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I once announced in the typically grandiose way I use when I pontificate:

All that is wrong with American food culture can be traced to the recipe. I am suffering under its tyranny.

Rather than eliciting the usual eye-rolling, a vigorous debate ensued. My wife quickly pointed to the glaring weakness of my proposition: Recipes teach you new ways of cooking. And yes, she is right, if you already know how to cook! She is a master and almost never follows a recipe to the letter. For her, it is a starting point that she's riffs off of to produce an amazing meal. But therein lies the trap that recipes pose for the rest of us. Allow me to make my case:

  1. Recipes Set Unreasonable Expectations

    Things don't always work out as planned. Even the best chefs have flops when they try something new, but they learn from their mistakes. That flawless salmon Gordon Ramsay plates on camera is probably the thousandth time he's done that dish. Give him a recipe that uses an ingredient he's never seen before in a style that's new to him and, well, he's probably got a better than even chance at success. But for the rest of us? I wonder how many potential cooks were turned off by an initial failure?

    I believe the overall quality of food in America would increase with the number of people who cook. I don't think we need a nation of Michelin starred chefs, just people who know what it takes to make the basics. We'd be less likely to put up with crap from others.

    What can we do to get more people into the kitchen?

  2. Recipes Teach the Wrong Thing

    You cannot learn to cook from a recipe. There are too many variables at play for any one recipe to be the definitive answer: My oven behaves differently than yours. The meat I buy today is different from what I bought last week in size, shape and fat/connective tissue content. Etc., etc., etc... How can I be a success in the kitchen if I don't understand these fundamentals?

    Rather than learning recipes, I should be learning techniques. How much easier would it be to follow a Coq au Vin recipe if you've mastered a basic roast chicken? Sure, they're not same thing (braising vs. roasting), but you'll already grok what heat does to connective tissue and the absolute lusciousness that follows.

    Also, if you master a technique, it becomes easier to branch out (for example, making your own stock with the left overs from a roast chicken). You have the building blocks that make good dishes. The more techniques your learn, the easier it is to assemble and reassemble these blocks into different meals.

    Pick a basic technique and a general ingredient, then keep doing it until you feel comfortable.

  3. Recipes Subvert the Shopping Process

    I ideally, you should go to the store with an open mind, to see what's good today. A recipe driven approach makes this difficult. Unless you're able to memorize hundreds or thousands of recipes, what are you going to do? Flip through every recipe you have to find a match for what you bought? Sure, the internet and recipe searches make this easier, but how much effort are you willing to put into tracking down something worth cooking? This would be more manageable if you limited the number of items you bought, but you may need to make a second trip.

    It's more likely, though, that someone is jonesing for a particular dish and goes searching for the ingredients. This is how we've ended up with flavorless tomatoes that are available year round. And the meat department? How often do you see something with a bone in it? They're usually arrayed in ready to use cuts. Please, don't get me going on boneless, skinless, all white meat chicken.

    If you start with a technique, though, shopping becomes a zen-like journey of discovery. "Oh, look, duck. Hmmm, can't be that much different to roast compared to a chicken." You'll find yourself asking questions of both staff and other customers and actually getting answers you understand.

    When you feel confident enough to take home a new ingredient, you'll know that you're beginning to master your craft.

Let me reiterate: There is a place in the world for recipes, but they should not serve as your entry point into the world of cooking. I find it interesting to leaf through Le Guide Culinaire. Most recipes are a few sentences, maybe 2-3 paragraphs. There are no lists or explicit steps. Here's one selected at random, Sole à la Dieppoise:

Prepare the sole and shallow poach in a buttered dish with 1/2 cup white wine and the same amount of mussel cooking liquor. When cooked, drain and place in a suitable dish, surround with a Dieppoise garnish and coat the whole with Sauce Vin Blanc containing the reduced cooking liquid from the sole.

How many assumptions are built into this recipe? You can't make money selling a book like this since only trained chefs will buy it. And that's the answer to my conundrum. Cookbook publishers want you to buy their books. They need to appear to contain doable recipes. I think it would be antithetical to their business model, though, to actually produce a truly useful volume. Most people would then limit their purchases. I'm looking at 6 shelves of cook books and magazines in my study, most of which are pure lists of recipes. I'm guessing that we've averaged cooking 2-3 from each book.

These are the types of food books I'd like to see more of:

The Tex-Mex Cookbook

The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh
The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh

by Robb Walsh

Yes, there are recipes here with your lists of ingredients and steps. But that's only a part of the book. The author goes into the history of Tex-Mex; how it came to be and how it straddles the border between Mexican and Anglo cuisines. Not only do I have a recipe for an excellent chili gravy, but I also have a counter move when someone swings the term "authentic" like a club. This is a cookbook that can be read cover-to-cover.

The Big Oyster

The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky
The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky

by Mark Kurlanksy

This is not a cookbook, though it does contain recipes (pickled oysters, anyone?). It's a history of New York City told from the context of this bivalve. It's a fascinating read (dang, the oysters were the size of dinner plates when Europeans first showed up), but I appreciate the insight it gives me to one of my favorite foods. I understand this shellfish better.

Well, enough of my rant. I need to figure out how to prepare a flatfish.