, as much as anything for reasons of budget, transport, and service. Inspiration has little or nothing to do with it.

Third, and even further down in the scale, however, is that practical but dismal choice of millions of Americans—the use of prepared or semiprepared “convenience foods.” Pounding on this kind of food—and the lifestyle it points to—is probably unneeded. The words have already been spent attacking the thousand other ways we have fallen from grace—from the erosion of our critical sense to our loss of skills. But a few observations that point to how this method of feeding ourselves fits in with the broader questions may be useful.

Fully prepared foods have been in cans and other ready packaging for well over a century—generally a single dish such as corned beef hash or baked beans. These are, in a sense, “safe” foods as regards any argument about excellence. They are neither foods of great stature nor, in many cases, could they have been radically improved had they been prepared at home with loving care. Even here, though, there may be arguments; the legions of cooks who make chili (con carne or otherwise) object strenuously to canned versions of the dish they love. So, too, do the home makers of minestrone or clam chowder or other specialties.

However, the issue has become more serious since manufacturers began making in the 1960s a wider range of “serious” frozen foods—yesterday’s dreary TV dinners, today’s gourmet selections: Chicken Alfredo, Fettuccine Primavera, Chicken Cordon Bleu, Deviled Crab Miniatures, Linguine with Bay Shrimp and Clams Marinara. There are also dried-ingredient preparations (just add water and microwave): Knorr’s Vegetable Primavera Risotto in Creamy Sauce, Rice A Roni White Cheddar and Herbs, Marrakesh Express Sundried Tomato Couscous. Moving in moments from oven to table, these are pre-portioned, pre-flavored dishes, most involving little more activity by the “cook” than is necessary to remove a candy bar from its wrapper. As has been widely observed, some clever manufacturers (or their home economics departments) figured that there would be those who felt guilty that they were not participating in the process, and so we see “creative suggestions” being made on the packages: Lipton’s Kettle Creations’ Chicken ‘N Onion Soup with Long Grain and Wild Rice should, “like a traditional homemade soup… be cooked on a stove for best results.” A cup of cut-up fresh or frozen asparagus or of chopped celery can be added for a “special touch.” Betty Crocker’s Stroganoff Style Hamburger Helper is apparently aided by such “great ideas” as adding a package of frozen peas and topping off the finished dish with packaged french-fried onion rings.

And on they come. Legume-brand canned Italian Polenta, Empire Bagel Cheese Pizzas, Hungry Jack Pancakes, frozen and ready to thaw, heat, and serve, Kellogg’s Eggo Nut and Honey Waffles, a dozen flavors of sugar-glazed, corn-syrup-filled Pop Tarts. The parade of grotesques has, alas, just begun.

So just what is wrong with all this? Yes, of course, this is lesser food. Most of the products are made from ingredients whose major virtue is that they are cheap and filling; many contain astonishing additives for enhanced flavor, color, and shelf or freezer life. Nearly all represent the lowest common denominator of taste. And beyond that? Beyond that, they, along with restaurant food and order-in food, represent take-it-or-leave-it eating. All are prepared by someone else, who is making the decisions on ingredients, flavor, and texture. All three represent food making that is beyond our control. When we adopt these, or a combination of these, as a significant proportion of our diet, we are truly eating in ignorance. When we abdicate in this fashion, we surrender yet another sector of our lives—as surely as we debase our politics when we leave ourselves uninformed in our civic life; as surely as we cheapen our literature when we read it without knowing its traditions and without understanding its cultural underpinnings; as surely as we do whatever we do—and don’t know how and don’t know why.

Food may not be the center of the universe, although historically it has never been at the margins. The way we deal with it, though, signifies much about our approach to our world. Why have I held forth so insistently in this essay for doing our own cooking and for doing it with knowledge, resourcefulness, flexibility, and independence? it might be argued that the creation of a dish of homemade food reflecting the realities of the kitchen, the equipment, the ingredients, and the informed preferences of the person who made it does not signify that America’s retreat from excellence has been stopped in its tracks. It does not signal that our minds and our spirits will be restored, that we’ll write better plays and play better music. But the fact is that any steps we take in our return to competence and control should be happily regarded. If cooking leads the way, so much the better. It is a homely art, but one we could practice with benefit every day of our lives.

This essay originally appeared in 1996 in Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture, edited by Katharine Washburn and John Thornton. Pictured above are ancient cooking utensils rescued from the ruins of Pompeii.

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