I recently took an acting class, an Improv class, and it has
changed the way I look and think about a lot of things. It was eye-opening to
see how each person in the class would interpret a simple suggestion. “Apple”
was one cue. And each student did a different bit about it–apple picking, apple
cooking, memories of fall, Garden of Eden, poison apples. There were no right
or wrong answers; just an endless stream of variations on a theme.
Cooking is great improvisation and I think that’s what I
like most about it. You can say the word, “burger,” to any cook and be
surprised by every interpretation that you get. Yes, it will be some sort of
formed, savory patty but outside of that, the cook will fill in the blanks.
Every cook does this kind of interpretive dance. Home cooks
add to and tweak their family favorites. You can try to copy them, but the hand
of the cook leaves its prints all over the dish. Every family seems to have at
least one of these recipes. Maybe it’s your mom’s meatloaf, your grandfather’s
pickles, or your aunt’s special Sunday spaghetti “gravy.” We’ve all had
meatloaf and pickles and spaghetti sauce before but the distinctive hand of the
cook’s tradition shows through to make the dish their very own.
Good restaurants–from the white table-cloth to the road-side
picnic table variety–strive to make their food distinctive. I am always amazed
when I travel and see the fast food restaurants jammed with tourists. They are
missing out on such a rich opportunity to experience–to literally take into
their bodies–the culture they have come all this way to enjoy. I live right
outside of New York and I often feel like
barreling into the chain restaurants in Times Square
and bellowing, “Get out of here! The best pizza of your life is just minutes
away! Go now! Eat something different.” And I would send them on a pizza crawl
through town where they could taste the myriad permutations of the pie that our
town has to offer–each one unique to its place.
Every cook has a perspective to offer. Recently I was at a
food conference where renowned chef Daniel Boulud described the evolution of
his famous potato crusted sea bass. The recipe has only a few ingredients;
fish, potatoes, leeks and red wine. Daniel said that he first encountered this
combination when he was working with a chef in France who was doing a very fussy
presentation that made the fish look like it had scales. He asked the chef if
he could use the idea but loose the scales. The chef said, “Of course, I got
the recipe from a chef that I worked with years ago and he did it completely
differently.” So Daniel cooked his variation of the dish–now at least the third
chef to do so–for twenty years until a chef in his kitchen, weary from cooking
someone else’s dish for so long, asked if he could do something with the
recipe. Daniel agreed that the chef could make it his own as long as it
included those four ingredients of fish, potatoes, leeks and red wine. Now, the
combination lives on in a new way and will probably change in the next set of
hands that prepare it.
The real beauty of food is the personal touch; the twist you
give your aunt’s recipe to make it your own; the sometimes subtle and often
great differences between the thousands of pizzas in the city; the way a simple
combination of ingredients can pass through generations of chefs and across
continents, changing yet continuing a story. As cooks, we make our recipes
uniquely delicious every time we stir the pot.
Sherri Brooks Vinton
is the author of a number of books on home cooking and good eating, including
the recent “Put ’em Up!” She is thrilled to hang out with other home cooks and
good eaters at the upcoming Mother Earth News Fairs. For more info visit: sherribrooksvinton.com.
Sherri Brooks Vinton will present workshops at the Puyallup, Wash. and Seven Springs, Pa. 2012 MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRs.