Cable TV is an interesting beast. Sometimes (and for me, most times), it seems there are channels, channels everywhere, and not a thing to watch. When we had cable television at the home, I rarely made it a point to watch particular shows, and was not likely to be excited by much. There was one glaring exception, however. When the show was new, and before it made its way to an American version, I used to find myself glued to the sofa to watch, yes, The Iron Chef. For any of you who may not be familiar with the show, check here for a description.
What was most intriguing to me about this show was the expertise demonstrated by each Iron Chef, and their respective challenging chefs, during the episodes . Placed in a timeline with one ingredient (and certainly some preparation/mapping time beforehand), the chefs seek to create pure masterpieces, lining the common food-course chronology with appetizers, salads, main courses, desserts, and so on. Each item, showcasing the mandated ingredient, were still able to manifest arrays of flavors, and intriguing visuals. These are the workings of masters….those who have developed detailed relationships with food, and relationships with the tools used to create that food. Inherent in their “products” were their own cultural nods, their own personalities, and their own intimate gastronomical expressions.
As an undergraduate student beginning my study of music, I supported myself working for more than four years at a well-known vegetarian restaurant. This restaurant was not only known for its good food, but also known for its supportive working environment. I am very thankful for the many opportunities the experience gave me, amongst them the opportunity to better learn the art and science of cooking. I was able to focus on the use of heat, cold, salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and more in varying combinations on ingredients to create breakfast, lunch and dinner plates. I was able to focus on various tasks of the job, whether it be prepping food (through recipes) for the line, creating food as ordered, or improvising the specials of the day. Two of my favorite personal creations were angel hair chipotle-pesto and a jamaican yam curry.
I still love to cook, and have been doing more of it this year than I had the year prior. I’ve been digging into creating particular Thai dishes that I often order at restaurants. That sets the bar high for me taste-wise, but I’ve been pretty successful so far. What I have noticed is that I am not particularly reliant upon recipes when cooking, even when working within a unique food culture. I can value the recipe as a starting point, but if I am aware of the general ingredients that I need, I am actually to create a dish more conducive to the tools I have and the people I am cooking for. In this sense, I am improvising. In this sense, my experience with cooking, my relationship with food, allows for me to create something of unique value…..I am better able to understand why I am creating, and I am better able to create something for a particular reason.
Recipes can, all things being equal, potentially provide us with a consistent product. They can also provide us a sense of structure and support when we are cooking. Everything is laid out for us, and we are pretty certain that the result is going to come out alright. When we make, say, grandmother’s amazing soup, or a holiday family tradition of cookies, that recipe can be very helpful. A recipe gives us a way to follow a food idea without having to retain it, and who can mentally afford to retain a Christmas cookie recipe all year? We can also share that index card, and someone else is going to probably be able to make food very similar to what is written on the card. These are the strengths of recipes.
The inherent strength within a recipe is also its potential weakness, though. A “product” is only as consistent as its components allow it to be. Are all ovens equal? All ingredients?
NPR’s “This American Life” recently asked Jones Soda to take the likely original recipe of “Coca Cola” and see if they could duplicate it. The result was probably similar in its somewhat medicine-like taste the to 125 year old original recipe. However, the ‘experimenters’ admitted that technology has immensely changed the quality of ingredients like orange and lemon oils, which are much stronger and purer than they would have been in 1886. Therefore, the dynamics of the ingredients have changed….making the duplication of the recipe likely impossible. The recipe is ultimately a representation of a particular culinary context, a snapshot in time. Even with food ingredients and cooking tools being relatively static, the outcome can only be so consistent. And even with that ideal consistency, because the idea is to appreciate and partake in the eating experience, isn’t part of the process us taking into consideration the people involved? Who is best equipped to provide the ideal eating moment? It seems to me it would be the person who knows the people who will partake, and who has such intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the ingredients that they can seek to find that meeting point.
You probably see where I am heading with this, so I won’t belabor the point any further. One who builds a strong relationship with their art, and with the tools/vehicles for that art form, are more likely to be prepared to connect it with the vital and dynamic human element that makes said art “effective.” Seeking a masterful understanding of the art allows for containment, for options, and for opportunities. Are not these the three items that therapy is largely hinged upon?