This is Why We Love Recipes
I’ve been traveling recently, eating on the go, and making last and final exacting corrections to my book. It’s got me thinking about this thing that is recipe. Mostly, I’m riffing on this thought because I’ve been having a hard time conjuring the energy to write new recipes in the midst of nit picking over the recipes in the book. It occurs to me, on a plane over Lake Michigan, that I am quite nervous about publishing recipes on paper, even though I do it rather frequently online. As I begin this post, I am tediously editing weight conversions, my lap top jammed in between my fingers and the back of the seat in front of me, the airplane tray table bobbing every time I punch a key. I am frustrated, as I figure on quantities, and I long desperately to hold a bit of cilantro in my hand, or smell a whole anise seed deeply, my nose pressed against its pretty shape. This would help me, right now. Instead, I talk in half-interested tones to the woman next to me, whose thick accent reminds me of the movie Fargo, and she peers quizzically over her book at my screen.
What am I afraid of, I wonder? Afraid that people will follow them, I suppose, and follow too closely. I scroll around through the pages; I add a disclaimer here, and a note there. Kind reader: Be wise. Dear Reader: Believe. I find myself, silently and sadly scoffing at the concept of recipe, while simultaneously writing recipe language, on an airplane that is taking me somewhere to talk about recipes. I am ambivalent about recipes. At this moment they are stressing me out, even as my work has come to exalt them. I am ambivalent, though I know I am a lucky, lucky cook.
A recipe was an order, in its oldest form, originally a command on medical prescriptions. Now it is more kindred with sharing, which is rather happier indeed. Sometimes, we seek recipes out of a lack of trust in ourselves, and an overlapping uncertainty in food’s organic mystique. I continually extol the benefits of overcoming these trepidations, and the tools to use in doing this are our human senses. All five of them, plus an additional sense I’ve not yet found a word for. It’s sort of akin to intuition, I suppose, or a connection with food that cannot be measured or told. A keen ability to hone in on potential, and cook with a nod to rich context. A perennial pursuit of that which the food is longing for the most. What does this cracked seed want to become? What will sing loudest of this purse of half-squished blackberries? How can I let you taste this whole garden, or the mist, just under the rind of an orange? All sorts of things feed this sense. Nostalgia weighs mightily. Mood is counterweight. Whatever the weather might be doing also matters. No recipe will teach it to you. And once a cook acquires this awareness, there is not much a recipe will do for her, anyway. The ratios, they mostly stand, but everything else is a tangible, inevitable dance. All you have to do is start.
It may be some divine coincidence that the foods presenting themselves currently are those that barely require recipes. Heart-colored tomatoes. Bite-sized cucumbers. Candy-sweet peppers. Smiles of watermelon. I’m reveling in it, and rejecting commands lately, pulling the pulp right out with my teeth. In many ways, it is keeping me wide-awake, at full attention. Closer to real. This, and all my stressing over the book, has had me less inclined toward recipes. To be wickedly honest, I began crafting this post as a line of defense, on an airplane, when my head was swimming in minute calculation. This post began as a protest against the recipe.
But I am back home now, to finish, and as I write, I realize my folly. More than they detach us from food, and feeling, recipes serve as a way of connecting us. We share food easily, and commune over it quite well. In many ways, people are never more willing to accept something new and different as they are when they request a recipe. The recipe exchange is, in this way, one of the purest forms of human sharing. Sharing that keeps us grounded, plus respectful of vital knowledge. After all, the way grandma did food is automatically revered in our culture, almost regardless of whether grandma did it well, or whether her handwriting or technique is even decipherable.
Even just the sight of recipes is wholesome, and rewarding. My mom has a long, smooth oak box, hinged at the narrow end. It makes no sound when you open it, and it is chock full of recipes, all on 3x5 index cards, with hand-made dividers. The best thing about a recipe collection is the shaggy edges of the cards, softened from sugared thumbs, so that when you run your hand over the top of the stately rows, it smells like paper and pie, but it feels like velvet. I can tell which ones she loved the most, because they have droppings of vanilla, or water stains on them, or the edges are so dog-eared and faint that they are close to tattered.
As a matter of fact, I sort of covet such a recipe collection. This is odd, since I don’t use very many recipes. My own recipe vessel is a tiny, robin’s egg blue tin box. I leaf through it regularly, as there are some staples inside, but I often find things I couldn’t care less for. I consider throwing them out, but I never do. Oh, isn’t this history, though? Isn’t this a humble and endearing nod to one’s sweet, salty, spicy, sour, deep and earthy life? Have you not cried over onions? Or laughed until you sneezed flour? Or found yourself singing patiently over a bubbling bowl? How many sacred recipes have you carried, bravely, shuffling between the sink and the stove? This is why we love recipes. They teach us, and they remind us. They keep us hopeful. They preserve us honestly. They are easy and rewarding to share. I’ll bet my mother feels the same about her collection: some recipes are winners, and some are just there. But her box is brimming. Her tapestry is wider, and her story is longer. A lifetime of love and listlessness, organized on salt-streaked cards.
How foolish I feel, for all of my fear and ambivalence. What a perfect and imperfect thing is a recipe. Just like a person. I love them all. Even the terrible ones. Perhaps I will wallpaper my kitchen with the oldest and most loved. Perhaps I will petition for readers far and wide to start sending photos of their recipe boxes, so we can immortalize them on Instagram, or some other modern forum.
What I wish for, I suppose, is a conscious combination of two things: a honing of our senses, while continuing to follow, and collect recipes. Share your numbers. Share your ways of measuring with egg shells. Your use of sweet milk. Your secret spices. I will keep sharing mine. But remember to be flexible. Remember the recipe is neither a command nor an escape. Remember to smell all the smells, and save all the peels, watch the things rise, and let your fingers remember the weights. If we can do this, we will be able to forgive recipes all their flaws, even as we enshrine all their worthy memories and good intentions. Aye, if we could do this with all of our living as tangibly as we can do it with our cooking, we would be happier, gentler souls.
In an ode to flexibility, I'm horribly confused about what was in last week's box, and what came from the week before that, so I'm just going to go with it. Joe had me covered in beets, carrots, and potatoes for a while, but I think I won. Here's a few: