Here’s Why We Still Need Recipes

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Makenna Held is not interested in recipes. “Most people live their life on recipes,” they say in the first episode of La Pitchoune: cooking in France. The show, now airing on HBO Max, chronicles Held and their husband, who bought Julia Child’s former home in the south of France, and opened a cooking school “without recipe” on the property. “I always say that our cooking school is not really a cooking school, but rather a way of life approach. Life is just a little more delicious without recipes. Held’s mission is to arm its students with the skills to trust their own sense of experimentation in the kitchen. And more broadly, to rid the world of recipes. “I’m not a fan of recipes in just any situation. Cooking, leadership, business, relationships,” they wrote on their place of business. “Why? Because revenue erodes sovereignty.” (Underline theirs, as if the statement needed to be more striking).

Held notes that this aversion to rules is the main difference between them and Julia Child, which seems extreme — Child was famous for trying new things, learning from mistakes, and having a sense of humor in the kitchen. “Once you’ve mastered a technique, there’s almost no need to revisit a recipe,” she writes in Julia’s cooking wisdom. But she was also extremely interested in recipes. Meticulously tested recipes were, after all, how she passed on the knowledge she gleaned in culinary school to a wider audience, ensuring that any home cook could produce an omelette without ever having to fly to France, or even meet a French chef.

The effort of the child now seems almost old-fashioned. In recent years, the the recipe “without recipe” has flourished, assuring home cooks that there’s no ghost of a demanding chef lurking behind them, forcing them to follow the rules. These instructions, and schools like Held’s, instead emphasize imprecise measurements, cooking food until it feels right, and trusting your own tastes. which is great. But as I cooked more of these non-recipes, I realized they left me feeling like I had learned nothing, and I started to come back to more specific, researched recipes. I discovered that it was thanks to the recipes that I became a better cook. And that instead of eroding my sovereignty, they empower me to enhance mine.

I am in touch with my intuition in the kitchen, to some degree. Over the years I’ve become comfortable making a dal based on the spice profiles I’m craving that day and incorporating whatever veggies I have around. I know how to improvise a pretty good soup, or a pasta sauce, or a bowl of egg and vegetable rice and other sauces.

According to some recent speech on the internet, this is a matter of absolute privilege. Knowing how to cook, the argument goes, meant you had the time and the money and the physical ability and spatial processing skills to source ingredients and turn them into a meal. That’s a pretty weak argument: cooking is basically the first thing the human race has understood how to do. But I understand the feeling. Knowing how to boil water is not a privilege, but also yes some people physically can’t do it, and our society was set up so that access to knowledge of anything more difficult is a question of heritage or having a lot of time for experience. Not everyone has a parent who’s in the kitchen every day, forcing techniques into your brain, and not everyone has a lazy afternoon where you’re trying to do something, anything. , with what you have around.

Recipes democratize this knowledge. When cookbook authors started writing recipes for a general audience – and no one assumed they already knew the basics – it opened the doors to a world where anyone could buy or borrow a $20 cookbook and gathering ingredients could cook a meal. And as cookbooks published in America began to incorporate cuisines outside of the Western European tradition, this knowledge only spread. It wasn’t about figuring out what should go together on your own, or guessing the right temperatures. Nor was it like — in the case of La Pitchoune — spend $8,000 (airfare not included) to go to a week-long recipe-less cooking school, probably focused on one type of cuisine. Instead, the recipes are equal parts math equations and magic spells you can do at home. Add everything together in the correct order and you have something you had no idea you could create.

Held in fact is interested in recipes – they write a cookbook and note that their problem is not really with recipes but how we are all supposed to teach ourselves. And of course, not all recipes are created equal. Many are poorly written and confusing, and untested like, say, Child tested his recipes. Everyone has had the experience of following a recipe all the way to wondering what went wrong. However, it’s usually the fault of the author and publisher who don’t know what makes a good recipe, or don’t have enough money and resources to test them thoroughly. It’s not the fault of the concept of the instructions themselves.

I loved the times when I learned new details or techniques from being in the kitchen with a pro. But the most transcendent cooking moments of my life have come from the recipes. My now intuitive understanding of many South Asian flavors came a bit from my family, but also by cooking through Classic Indian cuisine and finally becoming so familiar with certain recipes that I knew where I could improvise. And for the flavors with which I have no family ties, the recipes have allowed me to broaden my knowledge, and to create things that I love without any intuition.

Recently I made the Kung Pao Shrimp in The Wok. I felt amazed that I could take this dish I’ve been ordering all my life and make it the best version I’ve ever tasted in my own apartment. Cooking through My Girlfriend, My Shanghaiand Cook Korean! gave me an understanding of how these kitchens are built, as well as the ability to successfully run wonton soup without wondering if I’m doing it right. Does following exact instructions erode my sovereignty? Maybe. I do not care. What matters to me is the bowl of soup I made myself.

As Notes from the Marian Bull, the best recipes combine instruction and intuition, showing you exactly what to do while opening a window through which you might see how you might change things up in the future, tailor them more to your tastes, and experiment. I fantasize about the day I’ll cook like this with every kitchen, knowing which spices and techniques match which parts of the world. But I also love the everyday magic of pulling a recipe off the shelf and creating something good, alone, knowing nothing except that I’m no better than anyone else.

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