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Recipe stories

"A recipe has to take root in the reader's imagination." Nigella Lawson

Today I had my over 75 free medical, after which my doctor, in his double-checking process asked me what I did with my time. Amongst other things I of course mentioned this blog and said that it was about food. His mind immediately went to recipes I think, so I had to explain that no it mostly wasn't about recipes at all, that I didn't supply recipes - occasionally, possibly too often, links to recipes by others, but really, although I didn't say this, it was about life, the universe and everything, because that's food for you isn't it?

However he revived my intention to write about recipes as a subject in themselves, because this was something that Nigella had written about, most eloquently at the beginning of my last Christmas book - her current opus - Cook, eat, repeat: ingredients, recipes and stories. There is so much to say about this particular book. This is my first pass at it.

After her introduction the very first 'chapter' is about recipes. It is illustrated with this wonderful photo of, a collection of recipes. Possibly hers, but more likely an artfully assembled collection from here and there, Above is a rather less professional photograph - not even a photograph - a scan - of some of the recipes that I have assembled from here and there into those display folders that we have these days. Many of us have collections like this. I remember when I led a book group on recipe books to which I asked my fellow members to bring their favourite recipe book, that more than one brought along a personal collection such as this. Every recipe in a collection such as this is a story in itself. Why was it collected - the result of a tasting somewhere, an unsolicited gift, observations whilst watching somebody cook something? How did that ink blot on one of my handwritten recipes happen?

And then there are the stories - the histories of the recipe itself. As this blog has shown here and there, 'classic' dishes have many different stories attached. They come with baggage - historical, social and personal. The history of the recipe itself and the people or person who created it, the history of the ingredients and all the saga of that, the history of the equipment with which it was made, and the personal histories of the creator from whom it was obtained. And then there are our own stories - where were we when we first tasted it, how has we changed it and why over time ... ? The possibilities for story telling here are endless.

It's such a large subject that I feel daunted, so I think I will just dip into it here and there by quoting Nigella (and a few others) and then commenting - if I can. The problem is that she is such a good writer that there often is not much more to say. But I'll try. Beginning with her rather more succinct and eloquent version of what I said above:

1. "A recipe can be many things: a practical document; a piece of social history; an anthropological record; a family legacy; an autobiographical statement; even a literary exercise. You don't have to take your pick; the glory of food is that, beyond sustenance, it comprises a little of everything - aesthetics and manual labour, thrown in."

I need say no more really.

2. We then move on to some practicalities of recipes:

"However imaginatively written, a recipe is worthless if it is not reliable ...

A short recipe that fits neatly onto one page of a book my indeed satisfactorily reflect that it is a simple one, but often it just means that details which could help the cook have been jettisoned." Nigella Lawson

I am reminded here, of Julian Barnes' wonderful piece on Elizabeth David, that included a very funny description of his attempt at making her Minestra di pomidoro (Tomato soup) - a recipe that "consists of three sentences of instruction followed by three of commentary" And indeed the recipe is very short, but unless you are an experienced cook it could do with a bit more explanation.

"Melt 1 1/2lbs (675g) chopped and skinned tomatoes in olive oil; add a clove of garlic and some fresh parsley or basil or marjoram. Cook for 5 minutes, then add a pint of meat or chicken stock, salt and pepper, and a pinch of sugar. Cook for 5 minutes more only."

Do read the Julian Barnes piece - he can break it down so much better than I.

"Her instructions are laconic, even impressionistic; they imply a reader-cook skilled in the basics and prepared to vary and improvise according to time and market supply. Most people aren't like this, of course. Many of us cook with a kind of anxious pedantry, convinced that if the exact wording and the exact spirit behind that wording isn't followed then our guests will throw up first their hands and then their stomachs." Julian Barnes

On the other hand if you go to the other extreme and explain every step in detail, not just how, but also why, then a novice cook can be equally put off. Mastering the Art of French Cookery is the prime example of this. It took me some time to pluck up the courage to try some of the recipes because they were pages, literally pages long. But once you take the plunge you will find that it so helpful and you will end up with a perfect result. Mind you, Stephanie Alexander's advice to “Read each recipe, think about the process and then read the recipe again." makes them even more daunting. So as in all things in life - the middle way perhaps?

3. "I sometimes feel that a successful recipe - by which I mean one that takes root in many kitchens, many lives - is not just a unit of shared enthusiasm so much as a magical undertaking, anchored in practicality, that is entered into with abandon. It is thus, a hopeful act of communality."

