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Never the same - interpreting recipes

“an epic of desire, of dancing, of experiments in embodiment and transformative encounters with other people,” Rebecca May Johnson


In my rambling around basil yesterday I came across two really interesting articles, both of which are worth exploring on their own. This is a ramble around the first.


I have absolutely no idea now how I came across it - an interview with Rebecca May Johnson about her book Small Fires in which she:


"conducts her inquiry into cooking largely through the lens of a single Marcella Hazan recipe for red sauce, and all the ways in which she has experienced, lived, and “performed” the recipe throughout a decade of her life." Bettina Makalintal/Eater


However, the interview was interesting enough for me to (a) consider buying the book sometime, and (b) ramble around some of the things she said in the interview. I also had a vague memory of Rachel Roddy referring to it and her phrase, 'dancing in the kitchen', some time ago. Indeed I wrote a post about it. Which I now can't find. I obviously was thinking differently that day from today and gave it different tags and slotted it into a different category (my searching mechanisms) on that day. Anyway if I can't remember what I said, I'm sure you can't.


I was struck by the notion expressed in the interview that no recipe ever comes out exactly the same even if you make it hundreds of times in a lifetime. I guess you might make a few things that many times in a lifetime. It certainly felt like it when my sons were teenagers and had a very limited list of foods that they would eat. I think it was probably the low point in my life in terms of cooking. Nevertheless those ten dishes - I narrowed them down to ten when I gave them a 'how to cook' collection of recipes when they left home - were a great starting point, for even then I strove to give them ways in which those ten dishes could be varied and extended into many others.


This, of course, is not a new thought, and I've probably done this over and over again, but like recipes if I do it again it will probably come out different.


Rebecca May Johnson took as her reference point for her book Marcella Hazan's recipe for red sauce, so I pondered on what recipe I would choose as: "an epic of desire, of dancing, of experiments in embodiment and transformative encounters with other people"


I was going to ignore the first two statements in that quote as being somewhat abstract, not to mention esoteric, but - what the hell - let's try.


Gratin dauphinois is the recipe I chose, one that I have made, many, many times and continue to make. 'An epic of desire'? Well it is rather epic because of the many, many times I have made it, and also because it is indeed a classic. And deep down I suspect I have had an overwhelming desire to reproduce two different but specific versions I have encountered in my life. The first, and the first time I encountered this wonderful dish was the one made by Madame Perruque - cook to the family of my employers at the time I was an au pair in France. I watched this lady make it many, many times, but I don't think I have ever managed to reproduce it to the same level of perfection. It was a 'transformative encounter' one that, when I think about it, has on the upside, really accelerated my interest in cooking, although on the downside left me feeling disappointed that I have never reached the heights of her cooking. Well stupid young thing that I was (21) I didn't write the recipes for her many wonderful dishes down. The other version I remember of this dish - also in France - was in a little restaurant somewhere in the upper Loire area. This one was rather denser and more compact and cut into squares to go with my meal. But truly wonderful. We tried to dine there again on the strength of that dish, many years later, but were unable to get in.


However, I determined to make gratin dauphinois when I returned to England, and turned, of course, to Elizabeth David. (That's her version in the photo above.) Today I discovered that she too had two versions - one which used egg and milk - the version I made for many years - and another with pure cream, of which she says:


"If it seems to the thrifty-minded outrageously extravagant to use half a pint of cream to one pound of potatoes, I can only say that to me it seems a more satisfactory way of enjoying cream than pouring it over tinned peaches or chocolate mousse."


Well back then I was thrifty and so for many years I used the egg and milk version and this is it - as written in my home-made cookbook, so my words, not Elizabeth David's:


"Preheat the oven to 180°C. Crush a large clove of garlic into a gratin dish and wipe it around the dish with a piece of greaseproof paper. Leave the surplus in the dish. These days I also add a bit of olive oil. (Normally the garlic prevents it all sticking, but sometimes it doesn’t work.) Peel some potatoes and slice them thinly into the dish. As you complete a layer sprinkle with some salt and pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. In a jug beat together an egg and about 500 mls of milk. Pour this over the potatoes in the dish. Cover the top with grated cheddar cheese and place in the oven. It will take about an hour to cook. Test with a skewer to see if the potatoes are cooked through."


