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The Problem with Recipes
Tevere MacFadyen
April, 2015

I’ve been enjoying Cal Petternell’s new cookbook, Twelve Recipes. He wrote it for his son when he went off to college, because even though the boy had grown up hanging around the kitchens at the great restaurant Chez Panisse, where Peternell is the chef, he’d never really learned to cook. He kept calling his father to ask how to make this or that favorite dish from home, or how to handle this or that ingredient.

What’s interesting about Twelve Recipes is that, despite its name, it’s not really a recipe book. It’s a book about cooking, or more accurately, thinking about cooking. The book is organized around a handful of staples – eggs, bread, pasta, beans, greens, etc. – each of which serves as the jumping off point for a wide-ranging culinary exploration. Twelve Recipes contains plenty of recipes, and very good ones, but its core message is that you don’t really need to use them. You just have to learn to cook.

So what does this have to do with interpretation? I think sometimes we focus too much on providing information and not enough on giving guests the tools and the confidence they need to think and explore for themselves. Recipes are information. Follow them carefully and you have a decent shot at making a passable version of whatever appears in the photo on the opposite page. But that’s not cooking. Cooking is when you come home late from two days on the road to find a mountain of dirty dishes littering the sink; a gallon of milk left out on the counter without a lid; half a lemon, cut sides dry to the touch; and a fridge jumbled with takeout containers. That’s when it gets interesting, right? Nearly midnight, exhausted, facing chaos, confronting the essential question: what’s for dinner?

Has to be simple, has to be good, has to leave time to clean the whole mess up, because tomorrow’s a school day and there will be breakfasts to make, and lunches to pack, and all of us out of the house by 8:30. Some leftover sesame chicken, a jalapeno not too soft to the touch, some cooked ziti, some wilted cilantro. That lemon. Olive oil – thank God! – and a nub of hard crusted Cabot cheddar. A half cup of boiling water and a bouillon cube. Most of a romaine heart, split lengthwise, nasty bits removed, dropped face down onto a really hot cast iron skillet, then salted and drizzled with cheap balsamic. Done. Load the dishwasher and turn it on. Wipe down the counters and go to bed.

Too many exhibits are about recipes. More of them should be about cooking.