Cooks’ Journeys: Everyday Alchemy
It began with a duck egg—cold, smooth, a bewitching blue—pressed into my six-year-old palm by my mother’s friend, who suggested I use it to bake my first cake.
Until then, my kitchen deeds were confined to laying the table, sawing bread into wonky slices, drying dishes, and slipping under the spare arm of my aproned mother—the undisputed kitchen queen—for a quick squeeze while she peeped under the rattling lids of steaming saucepans, or pulled out the griller tray to turn sizzling, popping lamb chops.
Subject from infancy to the usual benevolent, rule-thicketed family indoctrinations designed for safety and acceptable social integration, the unexpected arrival of a strange blue egg had me all aquiver at the new domain about to burst open before me. Poised on the threshold of graduation from assistant to cook, I was eager to take up beater and bowl and claim the creative powers offered by the orange cake recipe now on the kitchen table.
I sensed other stirrings too—a yearning to shake off constant guidance for a more protean life of experimentation, along with a budding anarchy whispering that rules were for bending. Recipes, despite their precise quantities and sequenced instructions, somehow didn’t feel like prescriptions. They felt like something I couldn’t yet name—alchemy.
Two kinds of cooking went on in my mother’s kitchen. Most common was the bake, boil, and grill kind inherited from her English mother—simple, time-honoured, change-resistant dishes. She occasionally strayed into another kind: women’s magazine subversions that shook culinary tradition by peddling recipes featuring canned and packaged ingredients, recipes that produced such giddy delights as chop suey and a two-ingredient dip made of cream cheese and dried onion soup mix. Wonders such as these delighted me briefly until three teenage experiences broke through my cultural and culinary horizons and upended my predictable country-girl life.
First, learning French at high school utterly beguiled me (later, at university, I majored in French); it exposed me to a European consciousness beside which many things Australian paled. Second, as a fifteen-year-old French-speaking cast member in an amateur production of Peter Shaffer’s steamy drama, Five Finger Exercise, my parents granted me unprecedented leave passes from my cloistered existence into an adult world of post-rehearsal gatherings. There, I rubbed shoulders with men in leather-elbowed tweed jackets and women in short psychedelic-patterned dresses who drank wine—gasp!—in the middle of the week, ate chicken-liver pâté on toast triangles and cheese that wasn’t cheddar. At the noisy party after the final performance, the leading lady, married to a scuba-diving fisherman, even served a silken-sauced Lobster Thermidor (first created in Paris and named for Thermidor, a play that opened in 1894 at the Comédie-Française). Third, my public library explorations led me to English cook Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking. I was never the same.
Elizabeth David’s books on French, Italian, and Mediterranean food—inspired by her years in Europe—were to British 20th century cooking what Picasso’s proto-cubist work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was to art: a whole new movement. Rather than listing ingredients at the beginning of her recipes, she interlarded them throughout her filmic narratives. Not for faint-hearted novices, her recipes assume cosmopolitan inclinations and experience in both cooking and in life. At times she reminds me of an upper-class PE teacher; her archly authoritative and commanding instructions, advice, and observations—‘No doubt the boiling of a duck will cause raised eyebrows’ and ‘It is to be made when large sprawling ripe tomatoes are available’—can still make me fall obediently into line. The teenage me was further thrilled by the captivating stories she told about her recipes’ gathering places, all of which helped untether me from the familiarity of formative influences. I was a goner; I practically inhaled the foreignness from the pages. The known world started dissolving into lesser significance and my complicity with a new one, and with a new tribe, began.
Apart from cookbooks, 21st century celebrity and amateur TV cooking shows and iPad-equipped kitchens offer modern cooks a dizzying choice of recipes and ideas for experimentation. Add to this the all-season availability of most ingredients, and previous limits—except budgetary—are off. But consider this: like so many human codifications attempting to impose—or wrestle—order and predictability onto life in an essentially random universe, recipes still come with lists and instructions, because everyone has to start somewhere. No child is born into the world knowing not to open an oven door on a rising soufflé. Cooks then, come in many stripes depending on age, experience and temperament, and they divide more or less into recipe followers, freestylers, and a middle lot with a foot in each camp.
A significant slice of recipe followers like predictability. They shop for specific ingredients and proceed as if colouring between the lines—perfectly acceptable for the new, the unconfident or the unmalleable cook. They picture their dishes turning out like styled photos even though actual experience can disappoint. At the obsessive edge, recipe followers can become nitpicking purists, slyly mocked by freestylers who scoff at culinary rules. These mavericks mix, swirl, pour, drip and arrange in freely additive processes—combining whatever’s already at hand at home or what takes their eye when shopping—with the verve of Jackson Pollock gesturing over a floor-spread canvas in his studio barn in Long Island’s Hamptons. Freestylers however, while rarely admitting it, usually start out as recipe-followers and can come across as irritatingly smug and anarchic to those who enjoy recipes and cooking between the lines.
It’s worth remembering that in cooking, as in life, careful planning doesn’t necessarily guarantee particular results that bear duplicating over time. Better ways of doing and thinking about things always appear—the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of rocks. Meat and three veg gave way to pasta and pizza. Single ethnic cuisines yielded to fusions. Piling-it-high restaurant fare is giving way to lower-altitude food-as-art compositions, plats composés, that fill entire plates with flavours, colours, and textures. The slow mid-20th century revolution that rocked traditional cooking has morphed into rapid evolution in the 21st. Blink and you’ll miss foam’s evanescent moment as a garnish—in the end, all culinary fads’ bubbles are fated to burst.
I go off-piste and extemporise more often than not, but I’m grateful for the legacy of the recipe-following years that equipped me with the knowledge, experience, and skills I rely on. I’m possessively attached to my cookbooks, all four hundred-plus of them (why is life so short?); as I pass them they murmur memories of past meals and of the people I shared them with. And, like a homing pigeon I return to favourite recipes, to lightly spattered pages with pencilled margin notes recording dates, variations, verdicts and the people I cooked for—Julie Sahni, I salute you for your Bengal Red Lentils with Spices recipe, a staggeringly plain title for such a glorious dish.
But let’s go back to small me, feet planted on crimson and blue kitchen tiles, hand clutching a duck egg, trembling with anticipation. I followed the recipe’s every step. I creamed butter and sugar, beat into it the slippery, glutinous contents of the duck egg without cracking the emulsion, sifted in the flour alternately with the milk and orange juice, and mixed. When I spread the batter into a loaf tin, I hollowed the centre to allow for rising, just as my mother showed me. The gloriously scented wait seemed interminable. When at last, with oven-mitted hands, I lifted the cake from the oven, I was briefly crestfallen to find a crack running down the middle. My mother was quick to hug me, to reassure me that these things happen all the time. They do. We cut slices and ate them warm, spread with butter.
It’s an unforgettable moment, a sweet role reversal, when a child first prepares food for an adult. Putting together elemental ingredients via a recipe and making something completely new and marvellous offers children a life-giving invitation to feed and nurture their own bodies and souls, as well as those of the people they love. A door swings open to lifelong creative pleasure, to everyday alchemy.
Essay, photography, and lime, pear and polenta cake © 2015 by Susie Surtees
Links to explore.