Define cooking

"Cooking is creating emotion" Joel Robuchon

This gorgeous looking dish from a London chef called Meedu Saad is called Fried courgette and tomatoes with garlic vinegar. It featured in last week's Guardian newsletter and I was immediately captivated. Mostly I suppose by the aesthetics of the photograph, which is more than the aesthetics of the actual dish I suppose. Somebody, after all, has artfully placed that fork, the piece of bread and the glass of wine. The colour of the background and its texture artfully complements the plate and somehow the photograph has been texturised in some way so that it almost looks like a painting. The end result is not only beautiful but it's also immensely evocative of so many other things, isn't it? Even before you read Meed Saad's words:


"it can be eaten as it is with some warm bread and salty cheese – perfect for a warm summer evening with a glass of wine."


I could draw a comparison, if I was clever, to Renoir's portrait of Margot that I talked about the other day in that for this particular recipe it's the emotion that the photograph evokes, Like the emotional impact of that portrait - an impact that, in my case anyway, evoked memories of my own childhood which led to musings on the whole notion of childhood hope. And the above photograph evokes a whole range of emotions and memories, that makes me want to go out and cook it immediately. If I had some very perfect tomatoes and some zucchini that is. The zucchini is possible but not the tomatoes. Well not this early in the year anyway. So the pleasure will have to be deferred, and maybe the anticipation is enhanced by the dull and dismal weather we are experiencing at the moment.


The recipe is barely a recipe - merely slice some top quality tomatoes thinly, fry some thin slices of zucchini in olive oil, layer the warm zucchini with the cool tomatoes and drizzle over some oil you have warmed with slivers of garlic with a final dash of white wine vinegar. Thus, I suspect, end result - sort of wow.

In our Italian class today we talked briefly about how the meanings of words change over time - gay being just one example of many, I think you could say the same of 'cooking'. This dish is so very simple - and, of course, these days there are so many others of a similar kind - Hot charred cherry tomatoes with cold yoghurt from Ottolenghi springs to mind. But can they be classed as cooking because of their simplicity? Well it depends how you define cooking. The 'old-fashioned definitions that I found are these:


"the activity of preparing or cooking food" Cambridge English Dictionary

"Cooking is food which has been cooked" Collins Dictionary - a somewhat unsatisfying definition I though.

"to prepare food by heating it" Oxford Dictionary - very limited.


There were a few others which all involved heating - and, to be fair, these two recipes do involve some heating. But there's a whole world of 'recipes' out there that do not involve heat at all. What about the whole genre of salads for example - like this one - The new Caprese salad by Valli Little. It's an assembly job. Can it therefore be said that cooking is involved?


I went to the Urban Dictionary to see if there were any 'different' definitions and I found two - I think the definitions in this online dictionary are contributions from the public. There were actually lots of definitions, many associated with drugs and other similar stuff - more colloquial uses of 'cooking', but these two were a little different - the first being really just an expansion of the 'official' dictionary ones:


"The skill of preparing food by combining, mixing, and heating ingredients to eat." ItsMeGEOFF/Urban Dictionary


Actually a pretty good and practical definition for today I think. There are thousands of recipes out there that do not actually involve heating anything, even barely doing any preparation, but can still be classified as cooking because of the processes that are involved. 'Cooked' might in fact be the word that has to include heat.


Then there are these three - one from the Urban Dictionary and the others from chefs Marco Pierre White and Wolfgang Puck:


"The ability to experience the world through taste." Gagreflex69 in Urban Dictionary

"Cooking is a philosophy; it's not a recipe." Marco Pierre White

"Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colors, there are only so many flavors - it's how you combine them that sets you apart." Wolfgang Puck


These lift cooking to the level of, at least a skill, if not an art. And I have to say I concur. Well for the originators of recipes such as the above anyway. Terry Pratchett being rather more down to earth sort of says the same thing as Wolfgang Puck but aiming a bit lower perhaps:


"... it isn’t cookery books that are needed half so much as cooks who know what they are doing and can make a meal out of anything." Terry Pratchett


I do think the super simple recipes that you see around these days can be defined as cooking, if only because the recipes appear in recipe books and cookery columns and magazines. After all "Somebody had to taste the first snail" says Terry Pratchett - a first step towards making escargots au beurre persillé, and didn't that take a long time! I suppose eating that first snail is not cooking, but knowing that more can be done to make it palatable is.


Raw oysters - which I personally cannot come at, but which endless chefs seem to think is one of the ultimate foods - are not cooked at all. They're even alive! Ugh. And what about a beautiful plate of antipasti like this? I suppose somebody has cooked the grissini, and if you are really good it could be you. Ditto for the beans and the salami, but even for restaurants it is more likely the elements have been bought and just assembled beautifully on the plate. Even the salami is not really cooked is it? It's air-dried I think.


You can probably tell I'm a bit uninspired today, but I really wanted to draw attention to that original dish at the top of the page, and it truly did make me wonder how much of its beauty is down to cooking, how much to photograph/styling, and how much to the quality of the ingredients.


Tonight I'm trying pizza again. Now that is proper cooking. This time I am trying Jamie's pizza dough recipe - and it's not gone very well so far. As instructed I made a pile of flour on my bench with a well in the centre, and poured the liquid in - he didn't say bit by bit - and the liquid ran everywhere over the bench. Next time it will be back to the bowl method. So I'm nervous. But I shall be cooking and hopefully it will remind me of much better pizzas I have eaten in rather more exotic locations. Emotion will be evoked. Good emotion I hope, not despair.



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