Sandee and I found ourselves driving over the Oregon Coastal Range yesterday, to get some necessary items which are either too costly, or unattainable nearby – the savings realized easily cover the cost of the gas, etc. The route we take is one of spring beauty currently, and a pleasure as well – I’m never sure if spring here in SW Oregon is really as wonderful as it seems, or if one’s emotions are simply set free by the end of the dreary Oregon winter – whichever, driving through the mountain forest at this time of year is soul cleansing.
We took the opportunity to do a bit of philosophizing as we drove, which is perhaps one of my less harmful illnesses – and I mentioned to San that our current handyman possessed an ability absent in myself, which I have noticed several times as he progressed in the building of my “playroom” (actually, a homemade greenhouse, made of collected, discarded aluminum windows). Whenever he came on a problem – and when you cobbling together a bunch of different sized windows, there are many problems – he would stop for a moment, weigh his options, and choose an alternative that not only provided a work-around for the current problem, but would not pose to create even more problems later on. This is a skill completely absent from my set of abilities! And I’m sure that the fact that I’ve long told myself that this was so, has made it even more of a reality – this is exactly why I don’t take on these jobs myself – any honest plumber will tell you that at least half of his work is “fixing” the mistakes of home DIY’ers.
As we talked, San remarked, “That’s exactly the kind of cook I am! If the recipe I’m following doesn’t mention how to avoid the problem I just encountered, I’m finished.” And I thought, That’s a concise description of the great divide between ordinary cooks, and good cooks. I’ll bet the great mass of cooks in the world have little self confidence in the kitchen, don’t really see cooking as a pleasure, and hate the idea of using a recipe, because more often than not, it will lead to a problem for which it has no suggested remedy! Just like me trying to put my greenhouse together.
I’ve known for a good while that I looked at recipes differently than did most folks – I have a large collection of cookbooks, some 2000+, but I don’t use them as do most cooks – I resist following a recipe strictly, in good part, I’m sure, because I have great respect for the art of cooking, and for me that means that my artistic senses can only be fed by internalizing the effort – so, for me, the recipe and the cookbook can best be utilized as inspiration. And in fact, I often read a cookbook as one would read a novel, gaining as much from reading between the lines, from the history of the food, and by the perspective provided by my own bank of knowledge – this new information either adds to, or conflicts with that collective knowledge, both of which feed my interest and provide inspiration.
Sometime in my twenties, when my interest in things foodie was growing, I remember coming across a copy of the 1961 edition of Larousse Gastronomique (Crown Publishers) among some remainder books – I think it was a $1, maybe $2, and I probably was as much motivated by the fact that it was possible to buy an 1100 page hardback book for that price than anything else! And I clearly remember the times I’d be annoyed by it’s brevity and encyclopedic nature – if you used one of it’s recipes, you either had to lean on your own experience, do additional research, or wing it – most often, I choose the latter approach. There were few alternatives around in those days.
Today, I look back on that experience with fondness – knowing that it forced me to learn a great deal by the seat of my pants – I can envision the author, Prosper Montagne, in his role as proper tyrant of the kitchen, thinking to himself as he wrote, “From this they can and will learn by doing; that is the role of the cook.” Truly, what later would take Julia Child, love her as I do, some several thousand words of instruction, Montagne would cover in perhaps 50. Was Larousse intended to be an instructional cookbook? Yes, I think it was – maybe not to the masses, but certainly to an enlightened audience. And it certainly was intended for anyone whose interest was anything food wise; its history, its culture, and its secrets. And I would argue this point simply because in my own experience, I cannot think of any other single thing which taught me more about food than the “learn by error” experiences of this single book.
And as I recall those memories of working with Larousse, I sense that I learned far more than I immediately remember – for in its abbreviated style, Larousse not only taught me individual dishes, but more importantly, it taught me process – and it has been process that has translated to art.
And for me, it is the art of cooking which brings pleasure.