Once upon a time–and not so long ago–it was fashionable for all lovely ladies not to know how to cook or at least pretend not to know. Today a woman can look like a cream confection, but she has to know how to make one too! Popularity in our modern times is reserved for those who are good cooks as well as those with good looks!…With the way we’ve worked things out for you on the following pages, you’ll be an expert cook in little more time than it takes to roll up your pin curls! If you read our instructions carefully…what treasures will be your to set before your king! –The New Cook’s Cook Book, circa 1953
It’s been a restorative weekend: one that, given the academic marathon of last week, was more than a little necessary. Truly, if I had to sum up both the week and weekend in one sentence, it would be quite simple: She cooked, preserved, baked and read several provocative articles about food. This description is no exaggeration. In the course of one week, there were two Greek-inspired spoon sweets (remember my love affair with these while I was there this past summer?), one of which will be the subject of my next post; there was also banana bread (obviously, a practical decision when faced with the overripe bananas on the counter), as well as braised leeks, more Tokyo turnips and a time-consuming, but worthwhile mac and cheese. When you get right down to it, these days I think I manage to fool myself into believing that my real area of research is food. And, considering I just read a really interesting article about female food bloggers and post-feminist domesticity in Gastronomica, this mildly disturbs me. After all, there are moments when I wonder about all of this–food photography, sharing recipes and episodes from my life–and whether I’m simply working pretty hard to put myself back in the kitchen and the domestic sphere. But then I wonder whether this–the space of the kitchen/food blog–really has to be a negative space for women, a dream of 1950s domesticity and returning to the past.
For me, cooking is a release, a way of having life on my terms (or the terms of the writers who wrote the recipes, but this is another worthwhile issue for discussion) in the here and now. I have a bad day at work and I bake to ease my woes. I don’t even necessarily have to have a piece of the just baked cake or a sliver of creamy pie to feel better; it’s the act of making it that soothes me. Chop an onion and you have a ready explanation for tears that you may feel like shedding (as I always hated chopping onions, this is an idea that first came to me from a former grad school roommate–and he was male). Clean all the grit from leeks and you have a true sense of accomplishment. Crack a coconut and I assure you that you will no longer feel frustrated by the time you’ve reached the meat. You’ll feel too victorious to remember what made the task so appealing in the first place.
Cooking is a wholly creative enterprise. It doesn’t matter if you follow recipes to the letter or make up your own, you are taking raw materials and transforming them into something else. Maybe this is what has pushed so many people (both women and men alike) back into the kitchen–this need to create and control, to provide for oneself something both hearty and essential. My opinion on this matter differs drastically from the one expressed by Christopher Kimball of Cooks Illustrated in a recent NYTimes Magazine article. I read the article this weekend while snuggling with the puppy and I could tell from the way she was breathing that she was as incensed as I was by the suggestion (and title of the article) that, “Cooking isn’t Creative and It isn’t Easy.” To reduce cooking to scientific bullet points, which Cooks Illustrated does (I will admit, however, that I’ve never read an issue, although I have been drawn to the simplicity of the cover and promise of their featured articles while in line at the grocery store), appears to miss the point: choice is a part of the process, from selecting the recipe (either a reflection of the desire to cook this particular dish or the ingredients that one happens to have on hand) to which steps you follow and which you ignore. We all go into the kitchen with a certain level of experience and intuition, and I don’t think that it’s possible that any one recipe will ever work out exactly the same way in two different households. At best, I feel that recipes are a reflection of best-case scenario expectations, as well as guidelines.
Take for example the Espresso Chocolate Muffins I baked for my class this past week. We started watching a movie on Friday and I wanted to treat them to something nice. There was the usual difficulty of figuring out what to make and whether I needed to make anything special; in this strange age of ours in which baked goods have lost their simplicity and become loaded questions about allergies and health, I wondered if they might be gluten free or vegan. I asked on Wednesday and, amazingly, all 17 would happily consume white flour, chocolate and nuts. They were prepared to eat anything I might make them…and then one student asked if I could also bring coffee for them since the class meets at 8 in the morning. I looked at him, more than a little shocked at the request, and said no. But then it hit me that a little espresso powder goes a long way. One trip to Serious Eats later and I had my inspiration, as well as the promise of 12 muffins. To be able to feed everybody, I doubled the recipe. Even following the recipe to the letter and amply filling the muffin tins with batter, I ended up with 36 muffins. No complaints here; just proof that a chef hundreds of miles away cannot predict the number of muffins that will come out of my kitchen. And isn’t that the unspoken pact between cookbook readers and authors? Neither lifestyle nor oven temperature can be perfectly copied. Let’s not even talk about the fact that the boy who requested coffee didn’t even take a muffin (since he was going back to bed, he didn’t want the additional caffeine; ahh, the fickleness of youth).
The same was true with Red Rooster’s Mac & Greens, another recipe that I found on Serious Eats. I was intrigued by this recipe because of my trip to the restaurant’s bar two summers ago (the kitchen was closed, unfortunately). Equally appealing was the fact that, thanks to our CSA box, I happened to have collard greens on hand. We must make do with what we have, after all. But when I considered certain aspects of the recipe–bacon, bacon fat, olive oil, butter–I started to worry a little for my (and the Greek’s) arteries. So, we kept the bacon fat and butter, but cut the bacon, instead substituting some of season’s last bit of cherry tomatoes. Was this entirely creative or was I still eating the Red Rooster’s Mac and Greens (or, as I feared, Mac and Grease. Despite this description, realize that it was decadent and delicious with its use of mustard, soy sauce and bechamel. It’s just that, even with the presence of greens, it’s still a once a year kind of food)? My impulse is to say that it’s both; I took an idea and reformulated it. Cooking from a recipe is perhaps the ultimate form of quoting something in your own words. You take what you need and you leave the rest behind.
I find these questions intriguing and could see them one day burgeoning into a future book project. Food, as prosaic as it is, appeals to me in a way that literary studies no longer do and maybe never could; I’m drawn to the practical aspect of culinary life, as well as the endless possibilities of something as seemingly simple as roast chicken. Maybe endeavoring to explore these questions will only serve to put me back into the kitchen, but there are worse places to be. More importantly, my kitchen will not be without some kind of PC and pin curls will be nowhere in sight. It will be all about ink-stained hands and a flour-dusted keyboard: romantic realism at its best.