Monday, July 27, 2009

buckle up we're wayward bound

Everyone reading this right now knows me. People reading it later are less likely to. If it's later, this is mostly for you, to fill you in on how I think about food, where I'm coming from.

I'm learning to cook. I've been learning to cook for twenty, twenty-five years. This is what I know about learning to cook:

1: Pay attention. To what you eat, to what other people eat, to what other people serve, to what they serve with it. What do you like about what you like? How do other people do it differently? Don't learn rules. Fuck rules. Rules are just somebody's style guide. You can't learn to write by memorizing that piece of shit Strunk and White, and you can't learn to cook -- how to really cook -- by focusing on rules and recipes.

There are obviously some exceptions to that. Some are dish- or context-specific: there is a traditional way to make coq au vin, which requires a rooster. The right way to make a hamburger is with beef, not turkey or lamb or meat substitutes. That doesn't mean you can't make a good chicken and wine dish with something other than a rooster, and it doesn't make a turkey burger an invalid piece of food. That's the key. Learn the difference between "this is the method to achieve this goal" and "this is the only way to handle these ingredients."

Certain guidelines must be followed for a particular dish to be "authentic," whatever that means. This is not a very meaningful truth, and bears more on labeling than cooking. You can't taste authenticity. It doesn't necessarily represent an ideal application of the ingredients -- Europeans adopted tomatoes very quickly after they were introduced from the colonies, after all, they didn't hem and haw over the "weird fusion ideas" they were introducing to their cuisines. There is no particular reason to think that the plants and animals we eat evolved in such a way that the ingredients that taste best together just happen to come from the same place. And we know this. Of course we know this. Affinities like those of chocolate and oranges, corn and butter, or tomatoes and oregano make this obvious. Cuisines as diverse as those of Iran, the Netherlands, and Atlanta developed around the access those cultures had to the spice trade, and built around ingredients of extraordinarily diverse origins. When people turn up their noses at strange innovations, new things, or breaches from authenticity, they may be invoking the idea of an age-old tradition, but they're reacting more out of ego and recent memory, an idea of the past more than an understanding of it. If no one changed anything, we'd all be eating raw mammoth. The assumption, ingrained so deeply in some people, that everything reached its perfect articulation fifty to a hundred years ago and should have been bronzed at that point so we couldn't ruin it, is commonplace but has nothing to do with cooking and does not deserve to be honored in the kitchen.

On the other hand, in cocktails these received rules are more important, at least where names are concerned. Cocktails are made from so few ingredients that variations constitute new drinks entirely and they should be noted that way -- if you say "I make my Negroni with 7-Up instead of vermouth" or "I like orange juice and vodka in my margaritas," you're saying "I don't make Negronis or margaritas." That doesn't mean you can't make those drinks you just described, but you should call them something else. This is a practical matter more than it is a question of whose drinks are better.

Some "musts" are ingredient-specific. Refrigerating tomatoes will ruin their texture and flavor. Freezing oranges will render them inedible for eating out of hand. These things are meaningfully true to a degree most rules are not -- these are the natural rules dictated by the physical world, not the preferences of somebody's great-grandmother inscribed in stone. Sometimes, as with the myth that searing a piece of meat "seals in" flavor or moisture, it isn't clear in the telling whether a rule is naturally or culturally derived, which is all the more reason to pay attention.

But pay attention to much much more than that. Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. Ask and think and try and taste and play. Do new things with old ingredients. What haven't you done with an egg yet? What haven't you roasted? Revisit things. It's cooking, not novel-writing, theater, not movies -- you never have to come to a final draft of anything and you never have to stop rehearsing. You don't have to make macaroni and cheese the way you did two years ago. You can start doing something different with brownies. If you're out of gin, see what you can do with the whiskey.

One thing I will do a lot of here is explore ingredients that are new, maybe to me, maybe to you, maybe to both of us. That's how I learn, and in part why I cook. What's that vegetable at the supermarket or farmstand? I don't know. Let me buy two of them, bring them home, and see what happens. 

2: Don't be squeamish. If you can't touch raw chicken ... this isn't like choosing not to learn to drive stick, this is like relying on other people to steer while you kick the pedals and point to where you want to go.

An extension of this might be "explore why you don't like what you don't like." Once in a while I take something that I hardly ever like traditional/other peoples' versions of -- potato salad, a Bloody Mary, pickled cucumbers -- and play around with it to find a version I like. Sometimes, what you don't like is a thing poorly done -- most of the hamburgers and hot dogs in the world are pretty sad things, for instance. Sometimes you just like an ingredient prepared a different way you haven't discovered yet -- asparagus roasted instead of steamed, let's say.

3: Don't put your knives in the dishwasher. Don't ever do it.

So. I'm Bill. I love fresh fruit and vegetables, pork, duck, hamburgers, cold fried chicken, culantro, cuisines of the Iberian diaspora and southeast Asia, southern and Louisianan food, Frisco melts from Steak & Shake, pizza in the northeast US, corbezzolo honey, aged cheddar and manchego, yuanyang, cocktails, whiskey, Dogfish Head, Oaked Arrogant Bastard ale, Utz's Special Dark pretzels, cherry malted milkshakes, wedding cake snowballs, Cola Mentos, Moxie, Sun Drop, Double-Cola, Dr Enuf, and Coca-Cola. I get pissed at Dunkin Donuts for fucking around with things like pizza and sandwiches, when they're always out of donuts. It's in your NAME, for heaven's sake. Son of a bitch.


  1. Why shouldn't you put knives in the dishwasher? Please tell me I haven't killed my Calphalon set by doing so!

  2. You haven't killed 'em -- but they probably need to be sharpened. The abrasives in dishwasher detergent dull blades very quickly, so your knives have just been aging faster than they would otherwise. Soap and water is much better.