Nowadays I am not so thrifty and will indeed use just pure cream - or maybe a mix of milk or cream - or even a mix of milk and stock. Pure stock and you are into a different dish - Gratin Savoyard. And I don't think I have used nutmeg for years. Why?


I no longer measure out the ingredients or time it exactly which means that sometimes the dish is softer, mushier, than others. Sometimes I add a few herbs, and the potatoes are not always the same variety, which even Elizabeth David said would make a difference. There are so many variables in quantities, how thin the potatoes are, how many layers, what cheese, how long it cooks and so on and:


"It is not easy to say how many people this quantity will serve: two or three, or four, according to their capacity and what there is to follow." Elizabeth David



And as you can see from the randomly chosen photographs above, grating dauphinois can be made very differently. 'Experiments in embodiment' perhaps. I don't think I am much into 'experiments in embodiment' in general, other than in a choice of dish or maybe what herb I might be sprinkling on top.


But there is even more to it than variations in ingredients and process:


"What seems essential to me, as a home cook, is that however many times we cook a recipe, and perhaps especially when we cook it so many times it ceases to feel like a recipe at all, we never exactly replicate it. ... Ingredients vary all the time, as do our moods, and if we'd expect the former to make a difference,, I have found over the years that it is no less true of the latter." Nigella Lawson


Moods - do they really affect how we cook? Do all those sayings like 'love- the secret ingredient' 'cooking with passion' mean anything? Well I'm not sure - although if you are trying really hard to please someone with what you are cooking - a birthday, an anniversary, St. Valentine's Day (today) - then maybe you might put more care and attention into what you are doing. A mother at the end of a long and busy day, confronted with sullen teenagers and a need to get something on the table may well just throw anything together without any enthusiasm at all. If you haven't timed a big meal really well, or you suddenly find you are missing something, or you are cooking for someone important, then panic creeps in, you shake and cease to be able to think clearly. Yes, indeed, mood can affect how the dish turns out.


If on the other hand you are in a supremely good mood - a happy place - then you may well be 'dancing in the kitchen', or even meditating:


"I am gratefully soothed by the many necessary low-level kitchen rituals that constitute cooking. Just enough focus is required to silence that chattering monkey-mind." Nigella Lawson


Rebecca May Johnson puts a slightly different spin on this:


"Each performance of a recipe is a translation, in which a cook figures out what they want to say when cooking.”


I doubt somehow that any of us are consciously trying to say anything when we cook for our loved ones, or even those who are not loved, but there is no doubt that every time we make a familiar dish, or even when we make a dish from a recipe, it will turn out slightly differently every time and certainly differently from how the creator of the recipe wrote it. You've only to look at bloggers who present somebody else's recipe. Almost every time they will have made some little change that suits them. Even the mood we are in when we actually eat the finished dish will make a difference to how it tastes, not to mention the effect of illness or indeed, too much wine!


In this wonderful book by Nigella Lawson - Cook, eat, repeat - so much more than a cookbook - she says:


"I sometimes imagine writing a one-recipe book, but that one recipe expanded to a multiplicity of possibilities; I fear, though it would be a life's work even for someone who embarked on it when half my age."


I sort of wish she would. Although maybe somebody already has. And yes it would take a lifetime as you pursue the evolution of something as simple as gratin dauphinois, from variations of the original recipe to changes as remote as Potato and celeriac gratin with caper brown butter.


She also had interesting things to say about how recipes are changing these days:


"A strange thing has happened in recipe land in the past few years: a recipe now is required to be both utterly precise and yet shape-shiftingly flexible. As soon as a recipe goes out into the world, people will clamour to know how it can be made gluten-free or vegan ..."


Have you noticed how many recipes these days will suggest how you could vary the recipe by using a different ingredient, leaving something out ...? I, myself, think that COVID had a big influence here, as it was a time when there were sudden shortages, or you had to make do with what you had. Experimentation was the thing. And it was fun. I fear, alas, that that attitude is dying somewhat and people are returning to their old ways, although maybe the higher prices in the supermarkets may make us continue to be more inventive. Let's hope so.


"I can assure you that it is this dynamic relationship - between reliance on familiarity and curiosity about the as-yet-untried - that underpins, perhaps even defines, what cooking is all about. ... We all need a framework, but we also have to know when to break free and just go with the flow." Nigella Lawson

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