When on holidays in France with friends and family, for 'home-cooked' meals someone was in charge and the rest of us did the menial stuff, like chopping onions. It's a communal experience and we all learn as we do - be it the recipe itself or a new technique for chopping those darned onions - so here am I in the centre, with sister-in-law on the left, working under the instructions of Sue one of our oldest and dearest university friends - and a great cook. I can't remember what it was on this particular occasion but I know I have learnt lots in these holiday exercises.

One of the Guardian writers recently commented on how, during lockdown, she had been inspired by the community feeling that came from comments on dishes posted on Instagram - that often included variations and different approaches. You will find these too on all of those recipe food blogs. Those recipe collections we harbour are reminders of such communities of course. And let's not forget those joyful cooking adventures with the grandchildren:

Most of us learnt how to cook from our mothers, and grandmothers. They were our first teachers, if only by being in the kitchen whilst they cooked and we watched.

4. "There is a particular immediacy about a recipe, in that it can never be written for posterity. Even if it endures long after its author, it is a message entirely in the present ... It is not so much that the people for whom the recipes were written no longer exist, but that the food itself can often seem so unrecognisable, even alien, to us now: such urgent sustenance reduced to historical interest."

And yes even comparatively recent recipes can seem that way. I am reminded here of some my earlier Robert Carrier recipe books with their somehow dated plating. Below - old on the left, new on the right - and doesn't it tell a story? Not just how plating fashions have changed but also in what foods we put together - indeed what foods are now commonly available. And yet the spirit of the thing is much the same - well the old one is rather more formal somehow, but then that's the basic change to life, the universe and everything anyway isn't it? We are much less formal in every way these days.

5. "a strange thing has happened in recipe land in the past few years: a recipe is now 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."

Need I say more really? Although it's not just the need to make suggestions for converting to gluten free or vegan, it's also the need to add suggestions as to how you could vary the recipe by perhaps using a different herb or vegetable, even a different meat if it's a meat recipe. Roasting instead of grilling or frying, yoghurt instead of cream - and so on ad almost infinitum. This is particularly true of this particular historical moment because of shortages caused by COVID panic buying and lockdowns. We have all had to improvise with what we have. No better example of this is Jamie's Keep Cooking and Carry On shows which were littered with suggestions of alternative ingredients. And yes, there's that vegan thing.

6. "The recipes I write come from my life, my home. They tell a story, and that story is mine; I could not tell another's. I sometimes think that the appetite for recipes, for reading and writing about food and how we cook it, says just as much about hunger for stories - these little condensed chronicles that say so much as about our hunger for pleasure and sustenance. In the recipe form, these hungers are fused."

As I read Nigella's latest book I did indeed feel that she was telling a story of herself at this stage of life. There are a lot of recipes in the book which are just for one person, some for two and sometimes for more - for she likes to socialise when she can. But, now single, with I suspect grown children who may only be partially there, if at all, she is basically living a single life. There is a touch of sadness in this that creeps through I think. It is not often that you get such a personal background story in a cookbook, and it isn't in plain sight I have to say. Maybe I am romanticising in some way, but a personality breaks through the practicalities of the recipes. And I think that all of the very best recipe books do that, even if you may not particularly warm to that personality - like Elizabeth David:

"David cites a recipe of the gastrotechnologist Edouard de Pomiane as "the best kind of cookery writing", by which she means something that is "courageous, courteous, adult". Further, "it is creative in the true sense of that ill-used word, creative because it invites the reader to use his own critical and inventive faculties, sends him out to make discoveries, form his own opinions, observe things for himself, instead of slavishly accepting what the books tell him". Julian Barnes

I think Nigella, in this book and in her many other books (not so much, curiously, in her television programs - for me anyway), does all of this admirably well. And increasingly even the supermarket magazines are teaching us how to think for ourselves, and how to share our discoveries with others via all those digital means at our disposal. Not to mention all those food bloggers.

It's a golden age for cooking I think - even if you actually live on take-away. At least the take-away these days, is not just hamburgers from MacDonald's or fish and chips. There's a whole world of gourmet, world food out there. And so many wonderful writers telling you how to do it yourself, whilst creating stories - of themselves, of the ingredients they use, the dishes they create and the people who eat it every day.

When we cook a meal whether from a recipe or not we are telling a story. And if it's not from a recipe we are telling the story of how we learnt to create from hundreds of recipes we have tried before.

"all recipes are indeed a story. The ingredients are the beginning. The method is the middle. We all know the ending. The best of those stories promise a better life." Jay Rayner - The Guardian

I just wish I could tell the story better. There is so much more that could be said on this.


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