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On John Thorne and the Problem with Recipes.


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#1 John Whiting

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 09:24 AM

In Simple Cooking, John Thorne writes vividly about how a recipe is an upside-down approach to cooking, inasmuch as it starts in the mind of the author as a finished product and works backward to retrace the process, but minus the uncertainties and ambiguities of creation. He takes as his example rice and peas, in the making of which he let his cookbooks "rub against each other. And when I did," he continues, "what had previously seemed the most ordinary of dishes sprang suddenly to life."

In my own case, it was living over several years with cassoulet, trying one classic recipe and then another until they fell together in a fashion which made me comfortable with an organic process not dependent on the availability of specific ingredients. I've made a cassoulet that satisfied a French chef, using ordinary materials from a neighborhood grocery store on the north coast of Scotland. I've even made up a vegan cassoulet for a table of a dozen guests who included a couple of vegetarians; the carnivores at the table tried it along with the conventional version and came back for seconds.

Now, Robb -- is there any single dish which served for you as a magic entrance into the world of cooking, a dish the mastery of which made others come more easily, like the first successfully ridden bicycle that makes all the others controllable?
John Whiting, London
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#2 russ parsons

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 11:14 AM

i'm not exactly sure how this rotation is supposed to work, but it's saturday morning, i'm signed on and as the only recipe writer in the group i'm going to go ahead and jump in.

i think john's and most people's reactions to recipes comes from the idea that there is pure truth in them: do it this way, it's the right way, and anything else is the wrong way. as a cook, i look at recipes as the starting points in conversations between teh authors and the readers (maybe that's my cantankerous nature again ... when i read chess books i'm always saying "now why in the hell did that idiot grandmaster do that?").

i think the best recipe writers are those who anticipate this reaction and write their recipes to encourage it, including as much description as possible and as much explanation as well.

to me, the really well-written recipe is one that says: "here's how i like to do it, here's why i like to do it that way, here's what works for me, now you go try it. and when you're done, make it your own."

#3 John Whiting

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 11:36 AM

The problem is, I think, that so many recipes are written as if they did indeed consist of pure truth. The telling point that John Thorne makes is that they so rarely acknowledge each other's existence. (There are some honorable exceptions.)

My wife Mary, who is looking over my shoulder and who has taught resident cookery courses for years, has just pointed out impatiently that most authors of cookery books have not had the experience of teaching large classes, and so are not able to anticipate exactly what is likely to go wrong and when.

The best cookery books she knows, as sheer teaching mechanisms, are those that came out of the English Cordon Bleu school. The recipes were taught year after year and were based firmly on trial and error; for instance, instructions on how to flip a pancake begin, "First cover the floor with newspapers."
John Whiting, London
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#4 russ parsons

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 12:09 PM

just two points:
1) most argumentative essays are written as if they contain pure truth (this one included). it's up to the reader to take an active part. what john was doing was playing the part of the reader as a writer.

2) the other end of the spectrum is that the difference between most argumentative essays and recipes is that recipes serve a dual purpose: to be read and also to be used. an extremely well written recipe still fails if it doesn't taste good (wasn't it elliot who said something about the poem failing when it falls to far from the dance?).

what i'm finding interesting as a writer is the popularity of stories like john t.'s (which i do also, this isn't a criticism) in which the writer does the work of the comparison for the reader. it's kind of like someone reading a bunch of reviews of a movie and then arguing about the movie's strengths and weaknesses without having actually seen it (none of us do that, do we?).

#5 John Whiting

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Posted 07 February 2004 - 12:32 PM

what i'm finding interesting as a writer is the popularity of stories like john t.'s (which i do also, this isn't a criticism) in which the writer does the work of the comparison for the reader. it's kind of like someone reading a bunch of reviews of a movie and then arguing about the movie's strengths and weaknesses without having actually seen it (none of us do that, do we?).

That is in fact a pretty accurate description of mediaeval scholarship, back when travel was arduous, monks were cloistered and their only reference point (apart from talking with God) was their library.

There's a beautiful anecdote about Gallileo. He is said to have addressed an assembly of Papal scholars with a question: "Why is it that a fresh egg placed in water will sink to the bottom, while a boiled egg will float?" They argued at some length, citing various learned authorities. At the end Galileo gave the answer: "Gentlemen, it doesn't."
John Whiting, London
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#6 Richard Kilgore

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Posted 08 February 2004 - 09:24 PM

Thanks to everyone.