Food Writing Lives: Where’s the Recipe

cookNscribble - July 13, 2015


Illustration_Apium_graveolens0Imagine: You’ve planned, shopped for, prepped and lovingly crafted a meal. Your fellow diners take a few bites of what turned out to be a rather good lamb kefta, push back their chairs and demand, “What’s for dessert?”

Well, you won’t be inviting those people back to your table any time soon!

I wish I could say this never happens to me, but the truth is that something like this happens just about every time I post a story on my food blog, Cultured Grub. Except the question that hits me like whiplash is not about dessert. Rather, it is, “Where’s the recipe?”

Where’s the recipe?

Damn, I think. I’ve messed up this blogging thing. Again.

“Look, Maya,” I advise myself, “people are busy. They don’t have time for essays and stories. They want to eat dessert, not read about your crush on Richard Sax and his sugar cream pie.” This is a food blog, isn’t it?

Still, like the cook with the dreadful dinner guests, I’m peeved. I refuse to take my own advice. “You know what?” I snark to my virtual reader, “If you want a recipe, go look at one of the 10 million other food blogs out there. I’m sure you’ll find something.” Good grief, it’s not like there’s a global shortage.

Yes, I get defensive. Yes, I’m grouchy about the bloggers who post yet another riff on hummus or their version of to-die-for-vegan-brownies and get yet another 20 thousand views. Yes, I want the blogosphere to care about more than recipes when it comes to food writing.

I swear to you that I am not a recipe hater. Honestly, I enjoy recipes as much as the next person. I even post them sometimes. But when it comes to food writing I’m irked by readers who are just there for the recipe. Of course it’s possible to eat dessert and skip the rest of the meal, but why would you want to?

A few months back the man tuning our piano offered me a recipe. In his 70s with a greasy comb-over, a crumpled button down and a rubber tire bulging over his badly sagging jeans, Mr. Watson’s arrival at our home did not inspire confidence. Worse, he huffed and struggled to breathe with each minor exertion. Down on one knee to examine the pedals? Gasping. Lifting the lid off the old piano? Sighing that threatened to turn into emphysema. I was supposed to be writing, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave the room. I wondered if I should have 911 on speed dial. It was a relief when the man finally sat down on the bench and played a few notes. Then he turned and looked at me and said the most surprising thing:

“I have a recipe for you. Do you like celery?”

Yes, I nodded, puzzling if this man had somehow been tipped off that I work for a food magazine. It was, it seemed, highly unlikely.

“Actually,” I said, “I love celery. Entirely underrated as far as vegetables go…”

“Well, then, here’s what you do…” And between labored breaths, Mr. Watson proceeded to tell me how to make creamed celery with nutmeg, a dish that I must admit I’d never even conceived of cooking.Nutmeg-mace

1. Slice up some celery, sauté it in a bit of butter until soft.

2. Add a good splash of cream to the pan and season with fresh nutmeg and salt.

That’s it. Nothing fancy, but “truly delicious and,” he confirmed, “something most people just don’t make.”

At that moment, Mr. Watson went from being the man tuning our piano to our piano tuner. Not because of the specifics of his recipe (which, I have to say I’m still a bit doubtful about), but because of the exquisite pleasure of that exchange, that moment of connection—a shared love of celery!? Moreover, a conversation about cooking, one that quelled my anxiety over his seemingly imminent demise in my living room.

Recipes are not irrelevant, but they are about so much more than a list of ingredients. And too often it feels like there are just too many of them, and it seems like every food writer on the planet feels compelled to keep coming up with more. It’s exhausting. I can’t be the only one with recipe fatigue, I am sure.

Yes, in the hands of master recipe writers, storytellers like David Tanis or Nigel Slater or Paula Wolfert, recipes are something special—like a tender prune in flaky pastry or the heart of the artichoke, whose layers we slowly consume as we reach that sweet spot inside. My bulging bookshelves are testament to the pleasures of such recipes. Writers like these keep me reading about food in bed at night, savoring cookbooks as if they were best-selling novels.

And every now and then I actually make something from one of those books, or try a recipe from a favorite food blog—someone like David Lebovitz whose stories of life in Paris make his favorite frittata worth attempting even if it’s not all that different from what I would throw together on my own. But the truth is that most of the time, for me, making a meal, like writing about food, isn’t about recipes at all.

The other night as I was cooking dinner, my son asked, “How do you memorize all the recipes for the food you make?”

My answer was simple: I don’t. Because I don’t use recipes most of the time.

And it’s not because I’m a brilliant cook. It’s because cooking, like food writing, is more about knowing your ingredients, mixing them and seasoning them as needed. There isn’t a formula. Recipes are not the only things that matter when we cook or when we write about food. Just like in the kitchen, sometimes they matter a lot and sometimes—most of the time, I would say—we don’t need them at all.

— MAYA PARSON

(Images courtesy of: McCormick and company [Public domain])

FullSizeRenderMaya Parson is a food writer and the editor of Edible Michiana magazine. She blogs about food, culture and writing at CulturedGrub.com.